My response to “As a team lead how to handle project going off the rails?”

This is my response to a question posted on HackerNews.

This is kind of a banal story.

So rarely get to see banal used in a sentence. Bravo.

I’m the lead developer

Congratulations!

on a “modernization” project

I’m sorry.

that’s taking a lot longer than anticipated

Unsurprising.

(you see where this is going).

Oh yeah.

The team is great,

My gut says they aren’t

it’s just that the work is way outside their comfort zone.

See? Not what I would call a great team. Great teams have no comfort zone.

The business has been selling the new version pretty hard

That’s their job; that’s how we pay the bills. Ask to see their pipeline and sales projections to see if they’re good at their job.

and we’re not going to make the release

Pretty typical of modernization gigs.

(about 3 months to go).

A lot can happen in 3 months.

I think my direct manager has a healthy dose of skepticism about the timeline

That’s unactionable. Talk is cheap. What are they doing about it?

but the product owner doesn’t

Timeline cluelessness is part of the charm of being a product owner. That’s why we have project managers.

At what point should I start sounding the alarm?

Leads don’t sound alarms, project managers do.

I’d like to give it a couple of weeks and see if the team picks up pace

I wouldn’t count on it.

but I’m not confident.

Nor should you be, you don’t have a great team by your own admission.

Question is: as a lead how would you handle this?

As the lead dev you have two things that you are accountable for:

  1. To take on the most difficult technical tasks and get them to production as quickly as possible with near perfect code quality. That’s why you’re the lead dev – you’re the best developer. If you’re not the best developer, give up the title to the person who is.
  2. To level-up your team, so they can take on increasingly more difficult projects at a pace that consistently exceeds expectations. Among the things you’ll need to coach them out of is even the idea of a “comfort zone”. Technology changes too quickly for “comfort zones.” “Comfort zones” are a good way to be on the side of the road begging for lose change when the current boom economy inevitably busts.

That’s it. Those 2 things are your job. If someone asks you for status give them you gut instinct and leave it at that. If they want guarantees direct them to the the project manager, and then tell the project manager never to give date guarantees. You didn’t make any client commitments, I bet you didn’t hire your team, and you most certainly can’t “make” you team do anything. You can have a positive impact on the delivery date, but if that impact is sufficient to cross the finish line in 3 months tends to have more to do with luck. Who knows? Maybe you can make it. Maybe you can’t. You’ll find out for sure in 3 months.

What’s different about your role vs anyone else in the organization is that if you miss your date in 3 months, it’s a day like any other. You team still has to deliver; the parameters of your mission have not changed. While everyone else is wringing their hands and claiming the sky is falling, you continue to project with calm confidence that if you and your team continue to put one foot in front of the other, we’ll get there eventually. A good team lead will have a team that’s neither excited nor depressed – they’re focused on accomplishing the mission. That’s it. That’s your job.

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