“I left a comment in the ticket, what else am I supposed to do?” Jacob does not see his part in the delay of a new feature. After all, it was Rebecca, the designer, who did not react, and blocked him for two days. He wrote a comment, saying that he needed her to provide a different version of the image. But she did not get back to him.
Ticketing systems are theoretically great for managing a workflow. A designer works on something, then passes the ticket on to a UI developer who can add the necessary code. The UI developer does his work, and passes the ticket on to QA. In theory, this gives people a nice overview of what they are supposed to be working on, at any given time.
In theory. However, reality - and humans - are more messy than that. In reality, things take longer than expected, get blocked, forgotten about, de-prioritized, or otherwise delayed. Ideally, you would assign a ticket to somebody, and, without further interaction, get it back when the work is completed, and on time. In reality, you will sometimes find yourself waiting in vain for a reaction on the opposite side.
“I left a comment in the ticket…”
This is when people try “upgrading” the ticket. They increase its priority. They tag hundreds of people (“FYI”) in a comment to point a subtle finger at the person taking so long. All the while, they get increasingly frustrated.
However, this strategy and the underlying attitude are problematic. I mean the “I left a comment in the task, so why should I go talk to her?” attitude. People will get up from their desk for coffee, lunch, or other breaks. But they try to resolve a difference of opinion in a 35-comment discussion (or verbal war) in JIRA, instead of taking a 30 second walk to be able to talk to somebody face-to-face. I have six issues with this attitude.
1. This attitude is unprofessional
I imagine Jacob has a customer who is waiting for a new Web site. An icon is missing. Two days ago, Jacob left a comment in a task and asked the designer on the team to provide the icon. Nothing has happened yet. Tomorrow is the deadline. Will the customer really care if it was the designer’s fault or Jacob’s fault that his product is not ready? They certainly will not. All they will see is that they did not get what they asked (and paid!) for. Jacob could have done something about it, but preferred to sit there and do other things.
2. This attitude is childish
People give arguments like “I will not run after her and beg her to do her job. I am not her babysitter.” This roughly translates to the rather childish “That’s unfair! It is her who is causing the delay. She should be punished, not I!” First, getting up from your desk to make sure things keep moving is not a punishment, and neither is it beneath your dignity. It can be expected of you. And, second, don’t make things that personal. It is not “they or you”. Try some “together” instead. You don’t have to like everybody, but you can be expected to work with everybody.
3. This attitude is arrogant
I cannot be sure in every case, but it is very likely that there have been cases in the past where Jacob forgot about an assignment himself, or treated it with lower priority than a colleague or stakeholder would have liked. I certainly did it, and at least in some cases, there were reasons for it. Treating somebody else like they have no reasons, but do it out of laziness, is pretty arrogant. Try some HRT (humility, respect, and trust, see Team Geek) instead.
4. This attitude is careless
If you are to thrive as a team, you have to hold each other accountable. This means that if Rebecca is late with providing the image, you remind her. Holding each other accountable shows that you care about your colleagues and want them to grow and succeed. It shows that you set high standards and want to live up to them. It shows that you want to improve as a team. If you fail to do this, one foul apple can spoil the entire basket. You will find yourself in a downward spiral because of carelessness.
5. This attitude is dangerous
How long would Jacob actually wait before acting? Two days have already passed without Rebecca getting back to him. Would he wait for another day? Another two? All the while, he would brood and think and wonder, silently curse his colleague and develop harder and harder feelings towards her. There is highly toxic potential there that could be easily prevented and defused by a simple two-minute, face-to-face conversation.
6. This attitude is stupid
Sorry, but it’s true. This attitude is stupid. Because chances are that you will take the blame if the job is not done, even if you were waiting for somebody else to provide something you need. It is your job to manage your dependencies. So, by not at least trying to move things forward, you set yourself up for criticism.
Why face-to-face wins
I mentioned face-to-face conversations, and, compared to comments in JIRA, Bitbucket, etc., I think their value and power can hardly be overstated. I sometimes give my people this advice: If you feel the need to write a second comment because the other person’s response to your first comment shows that they did not (want to) understand you, consider trying a face-to-face conversation instead. Misunderstandings will quickly be resolved, expectations will become clear, and impediments will be identified and can be removed. It will save you huge amounts of time and energy.
One of the reasons why face-to-face resolves differences quickly is that in the majority of cases, the other person is not delaying things out of malice. It is actually very rare that this happens (if it happens often in your organization, you might want to consider leaving it). Most of the times, people are, in principle, interested in a solution that everybody is happy with.
It’s just that everybody is usually pretty busy. There is probably a ton of other things the person should or could do besides yours, and there are different ways to prioritize these things. Of course, there is a priority level attached to the ticket in the issue tracker. However, a) other issues might have the same priority, and, more importantly, b) what will dictate the order in which somebody does things is not the priority assigned in the issue tracker, but the one assigned in the person’s mental model of the world. And these can be different things.
You might argue that they should be the same, but, again, reality (and humans) is more complicated than that. Maybe they want to get that ticket for Julia done first, because they really like Julia, or maybe your task is boring or unclear, so they are a bit reluctant to get it done, or maybe they are not sure they are the right person for this task anyway, but have not yet really decided on that, and instead are waiting and hoping somebody else will take it from them.
In fact, sometimes people - some subconsciously, some on purpose - will wait to see what happens. “How important is this thing in my task list really? Is it even worth to be worked on?” It is even possible they have no choice: They have 20 tickets on their plate, and all of them are prioritized as “Urgent”. This is when people employ their own, subjective prioritization mechanisms.
The good news is that you can make use of this psychological process by paying a personal visit and standing next to somebody’s desk. This is what I have been telling newcomers for a long time: If you have the impression something is not moving, get up from your desk and walk over to them. There is nothing that comes close to that in effectiveness. Not increasing the priority of the ticket. Not FYI-ing lots of people. These might not impress anybody. But stand next to them at their desk, and things will pretty certainly start moving.
Think of it the other way round: Have you ever had somebody standing next to your desk, asking for something when you would have rather kept working in peace? I bet they had your full attention, at least more attention than one out of many tickets on your screen. And this is how it works with most other people, as well.
To put it differently: If you talk to people face-to-face, the priority of your task in their mental model makes a huge jump. Suddenly, you might be next on the list. Of course, this will all happen within reason. If you approach the operations team because you forgot your password to the development database, and they are in the middle of some mission-critical fire fighting, you might be met with little understanding.
In general, however, you will move things forward more quickly by talking to people instead of communicating through issue tracker comments. Even if there is nothing the other person can do to speed things up, you will at least know why, and you will have certainty. This is better than waiting, hoping, and brooding. You might then be able to find a different solution.
The concept I wanted to highlight with all of the above is ownership. If you work on a certain task, then decide to really own it, so you do everything in your power to make it happen. And if there is somebody in your way who does not deliver a partial result that you need, then you inquire respectfully, make clear that they are blocking you, ask them for a specific commitment, or find a different solution. Do not settle for vague promises.
Ownership is the opposite of “I did my part, now let’s wait and hope.” Ownership is what your boss wants to see when you work on something. Ownership is what you need to take if you ever want to have influence. Without ownership, you will not be effective when things get tight, and you will not get ahead professionally. So do not just work on things. Own them.
This post took me about 4.5 hours to write and finish for publication (find images, etc.). The initial stream of thoughts was out pretty quickly. Refining and establishing coherence took the most time.