PM tip# 11: Information is the Currency of Program Management

A huge differentiator between mediocre PMs and excellent PMs is how they deal with information.  Anyone that has been a PM for more than a few days inherently knows that information – getting, distilling, combining and distributing of ideas – is a key part of just about every PM job.   PMs that know how to get, process and share information in a timely way are a huge asset to their teams. 


Here a few ideas around information sharing...


Noise is not information

There is a big difference between getting distilled, relevant and timely information to the right people and spamming the masses with trivialities.  This falls into the “don’t confuse activity with results” bucket.  It is not the activity of send status reports or forwarding information or having a meeting that is the goal, it is the results of feeding an informed, collaborative work environment that is the goal.  There is certainly a time and place for team wide emails and all-hands meetings, but think carefully about the goals.. would a 1-1 or small forum meeting be better or at least a better start?  Think about how folks like to consume the information.  You might consider splitting out detailed notes "for the record" from the few key action items.



If a tree falls in the woods...

I will not repeat the whole Be More Visible Sham post, but suffice to say if no one knows you did X, did you really get all the benefits for doing X?   


Know who knows

Obviously you can’t know everything but possibly by the Six Degrees Rule you could know who knows any given bit of information.  Clearly the admonishment to “build your network” is nothing new, but it is none the less true.  Pay attention to who seems to know a given area by who address issues in public forums (blogs, newsgroups, internal email lists, meetings).  Leverage others networks by paying attention to who others ask.  Be a good member of the network by helping to direct queries even if you can only get them a little bit closure.   


Hoarding information  

You can take this information is currency thing too far.  I don’t know about you, but I want to hold onto as much US currency as I can.. I am not likely to share it with you unless I get something in return.  On the other hand, information is a much more fluid market than capital.. So fluid in fact that it almost always behooves you to share the information you have even if you are not directly getting a quid pro quo return. 

A classic example of information hording is the annual review system.  The mechanics of how review scores (and by extension monetary compensation) are dolled out is often a carefully guarded secrete. The argument is that individual contributors don’t “need to know” this information so it is horded between the managers and HR.  This causes no end of rumors and speculations on how the system really works many of which are hopelessly wrong and lead employees to the wrong behaviors.  I have always advocated (and practiced on my team) full disclosure of how the process runs, I found that sharing that information actually takes away some doubt and worry and helps focus employees on the right things. 


Lose lips sink ships

As a general rule PMs should work hard facilitate the transfer of information freely, however there are times when you should keep your mouth shut about something such that the right channels for communication can be used. This problem sometimes manifests itself in forwarding an email that contains sensitive information or in simply trying to “show-off” that you know more than someone else.    

Early in my career I was involved in a project that was taking a major change in direction.  I owned the partner relationships for this team and I happened to see a key partner after hearing about our change in direction.  I told the partner and even provided my own analysis (“that means we’ll have to can your project”, I said).  Needless to say this concerned the partner I was talking to, he talked to his manager, who talked to mine who called me at home to stop the leak.  Not only did this mistake cause some personal distress for some folks as I did not get the story exactly right, it also caused my own manager to be slower about including me in sensitive discussions.    

While I am still a huge fan of free information flow, the rule of thumb I use is if-in-doubt-ask...


The Echo Chamber

You get an echo chamber effect when information is simply repeated (and often exaggerated) without a firm grounding in fact.  I have seen speculations, turn into rumors, then into facts through the course of a few days based on nothing more than hearing other people say something.  Maybe it is a competitor is doing xyz or a given technology is not good for a scenario, etc.  These get really hard to manage as very senior folks in the organization start accepting them as fact. 

To battle the echo chamber effect insist on understanding the information, don’t just pass it on as if it must be true.  Get a reputation for cutting through the bull to the real-deal rather than just someone who knows what the latest echo is.  Be sure to listen outside the walls of the echo camber.  That might mean outside your group, your company or even your industry..



What do you think?  Agree/disagree?  What else have you noticed about dealing with information? 


Comments (7)

  1. Chakravarthy says:

    One dilemna i have  with team members is to balance between empathy and maintaining control. If i ask a team member ‘ do you feel bad that you have to do this dirty task ?’ , i am actually trying to empathise and share his feelings, but i may end up discouraging him by giving a voice to his grudge,  and if it leaks back to others, i may be considered a ‘soft’ manager.

    Also , if i forward a copy of my weekly status report to my team, (just to let them know what status i reported to my boss), and it leaks back to the boss, it may be considered as indiscretion and lack of confidentiality.

    Maybe i need to draw the line between empathy and discretion.

  2. BradA says:

    I hear you Chakravarthy  we all have to ask employees to do less-than-glamorous tasks..  I think the key thing is to be able to connect where they are doing to the larger goal.  How digging this ditch helps us win the war… that sort of thing.

    If you are afraid of something getting back to your boss, you are likely doing the wrong thing… Talk to your boss, figure out what if she is supportive of this level of communication or not… I suspect she will be!

  3. Frank Hileman says:

    Some of this stuff seems specific to Microsoft’s internal politics. In smaller organizations some of these concerns, hoarding information, loose lips, echo chamber: generally a smaller organization is more transparent and these things tend not to happen.

  4. Kevin D. White says:

    "How digging this ditch helps us win the war… that sort of thing."

    I’ve found this is really critical for people in skilled jobs like programming or visual design. If you hire people for their ability to think creatively and solve problems then you have to be prepared for them to ask questions. The old saw "Because" never really works for such people. At best you can get away with asking that they trust you on the condition that you will explain later on.

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