When the fog rolls in, it is very hard to get your bearings.
As a system's health deteriorates, its ability to identify and resolve challenges is progressively impaired. This kicks off a vicious cycle of declining health and increasing difficulty in diagnosing and addressing problems. Imagine a team that is struggling with high workloads and frequent production issues. Chances are the team will make less-good decisions, which will lead to more production issues, which will lead to more stress and impaired decision-making.
If you've been on a team in this situation, you know that feeling of not knowing where to start. "Just" addressing one facet of the problem will likely not fix the issue. The situation keeps slipping back and worsening—pulled back by the web of challenges. You may become numb to what is happening, and it can feel like playing whack-a-mole.
Hire a new manager? Nope. Reduce workload? Nope. "Quality month?" Nope. 25% time? No! Consultants? Nope. Rewrite? Nope. "The problem" becomes the inability to diagnose and address problems—not any particular issue.
This dynamic is why letting things slip and waiting until bad things happen, or focusing only on lagging indicators, is dangerous. Waiting seems rational. "Why fix something before it is an issue? We've got work to do!" The problem is that, almost by definition, when that goes wrong, you'll probably have to deal with the "fog" of many layered factors and an impaired ability to diagnose and address problems.
It's not just the "debt" and the time/energy interest of "fixing the debt." It is also dealing with the impact of accumulated stress and not making the best decisions—debt debt.
I experienced this personally during the birth of my son five years ago and the pandemic. Minor health issues added up. I got out of shape. Before I knew it, it was hard to pinpoint "the problem". Sleep? Fitness? Stress? Diet? All of it? I'd try to get fit but have trouble with injuries. I'd focus on sleep, but I still needed more energy. I tried to eat well, but my sleep wasn't improving. Most importantly, I wasn't making effective decisions about where to spend my time and how to address "the problem". Things are slowly improving, but it has been a journey.
Of course, people said, "don't let things slip when you have a kid because it will be hard to get things back!" but I ignored them.
So what can you do to prevent this situation? Digging out takes a lot of work. Your best bet is prevention.
Focus on leading indicators (and cast a wide net for signals). Be careful not to become myopic in terms of what you measure.
Prioritize situational awareness. Remember, once the slide starts, making sense of what is happening becomes harder.
Develop "irrational" habits. Accept that some practices like WIP limits, team retreats, and "stopping the line" may seem irrational in the near term, but you'll be grateful later.
Use enabling constraints when helpful.
Don't wait for trends to manifest. Give yourself (and others) permission to fix things that seem off without much justification or rationalization.
Meet with people impacted by your work. Are you doing anything that works locally but causes issues for others?
Can people speak up when they are overloaded? If not, figure that out.
Regularly cycle in fresh perspectives.
As for digging out, I'll address that in another post, but in my experience, your options are limited. You must find a way to stabilize the system, limit decision fatigue, hold some things constant, and lighten the load. You can't rationalize, root cause, project plan, or motivate your way out of the situation. Too often teams believe that all they need to do is “shift priorities” to bend the curve.
You need much more. And much less.
An interesting analogy to this is burnout - which is often more evident to folks around, and much less apparent to the person suffering through it. The “fog” just compounds.
One of my past PM roles was on a team working ourselves out of this problem. Took about 18 months to make meaningful change. Resonate deeply with your articulation; thanks for putting words to it so well, John.
I found we had to ground ourselves in the reality of the situation in order to get out. Sit there with the oars just floating, looking around thinking "shit, we really cannot see a thing right now" and really accept that. We owned too much, it was all in a state of disrepair, and we were being pulled left and right into incidents and issues so frequently we didn't have the time to think clearly.
Accepting it enabled us to recalibrate expectations. This was easy to do in terms of what's achievable - just keeping the lights on is a win. What was more challenging - but more impactful - was to recalibrate our expectations around risk. We had to raise the bar around how we respond to things that in a more healthy system you'd leap on straight away. Learning to override an intuitive response and ask "given our current context - can we live with this risk?" was what really created the space for us to think clearly & invest where it made sense to clear the fog.
Post-rationalisation might call it strategic implementation of short-term pessimism. When you really accept 'we're completely lost in the fog' you stop some of the knee-jerk responses and find yourself with a certain space to assess your options.
The other thing that'd be interesting to hear your thoughts on is the allure of this challenge for product folks. In my observations working your way out of this challenge doesn't seem alluring to most PMs - it's too easy to chase the new shiny opportunity instead. My personal experience of it was that it is one of the best challenges of product thinking out there. The growth that came from it and the outcomes I was a part of achieving are probably the most fulfilling in my career to date.
Look forward to reading your follow up thoughts on digging yourself out. Cheers