Team First, Not First Place: Lessons for Product Owners & Training Leads

Part 1 of a 2 part series, based on a true story

A good friend of mine (let’s call him Robert), works for a very large telecom company. He was stressed about his job. Being stressed isn’t remarkable, although his job as a global executive means continually keeping lots of banks happy with their telecom service. This story is about so much more.

Early in the year, Robert and his team were assigned a training series of 47 online courses, to be completed by the end of 2014. The courses were designed to enhance the team’s technical skills and customer focus, a very ironic part of this story.Robert got started on the courses, intending to go at a steady pace.

In mid-September, Robert and his team were informed by their director that he wants everyone to complete the training courses by October 1 instead of December 31. The reason for the change? The director wants his team to be the first team to meet the education requirements.



“Is there an incentive for you to be first?” I asked.

“Only that I keep my job.” Robert said.

“Will you have a backup handling your customers while you train?”

“No backup.” He sighed hopelessly. “The expectation isn’t an OR. It’s an AND.”

Now it was clear. Robert was to provide spectacular customer service AND get all of these courses completed in a nearly impossible time frame…because the director likes to win.

Let’s stop for a moment. Who is winning? The service executive, who has an unbalanced life trying to perform his regular job and complete the training? The company, whose employees whip through the “training” courses so fast, there is no education retention? The customer, who gets fragmented service, at best, from a stressed out professional? Does the customer even care if Robert’s team finishes first?

The plot of this I-can’t-make-this-up tale thickens. When checking his progress, Robert noticed the curriculum changed. Some of the courses he completed were no longer required. What?! No one was informed of the change. More stress for Robert.

Robert contacted his manager to double check the problem. His discovery was correct. In fact, the curriculum was now 90 courses. Yes, 90 courses to be completed by October 1. His manager said she tried to reason with the director, but she wasn’t able to influence him to (at the very least) stick with the original deadline. Robert was beyond frustrated. Why didn’t someone tell him there were changes? Certainly, if he was distracted from giving his customers his best before, now he really was challenged to focus on anything but the “training.”

Then the systems problems began. Even when all other applications are closed, the learning management system (LMS) was very sticky. Robert kept track of all the slow downs, then shared the facts with his manager. Leaders knew about the systems problems. No fixes were made to the LMS, and the deadline remained the same.

Tune in next week for the second part of this story. In the mean time, I offer these big-sky reflection questions, for both product owners and training leads:

  • What’s to be gained in this situation?
  • What’s to be lost?
  • Where are the communication opportunities?
  • Where are the leadership opportunities?
  • What could Robert do differently and still keep his job?
  • Does being first always cause carnage?

Find part 2 here.

One thought on “Team First, Not First Place: Lessons for Product Owners & Training Leads

  1. Pingback: Lessons for Product Owners & Training Leads, Part 2 | Francie Van Wirkus

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