Category Archives: Career

WWANPD (What would a normal person do?)

I was walking with my friend Michael last week in the Oakland hills, and he came out with the most hilarious question: What would a normal person do?

Product managers often gripe:

  • My boss says I should be more strategic, yet I am assigned only tactical projects
  • We say we want to be market driven, but I’m not allowed to call a customer without the sales person on the line
  • We ask “why did we lose this account”, but no product managers are allowed to interview the buyer
  • They say I’m essential to the company, but I never get a raise, and I never get promoted

Ask yourself: In this situation, what would a normal person do?

Or meme it: WWANPD?

– Alan

Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.


P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 2)

In part 1, I discussed the findings described in an article entitled Canada’s Innovation Gap, which was published in the Globe and Mail earlier this year.

In short, it indicated that Canadian businesses are not investing in research and development at the levels they should be (relative to businesses in other countries), and the heavy reliance of the Canadian economy on the resource and manufacturing sectors (both beaten down heavily in the recent economic downturn) put Canada at risk of falling behind other nations in economic growth, standard of living etc.

It’s a sobering article, and if you live in Canada, you should read it, because unless there are clear changes in how we conduct business in Canada, we’re headed for some hard times ahead.

I had mentioned that in this post I would look at some of the solutions proposed by the article’s author Konrad Yakabuski. But in researching the topic more, I came across some other research from the Conference Board of Canada (an independent think tank) that provided additional context on the innovation problem in Canada.

I’ve reproduced some of the Conference Board’s research below, but as always, go to the source and get the full details there.

***Warning to readers who worry about Canada’s future. The information presented below is rather ugly.

The Conference Board of Canada publishes an annual report entitled, How Canada Performs – A report card on Canada. It measures and compares Canada to a number of other industrialized countries in 6 areas of measurement. These are: Economy, Innovation, Environment, Education and Skills, Health and Society.

The scorecard below shows the 2008 numbers and some of the 2009 data. The final 2009 data will be released soon. The grading is similar to how many schools grade students. A is the best, followed by B, C and D. I didn’t see any Fs in the scores, so D can be considered the worst mark.

As you can see, Canada does fairly well in the first 4 categories, but rates a D in Innovation.

The following scorecard shows how Canada rates against a number of other industrialized nations in innovation. Canada occupies the lowest category, along with Austria, Australia, Italy and Norway. A surprise for me was seeing Ireland with an A score. I don’t know much about the Irish economy, but I have never pictured them as a more innovative country than say Germany, Japan or even Sweden and Finland.


And finally the Conference board provides a breakout of the various categories that make up the Innovation score. The table below — you’ll have to click on it to see it clearly — makes it patently clear that Canada’s innovation problems are widespread.


Click the image above to view in detail

Cs and Ds across the board for Canada. What’s most surprising is that Canada only got a C for scientific articles and a D for the manufacturing category. Even with good educational institutions, it seems we’re not publishing enough new research. And for a country that has traditionally had a large manufacturing sector, most of it is clearly pretty low tech; processing for natural resources, and of course, the auto manufacturing plants in Southern Ontario.

So, what can be done? One thing to keep in mind is that what the Conference Board, and the original article by Konrad Yakabuski talk about is innovation by large corporations and universities,  Hi-tech manufacturing is not something done by startups. Fundamental research is not done by entrepreneurs. The objective here is not to simply raise Canada’s grades on national report cards.

The objective must be to create, grow and instill a business environment and culture that enables entrepreneurs, small, medium and large companies to develop and go to market with new products and services on an international scale. Our captains of industry and successive governments have enjoyed direct proximity to the world’s most affluent nation for decades, but have focused on short term profits without long term investment and growth in mind.

In Part 3, (I promise) I’ll look at some of the ways to help address the innovation problem.


BTW, if you want to see what other Canadians think of this problem, read the comments on this article in MacLean’s magazine. The article itself is not too interesting, but most of the reader comments are spot on.

Related Article:

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 1)

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Product Management Metrics (part 2)

In Part 1, I defined the mandate of Product Management as:

Product Management’s mandate is to optimize the business at a product, product line or product portfolio level over the product lifecycle.

I’ve emphasized 3 words: optimize, business and lifecycle.

Optimization is the process of changing a system to make it work efficiently within a set of given constraints.

Fundamentally, this is what Product Management is all about: how to invest limited resources to deliver competitive products to market, that are in line with market demands and expectations and then working with other teams to better enable them to reach their targets that make up overall business goals. 🙂

Product Management must always keep business goals in mind and work to achieve or help achieve those goals within the context of the products or product lines.  Business goals are typically related to revenue, expense, customer acquisition, market share, geographic expansion or organizational improvement. This is a sample list of goals and doesn’t imply that Product Management must focus on these areas.

It’s important to keep in mind that business goals differ across the product lifecycle.  A product lifecycle can be defined as having the following stages:

  • Development
  • Introduction/Launch
  • Growth
  • Maturity
  • Decline
  • End of Life

There may be variations on these stages, but this represents the major phases that a product will pass through. And the goals and objectives for the product will vary at each of these stages. For example, the Development phase usually is pre-revenue. In this phase, Product Management is focused on understanding market needs and working with various parties (internal and external) to create a product or solution that addresses those needs.

With Launch, the goals for the product can include initial customer acquisition, validation of the product in the market, educating influencers, generating awareness etc. Revenue obviously becomes a major factor after Launch, as do goals such as customer retention and ongoing competitive differentiation. The other phases — Growth, Maturity, Decline and End of Life (EOL) — all bring their own challenges, constraints  and objectives.

Given the changing objectives over the product lifecycle, the goals of Product Management will change, activities to achieve those goals will change and the metrics that are used to measure them will change.

In part 3, I’ll get more specific, and lay out a model that people can apply to their products or product lines. It is important to note that there is no “one size fits all” solution here. Only at the highest level of business reporting– customer acquisition, revenue, customer retention etc. — can there be a single set of metrics for most products.

Because of the breadth of potential technology products — e.g. SaaS vs. Licensed software, a consumer product vs. a B2B product, infrastructure vs applications, a retail product vs. an OEM product  etc. — specific metrics across the lifecycle will vary.

Department vs. Role

I do want to make take a few moments to address a question related to role metrics vs. department metrics. That is, the metrics used for measuring a Product Manager, vs. the metrics used for measuring Product Management as a whole.

In small  companies, there may only be a single Product Manager for a given product or product line.  I’ve been in that situation myself a couple of times. In those cases, metrics for the Product Manager are pretty much the same as that for the Department.

But in larger companies, where there truly is a Product Management team, most likely with differentiated roles for PMs (e.g. Technical Product Manager (TPM) , Sr. Product Manager, Director Product Management etc.) the metrics that would be used to measure individuals likely would be different that those for the entire team.

For example, a TPM would likely spend much of their time working with Engineering during a development cycle or researching technical issues for upcoming releases, whereas a Director would be more focused on overall product strategy, business alignment, strategic partnerships etc.

The Product Management team may be measured on product revenue, delivering a new release successfully etc., but individuals in that team would have other role specific metrics tied to their individual activities and responsibilities as well.

As mentioned earlier,  in part3, I’ll get more specific and present a model that could be applied or adapted by Product Management teams.


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Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 1)

While this post is targeted at the innovation, funding and technology issues in Canada, it may apply to other geographies as well, particularly if you don’t live/work in technology hot spot such as Silicon Valley or Boston or Banglalore etc. This is a topic that is very dear to me, given that I currently live and work in Canada, but spent 6 years earlier this decade living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an great article in The Globe and Mail newspaper (one of Canada’s leading daily papers) entitled Canada’s innovation gap. The article, by Konrad Yakabuski, outlined what I think is both an accurate and troubling picture of the state of R&D and innovation in Canada. Here are some highlights from the article.

  • Innovation in Canada is in deep trouble. Productivity is stagnating; the manufacturing sector in imploding, and the government policy makers seem asleep at the wheel.
  • Once the flagship of Canadian high tech, Nortel is being dismantled and it’s best assets are being sold to foreign companies.
  • While Blackberry maker Research in Motion is a true global leader, and often cited as an example of what is possible in Canada, there are few if any other Canadian companies that can be held in the same light.
  • Canada’s economy is heavily resource based, and those companies spend very little of their revenues on R&D, even though they made enormous profits before the recession due to high commodity prices.
  • While Canada was moderately successful at moving from a provider of raw resources to foreign countries to a more modern economy, the last 10 years have reversed that process.
  • Historically, the  small group of elites that got rich on these resources controlled the political levers to ensure nothing changed. [Note: I personally think this still applies although not as much as it once was]
  • Innovation is the only sure way for Canada to be more productive.

I could go on. It’s a great article, and it should be a wake up call to every politician and business leader with any sense of commitment to the future and well-being of this country.

Change is a process

Change is needed on a lot of fronts. While many politicians are quick to highlight that the Canadian economy has faired better than other industrialized economies in the current economic crisis, it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a huge disruption in the Canadian economy, widespread layoffs, plant closures and bankruptcies.

Keep in mind that billions were spent to help manufacturing companies, particularly automakers with vociferous unions, but little if any was spent or allocated to help technology companies or create environments to make investment in high-tech much easier. A quote from the article:

“Canada is not being productive because it’s not being innovative,” said Robert Brown, chief executive officer of Montreal-based CAE Inc., the world leader in aircraft flight simulators and training. “A lot of innovation occurs at the interface with the customer. But when you look at the make-up of Canada’s economy, with so much dependence on resources, there is less contact between [our biggest] companies and end users.”

I think this is a polite way of saying that there are a lot of companies that are more than happy to cut down trees or dig minerals  or pump oil out of the ground and then ship it off to some other country to be processed and have value added to it.

Aside from being innovative, Canada needs to look to add significant value to whatever industries it has. We have great R&D minds in this country, but there are problems in productizing the research and funding and scaling businesses.

My personal experience

I moved to California back in 2000 to seek better opportunity – i.e. professional and financial gain — than I could find here in Canada. One of my best friends from high school — a brilliant guy who did his undergrad at Harvard and his Ph.D at Princeton, is now a research professor at another Ivy League school, even though he really wanted to come back and live and work in Canada. He told me back in the early 90s that the opportunities just weren’t here for him. He’s a great example of the brain drain this country faces on a regular basis.

I moved back to Canada a few years ago for personal reasons and I have to say it wasn’t easy coming back. Aside from the nicer weather in California, I knew that my career opportunities would be more limited than they were there.

And trust me, there is a huge difference in the technology industry here in Toronto and that of Boston or San Francisco. Everything from the amount and quality of investment funding, to the networks of people with connections into technology giants to the breadth of skill sets of individuals, and even to the aspirations of company founders are very different.

We’ve got brilliant people

I’m not slagging anyone here. There are very bright, dedicated and passionate people here. I’m proud to know a number of them. But when it comes to goals, too often a Canadian VC or company founder sees a $50 million exit as a big win, whereas in the US, that’s on the low end of their success scale.

And that exit often means jobs moving to the US or offshore. In many cases the key people in the acquired company (the bright, dedicated and passionate ones) move down to the US to work “at corporate”, and the brain drain continues.

I don’t want to paint a completely bleak picture of the situation here. As I said earlier, there are very bright, talented and passionate people here. In fact, after I moved down to Silicon Valley in 2000, one thing I realized was that the people down there are not smarter than the people here.

But the level of investment financing, the personal networks of skilled people, the institutions like Stanford and Berkeley all provide a critical mass of infrastructure that enable risk taking and innovation on a scale we don’t really have in Canada. The infrastructure and culture there pull bright people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

The issue is not the people here in Canada, it never has been. It’s all the other business levers that innovators need to “nail and scale” their businesses to be world leaders. I personally think the co-founders of RIM (Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie) should be viewed as national heroes, on the same scale as Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe (famous hockey players for those of you who didn’t grow up on hockey!).

I’m sure Mike and Jim had numerous incredibly lucrative offers to sell their company over the years. But they didn’t. They held on, grew the company, fought off lawsuits, challenged rivals and continued to innovate and create a global leader based in Waterloo Ontario. And just recently RIM was named the fastest growing company in the world by Fortune magazine.

So what can be done to close the innovation gap? Konrad offers some solutions in his article. I’ll get more into that in part 2.  But in the mean time, I’d like to hear what you think, particularly if you are here in Canada, or are Canadian and are living/working outside of Canada.


Related Article:

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 2)

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Screw the Sales Process. Study the Buying Process

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We spend way too much time in our companies designing, measuring, and enabling, the Sales Process.

Every time you hear those words (Sales Process), I want you to ask a question: Wouldn’t it be more useful if we talked about the Buying Process?

Does this difference – between Sales process and Buying process – sound like hair splitting?

It’s not. You can make up a Sales Process. You have to talk to actual buyers to map the Buying Process. When you do that, everything will change.

– Alan

Games executives play: Guess what’s in the envelope

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Guess whats in the envelopeSome of you will be too young to remember Johnny Carson playing Carnac the Magnificent. But I am guessing you’ve seen this game before. On the Carson show, Johnny would hold an envelope to his head, pretend to intuit a phrase, then open the envelope and find something funny inside.

I like to call it “Guess what’s in the envelope”.

Guess what’s in the envelope

In my corporate experience I’ve seen many executives play games similar to Carnac’s. This time, though, it’s not so funny.

The corporate version of the game goes like this:

  1. Your VP or manager tells you that you own the product line and it’s up to you to decide how to manage it. You should provide the direction, positioning, messaging, and requirements for the product. Once that’s done, you are charged with making sure the company is aligned to produce the results your manager wants.
  2. When you come back with a PRD, MRD, product strategy, or other document, the response is: That wasn’t what I was thinking. Start again.

It’s like your manager is holding an envelope to her head, and asking you to guess what’s in it. The truth is that she probably doesn’t even know what’s in the envelope, but when she sees your hard work, it wasn’t what she “had in mind”.

For the PM this is infuriating on a personal and professional level. But the people who should be infuriated are the senior managers and investors in the company, for this is a stupendous waste of company resources. The costs go far beyond the time you spent researching and writing. As the Product Manager, you are often on the critical path for delivery of product and revenue. If you make the right picks, the revenue will be much easier to get. But if you are stalled in a cycle of indecision or managerial incompetence, the whole company is impacted.

I have found it useful to start by simply naming the game that is being played. By naming it, we can start to describe it and thus deal with it. I have a few names for this game:

  1. Guess what’s in the envelope! As above, the picture here is of a manager holding an envelope with top-secret information. She is asking you to write a requirements document, and when it is complete, she will compare it to the secret document in her envelope.
  2. Guess what I’m thinking! Same as above. But the envelope is funnier.
  3. Rock Fetch! I love this name. The game is: I want you to go out and look for a rock, shaped something like this, weighing about this much. Go look for it in that field over there. When you come back, the answer is simply “Wrong Rock! Try again please.”

It helps me to laugh about the situation, but it might also help to be truthful and call it what it really is: An impossible task.

Some managers make this even more fun by offering support for your MRD until the software ships. If results are below expectations, it is because you didn’t read their minds. You found the wrong rock. Only this time, you invested an engineering team’s time, a release cycle, and precious months of time in the market.

What’s going on here?

The underlying problem is often very deep and hard to fix. But it’s worth figuring out what is causing this situation. Consider these possibilities:

  1. Your manager is a doer, not a delegator: Doesn’t know how to delegate with authority. Doesn’t know how to give you the parameters in which you can work. Thus they tell you to go do the research, but reserve the right to disagree with your conclusion.
  2. You didn’t understand the assignment: Just because I made fun of your manager above, it doesn’t follow necessarily that your manager is to blame. You may need to clarify what level of authority you have, and what constraints are in place. If your recommendations are out of line with the real needs of the product (eg: your product needs maintenance but you are spec’ing new features), you need to get your assignment straight.
  3. Manager thinks they know better: Your manager likely has an intuitive grasp of the industry, the executive mood, and the needs of your product. If your recommendations clash with their understanding, you’d better be prepared with facts to back up your conclusions.
  4. Manager is insecure: Some managers wrongly feel that if their employees succeed, they themselves will be seen as unnecessary. This is wrong thinking, but very common. If you are working for a person like this, I would consider a transition path to a better, more mature manager.

How can I get out of this mess?

There really are no sure-fire ways for a person to escape this kind of problem with a manager, and the prescription will depend on your diagnosis of the underlying problem (see previous section). My advice is to use a series of tactics to build agreement and settle disputes:

  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood: It is a career-limiting move to assume that your manager is a bonehead. And it’s probably untrue. Even if you are right, there has to be some amount of wisdom in what your manager is saying. Go into diagnostic mode. Would they prefer a different emphasis? A different presentation of the information? Did they understand your proposal?  What are the main areas of disagreement? Can you identify areas of agreement?
  2. Debate assumptions, not conclusions: Arguing about conclusions is a waste time. Walk down the “ladder of inference”. and seek to understand your manager’s assumptions. Compare them to your own. If you have data to back up your position (and you’d better have it), present that data and get feedback. Is more data needed? Does your boss have different data? More data?
  3. Find areas of agreement, and build: If you focus only on disagreements, you will both be frustrated. I would ask your boss to highlight areas of agreement and hunt for them yourself. You will both feel better and confine the discussion to the areas of disagreement. You may also find that as you talk about areas of agreement, assumptions will pop up that you can use to debate the contentious areas.
  4. Clarify your level of authority: If you are going off to do more research, make sure it is very tightly prescribed, and try to agree on a decision tree, such as: if we find X, we will do A, but if not, we will probably do B. This kind of discussion should occur before any research process, but it is even more crucial when you are re-starting an investigation.
  5. Clarify the constraints: Similar to level of authority, what things cannot be done, and what things must be done?
  6. Be agile. Fail fast: Disagreements like this are painful, but even moreso when they come at the end of a long and expensive process. Work with your manager along the way to schedule time to review your work as you progress rather than doing so only at the end. I like the idea of failing fast. It implies that we are going to fail, or disagree, so we’d better find, and settle, our disagreements early. This kind of thinking is at the heart of an agile process, and can be applied to research as well as building.

It’s not you, it’s me

You might conclude after this exercise that your manager is limiting your career development. If so, perhaps you should begin to plan a transition.

But you should also be open to the idea that you are simply not managing your boss well enough. You need to take an active role in defining your own work to avoid these kinds of problems. When they arise, schedule a 45 minute meeting a week after the event to discuss the problem with your boss. You can frame it like this:

I want to avoid disagreements like the one we had over the PRD last week. To that end I would like to develop a better process for the next time I do a PRD, or any major project.

It is too easy to privately call your manager incompetent and avoid taking responsibility for the problem. But if you want to go somewhere in your career, slagging your manager will not help.

Some final advice

Take the bull by the horns:

  • Diagnose the problem with your boss.
  • Be open to your own part of the problem.
  • Be firm about improving the situation the next time around.

If this whole thing happens again, repeat the process. Keep notes.

If your manager insists on playing “Guess What’s in the Envelope”, then it might be time to move on. But first make sure that you are not the one playing games.

– Alan

PS: Feel free to write to discuss.

Supplementary articles from HBR:

Managing your boss (Gabarro, Kotter)

Managing Oneself (Peter Drucker)