BL&T No. 159: Shreyas Doshi's 3 Levels of Project Collaboration

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.

Borrowed & Learned

Over the weekend, I was reflecting on a prospective client call from last week. It reminded me how important it is for all stakeholders to be on the same page when collaborating on a project, even if they're all aware of the "goal."

The call was with the client's newly appointed (less than six months) tech and e-commerce leads. During early chats like this, we typically dig into the client's business to understand where they've been, where they're going, and what's in the way of their goals. It helps provide more context for their project and uncover any overlooked opportunity areas.

But in this case, the leads were hyper-focused on the potential website migration to Shopify, leading with technical questions right out of the gate. I quickly realized we could've set the agenda better before the call so our CTO could have joined, so I rolled with it and sprinkled in bigger-picture questions when possible. A little bit of digging proved worthwhile.

We learned the client would have to migrate not one but five websites for three unique brands. But when I asked about the strategy behind launching these brands or similar questions, they couldn't answer, pointing to their short time at the company. We also learned the management team enlisted the leads to take on this project and wanted it done fast, but they were unsure what was driving the timeline.

In episode #175 of The Knowledge Project podcast, product management expert Shreyas Doshi talks about the challenges of misalignment between people and teams when working on projects together. Regardless of whether or not everyone has a similar mission or goals, they'll experience conflict if they fixate on execution, impact, or optics. There needs to be balance and alignment across these levels.

Why couldn't the tech and e-commerce leads answer many of my questions? They were coming from different levels than the management team.

While navigating these situations can be challenging for an agency, it can be even more detrimental to the client's success and even put the project at risk.

Exploring Levels

Let's dig into each level through the lens of the prospective client and how the misalignment might cause challenges. I'll use some assumptions based on our call and additional research.

The management team is on the impact level. Revenue is down and falling. The website is no longer performing well. Making a change to turn the business around is critical, and time is of the essence. Trusted friends and advisors tell them how fast and easy Shopify can be, so they believe making the move will unlock new potential and get them on track. They enlist their tech and e-commerce leads to get the job done, hoping that applying pressure will make them move faster.

The tech lead is thinking at an execution level. When mentioning on our call that the management team wanted to get to Shopify fast, they seemed a bit disgusted, touching on how they had convinced the CEO to move to Magento just four months prior. Rightfully, they are concerned with whether or not Shopify can meet their needs; however, they don't seem to understand how the migration fits into the bigger vision or the management team's expectations for its impact.

To some degree, the e-commerce lead is also on the execution level, but they shied away from the nuts and bolts of the project and seemed more interested in the management team's wishes. In that way, they're thinking at the optics level. They're interested in getting this project done fast, not because they understand how it will help the business, but because it will make them look good.

So, why is this a problem?

In Doshi's words, "They sweat, and they litigate and re-litigate a lot of details without really realizing that the conflict is present—mainly because one is operating at the optics level, and the other is operating at the execution or impact level."

Let's pretend the tech lead determines that Shopify can't achieve all current features. Without connecting how Shopify's lower cost of ownership or overall speed can help the business succeed, he'll push back on the migration.

The e-commerce lead will feel stuck. Will it look better to go to the management and show due diligence or to present a plan for the migration to Shopify?

When the discussion gets to the management, they'll be frustrated with the time lost. In their minds, they've already made the Shopify decision and will likely double down on it. The tech lead will begrudgingly get it done or get frustrated and move on. The e-commerce lead will continue to make decisions to preserve their image, not for what's right for the business.

All this unnecessary friction will undoubtedly cost time and money, extending the project timeline and pushing the brand further off track.

Finding Balance

This situation isn't the first of its kind we've encountered, and it won't be the last. Sometimes, we can catch it early enough and do our best to align stakeholders. Other times, it's once the project is further along and requires more intervention, usually through alignment calls, interactive workshops, or testing.

I'd be lying if I said we also didn't experience similar situations within our team. Whether we're working on internal or client projects, it can be easy to focus the team on execution, overlooking the expected impact, or new team members making decisions to try and impress leadership.

In an X thread, Doshi shares some tips for leadership on how to avoid creating this imbalance on the team:

  1. Understand the three levels
  2. Be self-aware about their default
  3. Learn to focus on non-default levels
  4. Spot situations of level mismatch
  5. Call out this root cause of conflict
  6. Provide a framework for proceeding
  7. Coach others on the above

I appreciate Doshi's advice to look inward and reflect on our default. Leadership can provide the context to get their team on the impact level, but if they're unwilling to give space for execution or the team feels burned from a past situation and fixated on optics, the message will get lost. We all have a default to overcome.

In that way, it's just as worthwhile for leadership to understand these levels as much as the rest of the team. In moments of conflict, we can all ask ourselves: Are we focusing primarily on how things look (optics), how to get things done (execution), or how it will genuinely impact the organization (impact)?

When we take steps back and consciously consider these perspectives, we can work towards understanding what's driving the issue and finding a better balance.

In the end, successful collaboration and project execution requires a balanced blend of these perspectives, where everyone understands their role, the goals, and the potential impact of their actions. This understanding is vital for project success and a healthy work environment where individuals and teams can thrive and contribute effectively.

h/t Barrel CEO Peter for sharing this podcast.


At what level do I tend to fixate? My team? How can I create a better balance?


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