I was fairly young in my career the first time I heard this expression. And like me in that situation, even if you don’t know the exact meaning, you probably understand the premise behind the words just from their basic definitions:

  • Rule – principle governing conduct, action
  • Engage – to occupy the attention or efforts of

Essentially, rules of engagement (ROE) bind behavior under certain circumstances.  Probably the most recognizable form can be seen with our military where (to paraphrase) … “rules or directives … issued by authority … delineate/define circumstances and limitations under which US forces will initiate/engage with other forces encountered.”  So the obvious question is what does this have to do with Product Management?

Over the past couple of months, I have been exposed to several conversations where ROE seems to be the correlative theme.  The first conversation in San Francisco a little over a month ago focused on adaptability, and businesses moving at 2 speeds … low gear representing the ‘system of record’ speed, and high gear representing the ‘system of engagement’ speed.  I wrote about this in my Adapt or Die post.  The second conversation in New York just two weeks ago focused on the fact that faster is not always better.  In fact one of the points made during that conversation was that in many cases, two-thirds of customers don’t have the ability to absorb new releases fast enough.

Both of these conversations were supported through case studies that described high-profile, fast moving projects that had to get done quickly.  Tiger teams were formed … processes worked around … rules changed for the time being … all in an attempt to do something new & innovative. For anyone who has been involved in one of these projects, I don’t have to describe how exciting (and yes, potentially stressful) they can be!  Yet in each one of the case studies, however, there was a common theme that emerged once the initial phase had been delivered … that the fast-paced nature of the project was not sustainable … for the team, for the customer, etc.

And this is exactly where the ROE conversation comes into play.  In order to maintain an innovative, entrepreneurial nature … while at the same time recognizing limitations of the people, processes and/or technologies that are in place … there comes a time where expectations across the multiple stakeholder teams need to be addressed in order to promote organizational alignment, foster healthy conflict and debate, and nip dysfunctional behavior.

When defining your rules of engagement, the following are essentials to start with:

  • Guiding Principles – what is the common theme that all teams involved agree on? What is the core goal(s) that are trying to be achieved?
  • Roles & Responsibilities – what role does each participant have in achieving the goals?
  • Project Protocols – what are standards for how meetings, issues, and risks should be handled? What are the defined processes associated with existing systems of record that need to be considered? Where can things be improved without detrimental impacts?
  • Communication – what are acceptable timeframes for responding to inquiries? Who should be communicated to about what? When should things be escalated?

For further ideas on this topic, here is an article I found handy …  10 Management Rules of Engagement.