There are a great many different corporate cultures to be found in the world, but one consistency among far too many of them is decision-making processes that rely more on gut-level instinct and whomever yells the loudest rather than on hard data. For some companies, this has served the CEO well — a small, nimble startup can’t always waste time doing detailed validation or data-gathering in a “stop moving forward and you’ll die” environment. In other companies, it’s become the de facto standard due to strong personalities who may prefer authoritarian leadership styles over more democratic and empowering styles. Regardless of the reason, though — companies like this eventually wind up struggling because they make the wrong choice one time too many, based on the leaderships “market instinct”. And it’s our job as Product Managers to shepherd these companies into a more modern-day, data- and hypothesis-driven approach. Here are three major reasons why data-driven management is far more effective than management by gut or personality.
At some point in every interview that you have, the people on the other side of the table will inevitably pose the ultimate question to you: “So, do you have any questions for us?” There are hundreds of guides out there that list out the kinds of questions that you should ask in general, but due to the nature and uncertainty that comes with Product Management positions, I think there are several very specific questions that a savvy candidate should pose to their potential employer. Far too often, we fail to take full advantage of this opportunity, and though it’s certain that there will be some amount of spin put into the answers that you receive, no Product Manager should leave an interview without asking these five questions:
I was working with a future mentee last week and we noticed a recurring theme to some of our discussions — that a large part of good Product Management results from limiting the number of choices that our teams and our executives have to choose from, so that they make decisions that reflect the actual priorities that should be driving our next moves. In most organizations, there is an almost unlimited number of ideas, concepts, directions, and motivations from which to choose — and trying to manage all of them at once is certain to drive any Product Manager insane in very short order. Rather, in order to ensure that we’re doing the right things at the right times, we need to be constantly limiting the possible permutations upon which we drive decisions so that we can be sure that we’re moving in the right direction while being open to new ideas and concepts!
I’m often asked what I think makes a successful Product Manager, and after giving it some thought, I’ve narrowed it down to one key factor: Clarity. When applied to our daily jobs, this can mean any number of things: clarity of communication, clarity of purpose, driving discussions to clarity, or even insisting on clarity from others. But to me, clarity is perhaps the number one indicator of whether or not something that you’re doing is going to be successful. After all, if it’s not clear why, how, or for whom you’re doing something, can you actually measure your success or failure? Some companies thrive on a culture that lacks clarity — perhaps because a lack of clarity often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of responsibility and accountability.
Let’s look at some ways that clarity drives us to be successful in everything that we do…
We’ve all been there — whether you’re a Product Manager or not, you’ve sat in a meeting that’s going far longer than it should, horribly off-agenda, listening to people bicker about some minor point that’s preventing anyone from moving forward and actually making an actionable decision. Usually what happens is the loudest person in the room wears down everyone else until they feel that they’ve achieved some perverted form of “victory” before either the meeting runs out of time, or (even worse) they think that their decision is that of the group and there’s nothing more to discuss. This is especially a problem if, as is the case in many smaller companies, the loudest voice in the room also just happens to belong to the CEO or COO of the organization. These meetings are the bane of everyone’s existence, not only because they’re ultimately pointless and a waste of everyone’s time, but because they contribute to a culture of direction from the top and not innovation from the ground up. If the CEO is always right, then there’s no point in anyone who’s not the CEO making decisions.
But that’s not how these meetings should happen, and it’s not how they have to happen. With a little bit of planning and preparation, any good Product Manager can run an effective meeting where people feel like their voice has been heard, their positions understood, and everyone leaves the room with a mutually-agreed plan in place.
Know Your Players
I like to think of a meeting as an opportunity to exercise my directorial skills — and I mean that in the theatrical sense. Every great director knows not just which parts his performers will play, but how they will play them. You don’t cast someone meek and quiet to play Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls, and you don’t cast a loud, obnoxious diva to play Christine Daaé in Phantom of the Opera. You know the roles, and you know the players available to you — and it’s your job as a director to place the right people in the right role at the right time to see them shine onstage. Similar considerations need to be given when planning your meetings. Who’s the person on the exec team for whom nothing is ever good enough? Who’s the manager always looking to promote one of their team players over themselves? Who’s the director always looking for the next innovation to try out? By knowing the players in the meetings that you’re scheduling, you can predict to a high level of certainty how that meeting will play out, assuming that you structure it correctly, anticipate objections and concerns, and facilitate the shit out of that thing!
The Meeting’s Not the Meeting
Regardless of how well you know the players, you have to realize that the meeting isn’t actually the meeting. The meeting is the opportunity for everyone to get together and air their grievances — kind of like Festivus. But the real meeting happens outside the “meeting”. Any time you just get a large group of people into a room, you’re going to have chaos — sometimes it’s controlled chaos, but it’s chaos nonetheless. This is why we meet with every stakeholder who’s going to influence the decision before the meeting. This is where we do the heavy lifting, where we figure out what it’s going to take to move the person to a “yes” and to eke out all of the objections that they might be holding onto, waiting for the right opportunity to cast their die on the table. If we fail to meet ahead of the “meeting” we’re doing nothing but throwing our direction to chance. We don’t do that — as Product Managers we play the role of the House, and the House only gambles when they know they’re going to come out ahead.
Drive to Decision
It’s so easy to just give in when a meeting starts to go sideways — when you have your CEO staring at his phone, and your Director of Marketing writing emails to their subordinates, and your VP of Sales reviewing their weekly numbers. So don’t let them. Demonstrate to them that you value their time, and require that they value theirs. Focus the meeting, focus the discussion, pull people out of their laptops (by force, if necessary), but drive to a decision. Make outrageous statements, make a declaration that a decision has already been made, don’t show more than two options — one if at all possible. Structure your entire meeting, from beginning to end, around making a decision that matters and take the time after that meeting to confirm it and to plan the next steps. We had a rule at one company I worked at that if you walked out of the meeting, you walked out of the decision — a rule that our CEO tested once, probably inadvertently. Needless to say, he never left our meetings early again. Make rules, stick to them. Make an agenda, stick to it. Take only as long as you need to come to a decision — if everyone agrees in the first 5 minutes, that’s 55 minutes they have to go do real work.
If you can demonstrate to others that you’re dedicated to respecting them, respecting their time, and making actionable decisions, they’ll naturally follow. If you let them run roughshod over you every chance they get, they’ll happily do that as well. The decision is yours to make, so do the right thing.
To be subjective, or to be objective, that is the question, and the best product managers already know the correct answer is “both.”
As product managers, we constantly face situations where the unknowns outnumber the knowns that we can rely on. It’s our job to drive out that uncertainty and ensure that both people and efforts align toward a common objective. Sometimes these discussions flow smoothly, as the goalposts that we set can be quickly and easily agreed upon – things like providing a quality user experience, solving valuable problems for our customers and our market, and introducing competitively differentiating capabilities are hardly controversial.
What does become controversial, however, is how we go about those things as a team, what exactly we should do, and who we should be building those products for. And when those discussions come up, it’s inevitable that everyone at the table will have different ideas about what those things are – and, unfortunately, the vast majority of those ideas will not be based on hard data. Hence why we, as Product Managers, need to make it our business to ensure that we’re bringing data to the table as we represent and advocate for our customers and our market in those conversations; to do so, we must provide stakeholders with the right mix of qualitative insight and quantitative data that will not only help win them over to our preferred course of action, but also minimize the risk of later changes of course.
Great product managers use both qualitative and quantitative data to make the right decisions.
There’s a very famous quote that’s used quite often when people are expressing their dislike of lawyers:
“First, kill all the lawyers.”
This, they posit, is something that good old Bill Shakespeare himself advocated for, after all – and what better way to stabilize our society than to dispose of the bottom-feeding trolls and sharks that feast on the noble, honest people of the world.
The trouble is, they’re entirely wrong about the quote, from beginning to end.