It’s a common truth that’s discussed in Product Management circles that we generally do not lead through direction, from a position of direct power or authority; but rather through influence, indirectly and by convincing others to go in the direction we want or desire. But what does this really mean, and how can we best explain the concept to people who are just starting out on their Product Management careers with some feeling that they’ll be the “CEO of the Product”, delivering dictates and orders and just sitting back and watching things happen? How can we help these poor souls to adjust to the reality of the modern Product Management world, which is that you have zero ability to force your perspectives, and must rely on others to take your plans and buy in to bring them to fruition?
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, I’m a firm believer in the theory of the five “Whys” — that is, whenever you’re engaged in a conversation about your product with a customer, and you start to dig down into the details about a new feature request or just trying to understand how they’re using their product, you’re not done with your side of the conversation until you’ve asked that person “Why?” at least five times. The reason for this is that what you’re always really trying to understand is not what they’re directly telling you — it’s not the surface need that they’re expressing to you — rather, you’re interested in what they’re not telling you, in the underlying motivations and the unspoken needs that they have. These are the things that you can innovate on; these are the things your competitors are not taking the time to hear; these are the opportunities to separate yourself from the pack and wow your customers with your insight and ability to deliver not what they want but what they need — even if they don’t know it.
That is the power of “Why”…and here are five reasons why it’s the most powerful question in the world…
One of the aspects of Product Management that can be really hard for people to internalize and adjust to is just how thankless the job can be at times. When things are going badly, the Product Manager is almost always the first person to shoulder the blame — your requirements weren’t clear, the strategy wasn’t well-articulated, the documentation wasn’t sufficient, you didn’t provide marketing or sales with the proper positioning…stop me if you’ve heard these before. And, when things are going really well, your role winds up falling into the background — nobody notices the facilitating and maneuvering, planning and plotting that backlog, nailing the estimates and schedule.
But it’s not just the fact that there’s no party thrown in your honor, nor that you’re the first one pilloried during the management meeting following a failed release. It’s the fact that all of this negative attention can seep into into our own self-image, and can turn slowly and insidiously into something known as “imposter syndrome”.
One of the common challenges that Product Managers have in advocating for more agile product definition and development practices is a rather ironic one — those in power and authority often feel that iteration “doesn’t work” because they feel that once something is “done” it won’t ever be revisited. The irony here is that it’s the very people with the direct authority to make sure that things are revisited and revised who make this objection. And it comes from a very true place — in traditional product approaches, you built something and then moved on. And in a randomized environment without a coherent strategy, it’s often the case that iterations do in fact never get revisited.
This, however, is not a failure of the process but rather of the surrounding business culture and the people who hold positions of power, authority, and influence. Overcoming this objection is one of the major achievements that a Product Manager can have in moving from traditional, waterfall-oriented product approaches and toward a customer-centric, agile approach.
In prior articles, I discussed how one could apply the principles of Newton’s First and Second Laws of motion to their duties as a Product Manager. Here, we close the series by examining Newton’s Third Law — that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The fact is, this law applies as much to social interactions and leading through influence as it does to interactions in the physical world.
The Third Law basically states that when one thing exerts force on another, the object of that force exerts the same amount of force in return — when sitting in a chair, for example, our bodies exert downward force on the chair, and the chair exerts upward force on us, reaching a point of equilibrium that we call “sitting”. Similarly, when you are working with people and attempting to exert some level of influence to move a project forward, you are likely to encounter an equal and opposite exertion of force back upon you.
A common perception of Product Managers within organizations is that we’re somewhat of a “know-it-all” — which is not always the most productive position from which to do our jobs. Some of this perception is earned — simply a function of the broad base of knowledge, influence, and direction that we are so often assigned. Some of this perception is biased — because we often have to make decisions based on limited information, people who disagree with those decisions will blame what they perceive to be incompetence and over-reaching.
There are many things that we can use as Product Managers to fight these perceptions — but the single biggest such weapon in our arsenal here is knowing the things that we don’t know or that we’re not confidently competent at, and ensuring that we’re actively seeking to bolster those aspects of our jobs with the support and advice of people that we and the organization trust to provide good guidance.
There’s not a Product Manager alive who hasn’t seen the traditional project management pyramids or triangles — it’s a very common trope of the business, focusing on Time, Scope, and Resources as the “pivot points” for hitting deadlines, or the common line of “Good, Fast, or Cheap — pick two.”
The simple fact is, in nearly every organization, there is no pyramid or triangle. There is only Scope. [Read more…]