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The art of conflict resolution: How rap beef made me a better product manager

One of the symptoms of founding a startup is you have to wear many hats. It wasn’t until recently that I realised that one of the hats worn by my co-founders and I was of Product Management — shipping products people loved.

Both with Mixtape Madness and Brothers With No Game, we had built a culture, which unknowingly to us is described as ‘Agile’.

We had no choice but to be lean and flexible — with limited finances, day jobs, different world views and experiences, yet at the core we were driven by the purpose of better serving an underserved audience (us).

Here is how the problem and solution was better articulated in our early 20s:

“Fam*, Imagine man^ had a website with all the mixtapes and demos from back in the day to now. These sendspace links are dead after a few weeks.”

This latter turned into no.1 UK urban music streaming platform with 100,000 registered users in 18 months.

“We should put all these conversations on a blog, there is nothing out there for man dem**.”

This latter turned into an award winning tv production company with global licensing deals.

One of the things I have learned in the process of co-founding, is how necessary conflict and diversity of thought was in building a productive company culture. Managed well, teams can achieve amazing results. Managed badly? it can lead to stagnant debates of ‘who knows best’.

Conflict Management

Growing up in North London, I saw how quickly things can escalate from a little ‘banter’ into decade long beefs. So my approach before co-founding, was: ‘Peace > Being Right’ — which I am sure kept me out of a lot of trouble.

But I have come to learn that this approach can also create conformity and there is no real growth or innovation here.

So how did a rap beef help me become a better at managing conflict to get things done?

Biggie vs Pac, then Nas vs Jay-Z

Image result for 2pac biggie jay z nas mount rushmore
Hip hop’s Mount Rushmore — taken from Brad Callas

There was one area of my life where the concept being passive, did not apply. It was the age long debate over who is the better rapper? 2pac or Biggie, JayZ or Nas?For years, I would argue night and day as to which rapper was better.

I have lifelong friends, who we’ll probably never agree on whether Ether was better than Takeover, or Life After Death (LAD) vs All Eyez on Me (AEOM).

Hip hop beefs create camps — where anyone who switches sides is seen to be committing cultural blasphemy.

I remember My school friend Marce and I would battle rap Tupac & Biggie lyrics to an audience of fellow students for them to decide who was the better rapper. So you could imagine the uproar from my friends, when I stated that after careful consideration I now preferred LAD over AEOM, after years of being team Tupac.

Even worse was in 2002 going against the hiphop tide, and admitting that Jay-Z had the better diss record. So what created this shift?

Around the same time Marce, came over to my house and walked me through track by track, lyric by lyric on Biggie’s Life After Death, and I did the same with AEOM. Although I was not convinced for another 5 years — the seed was planted that my worldview on Biggie and LAD was tainted.

Tip 1: One to One dialogue, away from the crowd

Unbeknown to us, being away from the crowd created a safe space for us to hear the other person’s view — without the ego of being right to an audience. As Product Managers we are sometimes faced with job of managing the conflicting goals between engineers, designers and other business stakeholder.These can manifest in the form of a heated meeting /email exchanges.

What I found to be useful in these situations are one to one dialogue away from a crowd. Also avoid individuals going around campaigning to other members of the team to support their view. It is better to schedule time between the two individuals who disagree in the near future — with the objective of how can we move forward.

I have had a number of these conversations with my co-founders and every time we would end up agreeing to disagree, whilst accepting that action had to be taken to move the business forward.

It is of greater importance to move from the idea stage as quickly as possible — this requires action. Most things are reversible and provide the data to be better next time.

Image for post
The Lean Startup Loop by Eric Reis

After going through this process, I had come to the realisation that peace was not the necessary bi-product of conflict — it was in fact action.

Tip 2: Avoid hierarchy of ‘track record’

When it came to Jay-Z and Nas, my argument used to be ‘If you have not listened both artists full discography then your opinion on who is better is invalid.’ This made logical sense, it is the same thinking of the ‘expert’ knows best! Let me explain to you why this is problematic.

Its 2013, at Mixtape Madness we had just launched our new website and successfully shipped features which not only improved user and artist experience, but increased our visibility and organic search traffic.

Goal: Improve user discovery and downloading journey

  1. Search driven by meta data tags of all of our content
  2. FB Login API for quick sign up
  3. Improve the forgotten password journey

Goal: Improve artist uploading journey

  1. Create a guided self service ‘Upload your mixtape’ function — with Paypal payment option
Image for post
Home page features solving the problems we identified with users
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Improved discoveribility to create product stickiness

‘Build it and they will come’ fallacy

Coming off of this high, we then had to solve the problem of how can we increase the value proposition of being more than just another website where artists uploaded their mixtape.

I pushed hard that we provided artists the rich data that we were generating, into an analytics dashboard — which they could use to better inform their careers and enable them to walk into labels with insights about their audience.

They could segment the data by region for tour planning, most listened songs to find themes for their next project, keywords to improve their content discovery on Google etc.

Image for post
Dashboard 1.0 built using Piwik

The team were divided on this feature, and I used my background in data and the emergence of big data to convince the team into what proved to be a very expensive project.

It was launched, and got very little traction from the artists — because of one fundamental reason. We were building a tech company and therefore were seeing where the industry was going, but lost sight of the customer need.

What I later learned was that the founders who were actively speaking to artists developed the ‘tacit knowledge’ that all the artists cared about was the ‘buzz’ of having thousands of downloads and being top of the download chart.

Although history has proved that we were right in terms of the industry being more data driven, it was too early and costly to implement back in 2013. Spotify and YouTube Music now provide this level of insights to artists from the urban scene.

The mistake here is I didn’t include the customer voice of what they needed and was driven by the assumption of ‘knowing what I know’. Some of my co-founder had this insight, but looking back they were not given the room to articulate this ‘gut feeling’.

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Known & Unknow Matrix

When we champion experts in our organisations, what we are effectively doing is:

  1. Ignoring the tacit knowledge from other members of the team
  2. Avoiding to scope the ‘experts’ circle of competence to identify the gaps — which someone else can fill
  3. Preventing new discovery, through experimentation outside everyone’s knowledge
  4. Fuelling the assumptions that the expert knows all that there is to know about everything

In the context of JayZ vs Nas, it doesn’t matter the amount of facts I bring to the table — the general hip hop consensus is that Ether was better than Takeover. Therefore like in any marketplace the collective consumer’s opinion rules over the expert opinion.

These are some of the stories and tools that I now I take with me to better manage conflict as a product manager and in life.

What tools and approaches do you use to overcome conflict at work?

Translation:

  • *Fam: A close friend, who you consider to be family.
  • ^ Man: A person in the story used — a term used to enable the listener to put themselves in the shoes of the “man”.
  • **Man Dem: A collective of boys or men

PLUG:

I have caught the side hustle bug again and working my homies — Sam Wood & Andy Ayim on solving problems in the ecommerce space.

Written by

product manager & growth specialist | co-creator @TheBWNG founding member @MixtapeMadness

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