Dissolving the Politics of Product Ideas

How product managers can eliminate the risk of their own biases and relieve political tension throughout their organization.

Most people that work for a company have ideas for how the product should evolve. Product managers serve, in part, as a gateway for product changes. This requires filtering, crystalizing, and prioritizing the ideas that emerge from across the organization. Product managers are biased to act on suggestions that cohere with their own vision. But they are also conscious of company politics. While strong PMs will push back on flawed directions from any source, a request coming from (e.g.) a prominent executive is more likely to receive attention, regardless of its merits. A product manager is more likely to respond to an idea from a friend than from other coworkers.

Regardless of how a product manager selects ideas to move on, it is subject to bias. A PM’s selection bias, and how it is perceived, can be detrimental to an organization. While PMs, in theory, have the best informed perspective on how a product should evolve, they inevitably have blind spots. Breakthrough ideas can be filtered out, resulting in tragic missed opportunities. And when the rest of the company watches seemingly “bad” ideas get prioritized from executives or from friends of the PM, faith in leadership is eroded. The company at large wants the best ideas to be acted on, not political maneuvers or popularity contests.

PMs should strive to eliminate the risk of their own biases. They should appreciate that their own intuitions for the product can be wrong. While an ability to conceive and identify the most promising product ideas is invaluable, a product manager must also create an environment in which the merits of ideas can be objectively measured and understood by all. This requires creating clear success criteria for product changes, investing in comprehensive analytics, and consistently looping back to all previous launches to compare their actual impact (or lack there of) to the expected impact. When a scientific framework is achieved, political dynamics may still taint which ideas are tested, but at least folks will feel confident that only winning ideas will persist in the product. The CEO’s suggestion will be killed if it fails and the intern’s invention will be shipped if it proves successful. The process of analyzing the success or failure of all launches will bring the company together on a shared learning path.

While installing a rigorous process for testing product ideas is vital for a healthy product organization, the ultimate political stress reliever is to create an abundance of which ideas can be tested. Companies should invest relentlessly in increasing their experiment throughput. Tools like Optimizely are designed explicitly for this purpose. Content management systems can be deployed to make it easy for non-technical team members to try content, graphical, and layout variations without pushing new code. I anticipate we will see an increasing number of artificial intelligence systems, like The Grid, where product changes are conceived, not by humans, but by machines, exploding the realm of possibility.

PMs should create environments with objective measures, maximum serendipity, and minimum subjectivity. In fact, the PM doesn’t even need to know why a product change succeeds. The PM just needs success.