8 ways to avoid dictatorships and getting your team involved

Even the greatest minds need to sanity check their ideas (and themselves) every now and then. Even more so, if you count yourself responsible for the vision and strategy of a product team. In this 5-minute read, I want to pin down a couple of exercises, which aim to help Leads avoid getting caught up in a self-referential spiral of manic feature ideas that make sense to no one other than themselves.

The most neutral image of a dictator I could find on the internet.

All hail the Product Lead

Dictatorships are great — as long as you are the dictator. But they usually suck for everyone else. And even though dictators often die a peaceful death in old age (so unfair!), their legacy is not known for groundbreaking innovations to help the world become a better place. Quite the opposite really.

The good news is, that avoiding a dictatorship is really easy. All you have to do is listen to the people around you and involve them in your decisions. By engaging them in your decision-making process, you not only make them partly responsible for the final outcome, more importantly, you clearly show that you take them seriously. And did you know that being taken seriously is one of the top five drivers for a high employee retention? Who would have thought?!

Everybody deserves to be taken seriously!

Unfortunately, there is not one silver bullet that you can always rely on. This whole thing is about human interaction. And chances are, that your team members differ very much from one another in how they think and communicate. This is why it is important to create a mix of feedback opportunities so that everybody in your team gets a chance to express their respective ideas and opinions.

Some like to talk in front of others, some prefer to speak privately in a 1:1 meeting. Others may want to discuss with their respective peers, or in a smaller setting with only 2–3 people involved. To be clear: This is not about you giving feedback to your team or presenting your ideas with nicely designed powerpoint slides. This is them telling you what they think is the right thing to do.

The following 8 approaches can be rotated and applied as needed:

1. Backlog Evaluations

You probably have more ideas, than you are able to execute. This is why setting priorities is one of the key activities of any Product Leader out there (check out my article on What to work on next?’ here on Medium).

A great way to get your team involved is giving them a strong voice in evaluating your current idea and feature backlog. If you don’t have one: I created a free Backlog Cheat Sheet for you with Google Spreadsheets.

To get your team involved, follow these simple steps:

a) Clean up your backlog and remove any outdated and/or completely unrealistic ideas (you don’t want your team to vote on ideas that feel irrelevant…it’s not a good feeling).

b) Prepare cards with values from 0 to 10 (like these ones here).

c) Get your team in a room (maximum one hour) and go through your backlog. Make them vote on each idea three times (retention, monetization, marketability) by using the cards from 0 to 10, as mentioned above.

d) If you are more than 5–7 people, have one person summarize the results in a separate table to keep the meeting speedy and effective.

e) Voilá! Now you have a clear idea of what your team thinks about your backlog.

2. Wonder of Newcomers

Your team can benefit from the perspective of newcomers. Invite new members of your team to ask as many questions as possible as to why things are done the way they are. If they ask “Why are you doing this?” or “Why are you doing this that way and not this other way?” then these question can lead to great reflections on whether the implemented processes and methods actually make sense or how they can be improved.

Use team meetings to turn the ‘Wonder of Newcomers’ into a structured approach. Alternatively, ask your newcomers to write a log-book about their first 3–6 weeks in your team.

Note: It is important, to take advantage of newcomers as quickly as possible. People are really good at adapting to their environment. So you best not wait three months for the ‘Wonder of Newcomers’ or it may already be too late.

3. Sharing in small groups

Instead of doing brainstorming sessions in a larger group setting, why not turn this into a small group exercise? How? Easy. Divide larger groups into smaller groups of 2–3 people. Instead of sharing their ideas with the whole team (which can sometimes easily be 20–30 people), ask them to share their thoughts only with that small group.

Why is this a good exercise? The smaller the group, the lower chance there is of group conformity.

What is group conformity? Check out the following video or read the Wikipedia about the “Asch Conformity Experiments” here:

This may be from the 1950s, but it I think it is more relevant than ever.

4. Anonymous Sharing

Especially when times get rough, you will want to get a diverse perspective on how things are. An easy way to do this is anonymous sharing. You can use pen and paper or an anonymous online sharing tool.

Unfortunately, Google shut down their Google Moderator tool, but there are some alternatives such as Loomio and Polls Everywhere.

5. Team Opposite

Create two teams: 1) ‘Team Opinion’ and 2) ‘Team Opposite’. ‘Team Opposite’ is given the task of criticising and/or defeating a ‘Team Opinions’ plan by constructing a strong case against a proposed plan or idea.

Encourage ‘Team Opposite’ to use facts, flip perspectives and reframe data to help ‘Team Opinion’ see the challenges they are addressing in a new perspective.

6. The Shadow Board

Create a diverse ‘Shadow Board’ that is given the task of evaluating the same data and facts that a primary team is given in an important decision-making process.

The ‘Shadow Board’ gives their input to the primary team that compares this to their own perspectives to see potential differences, and to leverage diversity to reduce bias and homogeneity in the discussion and decision.

Make sure to compose the team of people with different demographic characteristics and reduce homogeneity in the frame of reference. Research shows that teams with a homogeneity rate of maximum 70% (i.e. gender, nationality, education, cultural background,…) perform better than more homogenous teams.

7. Prime Critical Thinking

Priming means triggering specific associations in the unconscious mind to affect choice and behavior. By saying and writing that a task requires ‘critical thinking’ (the words are the priming) group members will be more likely to disclose what they know and what they think, to make sure that the group arrives at the right conclusion. Confrontations are of course possible, but they tend to be constructive. As with the Shadow Board, make sure that the team has a mixed background.

Interestingly, if you tell your team to “get along” this usually reduces the chance that team members challenge each other’s perspectives. You wouldn’t want it in a creative environment.

8. Devil’s Advocate

Not all devils are bad! (by Andrew Roberts)

Assign the role of the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ to two people in the group, who deliberately advocate a position that is contrary to the views and perspectives of the rest of the group. This doesn’t mean that they should constantly pick a fight, but they should ask explorative questions which create a constructive conflict in the group.

Group members should take a turn in having that role. Also, consider calling it something else than ‘Devil’s Advocate’ if that makes better sense for your specific setup e.g. the ‘Customer’s Advocate’.

You can also invite team members from other teams in your company to play the ‘Devil’s Advocate’. It can be easier for externals to criticise and that may result in less hard feelings (in case this is an issue in your team).

Trial & Error

Applying one of these approaches isn’t easy. In fact, it can be really hard. Be open and honest with your team about trying things out. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t.

Thanks for reading!

If you want to dig deeper into this topic, I recommend:

Inclusion Nudges Guidebook: Practical Techniques for Changing Behaviour, Culture & Systems to Mitigate Unconscious Bias and Create Inclusive Organisations by Tinna C. Nielsen &‎ Lisa Kepinski

I hope this was useful to you. Got anything to add? Hit me up on Twitter at @phlppstlzr or directly here on Medium.