Dealing with Disagreements as a Product Manager
As a Product Manager, the next argument always seems to be round the corner. It could be an argument about timelines given by engineering, sales questioning why a particular feature is not being prioritized, design asking why the feature scope is always getting trimmed or your boss asking you to prioritize a feature which you are not convinced about. Moving beyond these day-day disagreements, you will also have disagreements about strategy, team structure, culture etc.
So, how do you keep your head together amidst all this chaos? And resolve these tricky situations without burning the bridges.
In the subsequent paragraphs, I will take you through some of the strategies that have helped me.
1. Build Trust
In order to be able to resolve disagreements better, individual’s must trust each other’s intentions.
As a product manager, you will be working with a very diverse set of stakeholders. Each of whom will have different mindsets and different goals. So, the most important strategy is to Start working on building trust with the entire team from Day 1. This will help you build the leverage needed to be able to disagree with them. When people trust you, they are more likely to listen to your concerns and not steamroll over you.
Recommended steps to build trust:
- Be a good listener: Learn to patiently listen to people without interrupting or passing judgement before they are done.
- Praise people generously whenever things get done as per expectations.
- Avoid criticizing in public. Use 1:1 meetings to convey your displeasure as far as possible.
- Work on solving process related problems in the organization — This will definitely help convince everyone that you have everyone’s best interests at heart.
2. Give People Context
You have been part of planning meetings, strategy discussions and customer interviews. So, it’s natural that you have a lot more context than anyone else in the team.
Whenever you make a decision or share an action plan, its natural that engineers, designers and marketeers will have a lot of questions on it. Instead of fretting about uncomfortable questions. embrace them. These will help the entire organization make better decisions.
Always give clear context to your team on why something is important, why meeting a deadline is crucial etc.
Recommended steps to give people context:
- Engineers, Designers and Marketeers should be kept looped whenever the product team is building out the roadmap or prioritising items for a particular quarter.
- Regularly share feature usage data with your entire team.
- Share qualitative insights such as quotes from customer interviews, customer feedback etc with your team. This will help the team understand what’s working and what’s not.
3. Acknowledge and Seek to Understand
The most valuable tool in your conflict management arsenal will be your ability to remain calm.
During heated discussions, you might be tempted to “retort” back or put the other person back in their place. This attitude will only make matters worse.
Its important to understand where the other person is coming from.
Recommended steps to acknowledge and understand:
- When the other person complains or points out a flaw, slowly repeat out aloud what they said. This shows the other person that you have acknowledged what they are saying.
- If you can’t immediately resolve the concerns, then make a note of them. Share the concern in your “post-meeting notes” and outline the action items that will help you address those concerns.
- Sometimes you must move forward with a decision, even if the other person expresses valid concerns. In such a situation, time constraints might not allow you to spend more time researching. In such cases, tell the other person that this decision will be treated as an experiment. If it does not work, you will be more than happy to roll it back.
Nobody should ever get the impression that things are happening in a certain way because “you want it that way”. The impression that should go out is that “you are doing what’s best for the business and the customers”.
4. Focus on Long Term Fixes
Lot of times, you will find yourself arguing over the same things again and again. This usually indicates that there is a process gap or lack of clarity on your overarching goals as a team. For example, if you are always identifying production bugs post release, then it indicates that you have to improve the testing process (rather than just blaming the QA team for being careless).
In such cases, go back to the drawing board and identify the root cause of the issue. Then, work towards building better systems and processes to avoid the same thing from happening again in the future.
When you dig deeper, you will find the solution is something entirely different from what you were assuming it be in the first place.
5. Yield When you Have to
Whenever someone points out flaws in your thinking, its natural to get defensive. Even if we are unable to justify our stand, we find it hard to accept that we might be completely wrong.
The key lesson here is to not let the argument turn into an ego battle.
- When you want to achieve buy-in on a major decision, highlight the potential risks that the decision entails. Ask others to explicitly state why might the idea fail. This helps you become more open to finding the shortcomings in your ideas.
- Build a culture of retrospectives — If something didn’t work out, don’t be shy to call it out. Also, discuss with others on what the team could do better next time around.
- Record the reasons for major strategy and planning decisions in writing. This helps prevent people from changing their stance at the drop of a hat.
Working with humans is an incredibly complex and challenging task. More so, when you have no authority and only “influence” over them.
Disagreements will thus be the order of the day as a product manager.
However, if you learn to take them in your stride, you will find the job incredibly more fulfilling. Handling them the right away will help you grow professionally as well as personally.