A Product Manager’s guide to managing upwards #2

The Executive Update

It’s a familiar scene. Sometimes monthly but often weekly, Product Managers and functional heads gather in one place. Some will join via lo-quality conference call which means they will constantly struggle to hear and will frequently be asked to ‘go on mute’ to conceal background noise. Ask them a pre-emptive question and there will be several seconds of silence while they fumble with their iPhone.

According to strict rules of hierarchy, the meeting will start only when the most senior person arrives, moving downwards from the CEO. One by one, each functional head and Product Manager will endeavour to give a thorough and objective appraisal of their progress. Despite the candid tones and serious faces, this is not a forum for ‘reporting’ on much at all, it’s a highly politicised gladiatorial arena where any sign of weakness (or honesty) will be punished.

In the past, we’ve examined how Product Management at a Grown Digital company isn’t like Lean Startup. Aspiring Product Managers enter the field with a passion for beautiful UI, elegant products and for delighting users. But for those in Grown Digital companies — for example media, telcos or utilities — these activities constitute a small part of their day.

Corporations and enterprises are complex, political places that are (very) rarely aligned around clear goals. Furthermore, the success of the company is not directly related to the career progress of employees. What constitutes success is fuzzy at best. Politics and personal agendas are rife. For Product Managers to succeed, they must be comfortable playing in this environment and swimming with sharks.

The ability to communicate the right message to the right audience is as valuable in the workplace as any technical craft. In fact, as Jason Shen recently observed:

“Until you ship, communication is the deliverable.”

Very true. In the second part of this guide to managing upwards, we will look at the Executive Update, a feature of most Product Managers’ calendars. Like anyone entering a new environment, a Product Manager needs to understand the rules of communication if they are to be taken seriously.

Rule #1: Beware of Shiny Objects

Real customer insights aren’t delivered on a weekly basis. Experiments take time as does game changing feature development. But regular reporting schedules puts pressure on Product Managers to provide both good news and ‘new’ news at a pace that is unrealistic. Like a tabloid editor, one feels the persistent need to deliver a front-page ‘splash’. In other words, Executive Updates create perfect conditions for Shiny Object Syndrome.

Shiny Object Syndrome is the natural response to a culture of weekly updates and realtime reporting. To use a British maxim, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. Last week’s Shiny Object just isn’t that shiny this week. So each week a new Shiny Object is born. A new feature. A new product. A new idea for something awesome.

Shiny Object Syndrome is institutional ADHD, an obstacle to shipping and the nemesis of Product Managers. It’s the reason most digital products overrun or deliver nothing at all.

In order to defuse it, you should always maintain a focus on long-term outcomes. Define the metrics that matter for your product, the timeframes (which should be long) and frame weekly events in the light of these macro-goals. Don’t let short-term events become the story, play a long game.

Rule #2: They can’t handle the truth!

Executive Updates are inherently flawed. They are flawed because the last place anyone is likely to share career-limiting, reputation destroying news (also known as ‘the truth’) is in a crowded room surrounded by peers and senior management. Not surprisingly, all products are persistently ‘green’ (as opposed to amber or, God forbid, red), the numbers ‘remain encouraging’ and progress is stellar.

Like Shiny Object Syndrome, the Executive Update is also a natural breeding ground for The Big Lie. The Big Lie occurs when no party benefits from exposing the truth, at least in the short-term, so all collude to conceal it. Think drugs in sport.

Thanks to these conditions, the Big Lie remains endemic within large organisations despite an endless series of high-profile cases where it nearly brings down the CEO (most recently, GM’s Mary Barra) or did bring down the whole company (think Arthur Andersen or Barings Bank).

Product Managers need to understand that the Executive Update is not the forum for raw honesty or major announcements of any kind. The Big Lie occurs for a reason. Instead they should leverage ‘the meeting before the meeting’. ‘TMBTM’ means ensuring that all ‘new’ news, especially the bad kind, is communicated to those that matter in a private setting well in advance of any public one.

Like the markets, Executives hate surprises. I once casually announced during an Executive Update that a major product release was likely to push out by ‘at least a month.’ After the meeting, my boss (the CIO) tore me a new one in front of the whole team. The product actually launched 12 months later. But that wasn’t the point. I had broken the ‘no surprises’ rule so deserved to be punished.

Rule #3: Stay ahead of the story

We’ve all endured releases that were woefully delayed or went disastrously wrong. I once presided over an update that was so buggy it all but caused customers’ iPads to explode in their hands. During these moments, the Lizard Brain tells us to lay low. In fact, this is when your communication skills need to go into overdrive.

When it comes to communicating in a crisis, Richard Branson is the Zen Master. When one of his rockets (or his trains) crashes, he is invariably the first person you hear. He has always been candid about how to respond in these circumstances. If news is bad then always be leading the discussion, never be reacting to it. Get ahead of the story and frame it in your own terms. Daily, or twice daily updates. What’s new, what you’ve learned, what actions you plan to take.

Executives are paranoid that bad news is kept from them and constantly worry about what they don’t know. By over-communicating in times of crisis, you can offset these fears and manage expectations accordingly.

Rule #4: Only the paranoid survive

Always remain on your guard during Executive Updates and beware of ambushes. These can and do happen so know the signs. Leading indicators include someone asking you a question to which you know they know the answer. This is a trap.

If you do get ambushed, don’t let your composure slip. Courtesy is disarming and is your best defence. Whatever anyone says, always thank them sincerely for their comments and let them know you will be acting on it. Rich Mironov defines this as the fine art of ‘Humbly Accepting Input‘ — an essential skill for any Product Manager.

Life is a game of unspoken rules and the Executive Update is no exception. It’s commonly observed that you must first understand the rules in order to break them. If you learn the rules like a pro, you can break them like an artist, not a novice.

This post was originally published on pivot.uk.com.

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Providing clarity around the finer details of product management.

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