Product Managers get to enjoy the fun and challenge of dealing with wide, diverse groups of people — such as engineering, QA, design, data science, marketing and sales. How do you motivate so many teams over whom you have no authority? And how do you handle any disagreements that come along the way?
Here are my go-to, tried and tested approaches that I’ve found useful over the years.
Motivating Your Team
1. Communicate the vision.
When I started at Earnest, I quickly realized that our engineers were exactly what you’d hope for — skilled, smart, and hard working. Yet a month in, we hadn’t made as much progress in some areas as I’d hoped for. I had clearly done a poor job in aligning the team. I realized a few things are necessary to create alignment:
Create a shared vision: It’s important that every team-member understand what the priorities of the company are, and how their work ties into it. Team-wide presentations that talk about the company goal and the importance of each project, and one-on-one conversations with individual members are both important.
Leverage stakeholders: Your stakeholders are your ally here. For example, in the early days of the Earnest growth squad, I’d request Marketing (the team that owned the growth numbers here) and even the CEO, to come talk to the team about the importance of our growth projects.
Do it again: Once isn’t enough. In fact, you’ll likely have to reinforce the message two to three times in different contexts before the vision can really sink in.
2. Create accountability and urgency.
Once you have your team bought in to the priorities, then the next step is to get folks working efficiently. Milestones and delivery dates are your friend here.
Don’t have an external deadline? Create an internal one — vacations, executive presentations, other project kickoffs can all serve as internal targets.
You cannot expect your team to achieve the deadline if they are not bought into it. Make sure the relevant teams (eg. engineering or design) have a voice in setting it . For example, ask the team when they can have a feature done by. Then, go ahead and schedule an executive demo a few weeks after (be sure to include padding in case the project slips!). And make sure to communicate these back to the team!
3. Enable ownership.
Projects move much smoother when each team member takes ownership over their area. If you’ve done a good job aligning the team around the vision, then this should come naturally.
Incorporate feedback early: One of the best ways of creating inclusiveness and ownership is to make the team-members feel part of the prioritization process. Work with key stakeholders — eg. your engineering and design leads when roadmapping upcoming work.
Empower: To create true ownership, you must allow for true ownership. This can mean allowing the designer to make the final call around UI choices, and engineering to make the call on architectural decisions. Push back if you disagree, but know how to influence your way to alignment instead of overruling. At every point, owners of respective areas should realize that they have final authority, but you’d like them to consider the impact of XYZ before making a call.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts around aligning team-members and stakeholders, you’ll reach a point of disagreement.
Here are eight ways I’ve found effective in breaking an impasse.
1. Choose your audience.
If you see a disagreement forming in a larger meeting, say you’ll take the discussion “offline”, and meet with folks individually.
If the disagreement is between you and others, meet with each of those people individually — one on one discussions allow you to read the other person more effectively. If the disagreement, however, is between two other people (your designer wants to go one way, but your engineer wants to go another way), then get both sides in a room to talk it out — no point in your acting as the messenger and getting shot at from both sides.
2. Listen and restate.
This one is a must. Your first job is to listen carefully and understand the thought process of the other person (don’t vocally disagree just yet, despite how hard that might be!).
Even if both parties recognize there’s a disagreement, your job here is simply to make sure the other person feels heard. Restate what they’ve said back to them to really drive this home.
3. Disagree by asking questions.
After you’ve heard the other person out, start asking critical questions. Be thoughtful here— the goal here is not just to understand the other person better, but to ask questions that get the other person to realize assumptions and/or fallacies in their thought process.
4. Understand the crux: is the disagreement over the problem or the solution?
If you and your engineer disagree on what problem you should be solving, then you need to take a step back and talk about the vision and objective, not debate over what feature to build. On the other hand, if the disagreement is over the solution, then it’s time to share the research and data that got you to your decision.
5. Incorporate feedback.
The only way to be influential is to be open to influence. Leave aside the pride — both sides want what they believe to be best for the company. Hence, as you come across good feedback, work with the other person to incorporate them into the design/roadmap/decisions.
6. Bucket projects into phases when communicating.
Bucketing projects into larger phases when communicating the roadmap can make it much clearer to see how every individual’s work ties into the broader goal.
In my first set of projects as a Yammer PM, we started by focusing on projects that improve engagement, but the engineering team really wanted to work on the on-boarding flow instead. I quickly started talking about the projects in phases — the first phase was “foundational” to fix the little issues and lay the ground work for the next phases, the second phase was “core product” to improve retention and engagement of users that do start using Yammer, and the third phase was the “on-boarding” with the idea that we would then be on-boarding people to a much better experience.
7. Make sure you keep moving.
If you have tried all the above but feel like you’ve reached an impasse, try asking the other person if they have a better idea in terms of solving the user problem you’re tackling. If not, then make a case to keep moving with the understanding that you’ll adjust your path as you learn more. If they do have other ideas, feel free to add them to the backlog.
Sometimes, despite having tried your hardest, you may need to escalate an issue. Your manager is your friend here — bring her up to speed on your discussions so far and ask for her advice on how to handle the situation. If you’ve already tried what she suggests, ask her to sit in on one of the meetings or to have a conversation with the other party.
Each of these skills is like a tool in a Swiss army knife — keep them in your back pocket, and use each one based on the situation. If you have other approaches to motivating your team or managing disagreements that you’ve found helpful, leave them in the comments section below!
Ankit is a Product Manager at Earnest. Prior to Earnest, he was a PM at Yammer. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School, and Electrical & Computer Engineering and Economics degrees from Duke University.
Earnest is a San Francisco-based technology company building a modern bank for the next generation. Our Product Management team is a nascent group of technical, entrepreneurial, jacks and jills of all trades, and we are actively hiring!