How to Get Buy In as a Product Manager and Say No to ‘Jeff Mode’

In fast-moving product companies, we prefer conversation and constant feedback over formal sign off steps. This makes sense for designers and engineers because it optimizes for speed, but unless you’re a very small team there’s a good chance not all the stakeholders on your team are present for these conversations.

That means that as a product manager you’ll usually need to schedule time to get buy in and alignment from an executive or sales colleagues. These kinds of set-piece meetings aren’t always easy.

As a PM, you know things are going off track in a feedback meeting when you have a dynamic that goes something like this:

  1. You schedule a meeting to present in-progress work

2. A colleague (often an executive) spends 5–10 minutes of the meeting giving a braindump of ideas adjacent to but not directly related to the work

3. Designers and engineers diligently take notes but aren’t sure how or when to incorporate the feedback

4. The meeting ends before the group has clarified the urgency / priority of the feedback

Point 2 is your first clue that something is wrong. Everyone has had that experience of a colleague who comes into the room and wants to talk uninterrupted about their ideas related to what’s being presented. It may or may not be someone senior to the presenter — hierarchy isn’t really the issue here, more a mismatch of expectations and process. It leads to defensive reactions from designers and engineers, and likely not very good outcomes.

If you’re really unlucky, this pattern has become personal, and colleagues are now assigning the behavior to an individual. For instance, one friend at a large fintech company described how their product team became accustomed to building in “Jeff time” (not his real name) to the first 10 minutes of every feedback session, so that Jeff could brain dump and the team would patiently wait until after he was done to talk about the focus of the meeting.

But though it’s tempting to blame Jeff and ascribe our process failures to his huge ego / enjoyment of his own voice, it’s worth reflecting on what might lead teammates to give this kind of input when what we’re trying to do is get their buy in and focus.

I recently had a bit of a wakeup call when I was in a design review and found myself behaving a bit like Jeff. I was talking at length around what was being presented, referring to aspirational features for the future and mentioning the shortcomings I saw in what was on display, but somehow not managing to say anything actionable like “We can/can’t ship this” or “We need to improve X before it’s ready for this release”.

Wow! How ironic to be your own Jeff. Luckily, the familiar folks around me weren’t slow to point out that I was going off track. Plus it was a helpful moment to reflect on why I had slipped into Jeff Mode. A couple of things nudged me in that direction:

1. I had updated our roadmap earlier that day and was really excited about the feature and its future direction. I was already thinking about v2, v3+. As a result I was more interested in the future of the feature than the present, so much so that I forgot to focus on what needed shipping.

2. I had not been closely connected with development for 1–2 weeks, so I was not part of the constant conversation that had led to the feature to evolve and change up to this point.

3. There were aspects of the design that I didn’t like but, due to 2, didn’t feel totally comfortable critiquing as the project seemed ‘too far along’. Red flag.

Reflecting on this helped me to understand why anyone can get into Jeff Mode given the right conditions — and how as product teams, we can avoid that outcome. Here are three suggestions.

1. Seek feedback to bridge the signoff steps.

If the product team is having constant conversation but we only ask for feedback from other stakeholders every couple of weeks, cross-team feedback is more likely to lack focus and context. With fewer formal ‘sign off’ steps, especially in smaller companies, product folks need to proactively seek out input from others, not just wait for a feedback meeting.

2. Anchor your teammates.

Teammates who are more focused on sales and strategy are very likely to look beyond what’s in front of them and think about the future. Start the meeting by giving them clear guidance on what the product team needs today.

Here are some common ways that you can frame what the product team needs:

  • We want to know if there are there any showstoppers here to prevent us shipping
  • We want to know if you understand the constraints of this iteration and want to confirm that our plan for the next 1–2 iterations matches up to our business needs
  • We want to check our understanding of user needs against any signals you’re getting from (potential) customers
  • We want to know if your medium to long-range vision for the product has evolved at all since we last checked in

3. Create space for your teammates’ ideas.

If you have time, try giving your teammates space at the end of the meeting to share ideas for future iterations. If not, consider scheduling some informal time to chat things over. However you collect feedback, the most important thing is that you record what they say, so they feel heard, and you make how you’re handling those comments transparent. This could be as simple as sharing notes from the meeting.

A few things to look out for in these kinds of ideas sessions:

  • Problem statements or pain points. Whenever possible (with data), drill down into the problem’s key stakeholder, frequency, and severity.
  • Potential users or user types who could help you understand the problem better.
  • Dates (e.g. a client meeting, conference or event) that could be a validation opportunity or deadline.
  • Existing products / competitors whom you could research.

There’s a good chance the ideas you collect are pretty freeform and don’t immediately fit into the roadmap. That’s ok for now, just be sure go through your ideas pile periodically and draw out any that have been forgotten and are now relevant. And of course, whenever previously shared ideas do coalesce into something you consider prioritizing (even if they don’t make the cut), take the opportunity to show your colleagues how their ideas are being evaluated alongside other priorities so they can understand the process.

4. Probe teammates for criticism.

While the proverbial ‘poop sandwich’ structure is favored by a lot of people, these rhetorical niceties can often be time consuming and mean that too little time is given to the meat, so to speak. Create a safe space for criticism, making clear that it’s about the work, not the person, and that all teams are united in making something better. If you can see that an executive is tip-toeing around a critique but perhaps doesn’t have a solution in mind, prompt them to share — what about this feels wrong? What’s the reaction you’re concerned our users are going to have? What is the message we should be sharing but that you feel isn’t getting through?

Buy in is an exercise in trust and confidence building on both sides, and the more product teams can get comfortable asking for and getting direct feedback, the more honest the conversation can become. We shouldn’t tolerate Jeff Mode, but we should also create the conditions that make it a lot harder for anyone to slip into it.

Thoughts? Would love to hear your experiences.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.