Book Review: How to Lead in Product Management by Roman Pichler…

The book “How to Lead in Product Management: Practices to Align Stakeholders, Guide Development Teams, and Create Value Together” by Roman Pichler is a quick read which would resonate well with middle to senior product professionals better. The author relies on his past experiences and literature to press home his points. The chapters are organised fairly independently so one can read it backwards if one wants to!

The author starts the book by outlining key challenges for product leaders. He brings forth an important point that a stakeholder is anybody with an interest in your product!

Key challenges that product leaders face are

    • Lack of transactional powers unlike their engineering counterparts
    • Team can be large and heterogeneous with group dynamics in flux
    • Limited influence in choosing who you want to work with!
    • Dual role in terms of being able to guide as well as contribute to team goals
    • Leadership needs at vision, strategy and tactical level are varied

Thereafter author offers a few tactics to influence people and encourage change namely Behavior Change Stairway Model propagated by Voss

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Figure 1: Behavior Change Stairway Model by Voss (2016)

Author opines that empathy is probably the most important leadership quality and in order to do that that, he suggests the following (BTW as the author points out developing empathy is the first step in design thinking, an innovation process originally created by IDEO)

    • Cultivate a genuine caring attitude for the people you want to lead, whether you like them or not
    • Improve your expertise as becoming a competent, well-rounded product person requires a continued learning effort
    • Seek the right management support
    • Choose the right leadership style basis people and org context e.g. visionary, democratice, affiliative, delegative, coaching, directing or autocratic. Ultimately one should be flexible in leadership approach and balance the different leadership styles depending on the needs of the stakeholders and the situation at hand

Essentially effective leadership is centred on three components: leader, followers, and situation

After Introduction, the rest of the book is organised as the following: interactions among stakeholders, shared goals, conversations among teams, conflict and its dynamics, decision making / negotiations and self-leadership. This review is also structured along the same lines

A. Interactions

This chapter is focused on scrum master and her responsibilities although general principles could be applied to product managers as well

For effective interactions, gaining people’s trust is vital to guide and align people and to move forward together. Some tactics to build trust are 1. Coming from a place of curiosity and care 2. Listening with an open mind and 3. Being supportive

    • Organise teams around products since component teams tend to have more interdependencies than feature teams —teams that are organised around features—which makes it harder to quickly validate ideas and to offer new or significantly enhanced functionality
    • Form stable teams since teams with stable membership have healthier dynamics and perform better than those that constantly have to deal with the arrival of new members and the departure of veterans
    • Let the Team own the Solution by including the team members in product discovery and user experience work and allow them to directly observe and interact with users
      • Product discovery refers to the work that determines if and why a new product should be developed and how an existing product can become or stay successful
    • Give the Team Time to Experiment and Learn. PMs should engage in enough discovery and strategy work to see things coming and to make the right choices

Lead the Stakeholders by involving the right people. After identifying stakeholders, author refers to power-interest to suggest how to engage with individuals

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Figure 2: Power-Interest Grid Ackerman and Eden (2011)

He offers the following tactics to interact with these stakeholders

    • Subjects can make great allies who can help you secure understanding and buy-in for your product across the business. Keep them involved by aligning product roadmaps. Some examples for subjects are product folks from adjacent teams
    • Typical context setters are powerful execs. Regularly consult them to build and maintain a healthy relationship, but don’t allow the context setters to dictate decisions
    • Stakeholders with high interest and high power are called players . These individuals are important partners for PMs. Consequently, one should establish a trustful relationship with them. Attentively listen to what they have to say and empathise with them, but have the courage to decline their suggestions and requests if they are not helpful to create value for the users and business
    • Everyone else is part of the crowd. As these individuals are not particularly interested in the product and don’t have the power to influence product decisions, it’s usually sufficient to keep them informed

Build a stakeholder community. Instead of interacting with the players on a one-on-one basis, aim to build a stakeholder community whose members work together for an extended period of time and who learn to trust, respect, and support each other. In short, move from stakeholder management to stakeholder collaboration

B. Goals

This chapter introduces a set of product-centric, cascading goals as well as guidelines to help one create the right goals
A goal expresses an aim, something we want to achieve. Some goals are big and may never be fully realised, like a vision; others are SMART—specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, and timebound

A chain of goals for PMs typically look like this

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Figure 3: A Chain of Goals for PMs (Roman Pichler)

Product Vision: It describes the ultimate reason for creating a product and the positive change it should bring about e.g. healthy eating

    • As the vision is an inspirational and visionary goal, it cannot be measured. In fact, one might never fully realise the vision

User and Business Goals: These are strategic goals that are derived from the vision. Also one must make sure that they are specific and measurable. This allows PMs to select the right key performance indicators (KPIs) and understand if the product is meeting its goals

    • Pay particular attention to the vision, user, and business goals. If these goals are not understood and accepted, then getting people to follow product and sprint goals will be challenging

Sprint Goals: These are a step towards the next product goal, and it covers the next one to four weeks. It is a tactical, short-term goal

Objective is a goal that can be measured. One can therefore select metrics to determine progress towards the goal. If the goal is strategic in nature, like a user or business goal, then the metrics would be typically referred to as key performance indicators or KPIs

OKRs (objectives and key results) are the measures used to determine if an objective has been met

How to make goals great and effective?

    • Shared so that people feel responsible for reaching them
    • Neither pressure individuals to agree with you nor leave it up to others to decide the goals
    • Realistic – achievable and measurable. This does not apply for visionary goals
    • Alignment creating
    • Holding other people accountable for meeting agreed goals, and don’t let them getting away with ignoring goals they have agreed to

C. Conversations

This chapter helps reflecting on and improving listening and speaking habits so that one becomes even better at understanding and guiding people

  • Listen deeply. Effective listening not only helps you receive what is being said but also allows you to tune into the speaker’s emotions and empathise with the person

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Figure 4: Covey’s Listening Levels

PMs have to listen with the intent to understand, not to critique or convince

  • Listen inwardly. When listening, pay attention to feelings and thoughts. If you are getting distracted or overwhelmed by your reaction to what you are hearing, then pause the conversation
    • Give the other person full attention. Pay close but respectful attention to the other person’s body language and look out for inconsistencies, expressions that don’t match the words
    • Also prefer face-to-face meetings over email and telephone conversations, particularly for important conversations
    • The speaker’s choice of words, pitch, volume, and facial expressions, including eye movements, gestures, and other body language elements, often reveal her or his feelings
    • A great way to discover the needs behind people’s words is to ask why questions

Listen with patience. Learn to be comfortable with silence which is often necessary to encourage the other person to continue to talk and to share something that might be uncomfortable or difficult

How to handle difficult conversations?

    • Positive first. Before you say something critical or negative, first share a positive observation. This must be genuine and not flattery
    • Another way to help people receive difficult messages is flipping and framing
      • Name it: What is the problem?
      • Flip it: What is the positive opposite? Example: instead of saying you always come late to the product backlog meeting,” say, “It would be great if you could be on time for the meeting”
      • Frame it: What is the desired outcome of the positive opposite?

How to be kind in speech?

    • Keep your speech free from anger or other unwholesome emotions
    • Be grateful for the other person’s time and interest, even if you disagree with the individual
    • Apply kind speech not only to the people who are present but also to those who are not
    • Postpone continuing the conversation if you feel that no meaningful progress can be made right now, possibly due to the presence of strong, difficult emotions

D. Conflict

This chapter deals with some tactics to deal with conflict which is perfectly normal at work

Some common pitfalls with conflict

    • Win-lose. Treating conflict like a zero sum game gives rise to the following common but unhelpful conflict strategies a. Competitive confrontation b. Passive aggression c. conflict avoidance d. Passivity which is the opposite of competitive confrontation: You give up what you want and agree to the other person’s requests or demands, thereby trying to appease the individual
    • Blame game. Accepting responsibility and moving from a blame frame to a contribution mindset will help the two individuals stop being caught up in a blame narrative and resolve the conflict
    • Artificial harmony. This is germinated in the workplace because of either fear of confrontation, wrong priorities, work culture or lack of trust

How to resolve conflict?
Conflict resolution is not about winning, retaliating, or putting the other person in her or his place. It’s about developing a shared perspective on what happened, agreeing on the changes required, and re-establishing trust

    • Acknowledge any wrongdoing, but do not allow it to define who you are
    • Author offers compassionate communication template which flows along the lines of

“When I see / hear [observation],
I feel [emotion]
because I need / value [need].
Would you be willing to [request]?”

    • Before one starts the conversation to resolve a conflict, one must let go of negative emotions and thoughts. One must be willing to share observations while being mindful of words
    • Uncover needs. In non-violent communication, needs are considered to be at the root of our feelings; they are the real reason why we feel the way we do and why we want what we want
    • A great guide to your needs is your emotions: Becoming aware of them and asking yourself why they are present will usually lead you to your needs
    • Make Your Request Clear, Specific, and Positive
    • When you make a request, ensure that you ask and not demand

What should one do when they cannot resolve a conflict?
Stop the process, talk to your line manager and HR, and consider involving a neutral and skilled mediator who can help resolve the conflict
When you witness conflict between several stakeholders and the individuals don’t show any sign of successfully resolving the disagreement, don’t ignore the situation since a lingering conflict does not only affect the people involved but also impacts the rest of the group by reducing morale and productivity

E. Decision Making and Negotiation

This chapter shares the techniques to help one develop inclusive solutions and reach sustainable agreements

Benefits of collaborative decision making

    • Better decisions since it harnesses power of collective wisdom
    • Stronger alignment
    • Increased motivation

How to be set up for success?

    • The more important a decision is, and the less people know and trust each other, the more beneficial it is to bring everyone together in the same room
    • Employ a dedicated facilitator in situations when people either don’t know about collaborative decision making or don’t trust each other
    • Set ground rules. Always speak from a place of respect for others and assume good intentions on the part of the group members
    • Don’t bargain over positions
    • Delegate a decision if others are better qualified to decide or if your input is not needed
      • Delegation ensures that the best-qualified people decide, and it frees up your time
      • When applied correctly, it also sends a positive signal to the appointed decision makers
      • If you need to be involved in the decision, then do not delegate it to others, but participate in the decision-making process
    • Choose a decision rule. Such a rule clearly states who decides and how you can tell that the decision has been made. Four common decision rules that facilitate group decisions: unanimity, consent, majority and product person decides after discussion
      • Unanimity and consensus are not synonyms. The former means that everyone agrees; the latter refers to reaching some form of agreement
      • Unanimity should be used when the stakes are high but we wary of it getting degenerate into design by committee
      • Consent is the absence of objections. A decision is made when none objects

Taking the right decision making steps

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Figure 5: A Collaborative Decision Making Process based on Kaner et al (2014)

    • Gather diverse perspectives. Be wary of groupthink in well functioning teams. Play devil’s advocate, suggest to get out of the building and adapt the group composition
    • Build shared understanding. Help people understand where they are coming from and encourage them to explore the needs and interests behind people’s perspectives
    • Develop an inclusive solution. While it’s great to care about the decisions you make, don’t search for the perfect decision
      • To develop an inclusive solution, start by considering how you can address people’s needs, interest, and concerns while at the same time moving the product in the right direction

Tips for negotiating successfully
Conversation techniques which can be used during negotiation a. Mirroring (repeating the words) b. Labelling. Acknowledge emotions c. Open-ended question to uncover other person’s needs d. Patience for active listening

    • One should not be desperate to strike a deal. Don’t allow the other person to put you under pressure. No deal is better than a bad deal
    • Behavior Change Stairway Model – explained in Chapter 1
    • Principled negotiation method by Fisher and William (2012)
      • People : Separate the people from the problem
      • Interests: Instead of arguing over positions, look for shared interests and needs
      • Options: Invent multiple options, looking for mutual gains, before deciding what to do. Avoid the mistake of prematurely excluding options and opting for one solution
      • Criteria: Use objective criteria or a fair standard to determine the outcome

F. Self-leadership

Self-leadership is about developing yourself, about becoming a happier individual and a better leader

    • Practise mindfulness. Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, to what is happening right now. It helps you become more aware of your feelings, thoughts, and moods
      • “The point is not to get carried away by our feelings and thoughts but to relate to them wisely
      • Benefits of developing mindfulness – greater serenity, increased empathy, better decision making, improved communication
    • Hold personal retrospectives. Every week around 30 mins to ask oneself and note A. What did I get done this week? B. how am I feeling right now? C. What changes do I want to make next week? Select one or two things which you can realistically improve

Leverage Failure. Cultivate self-compassion i.e. being kind towards yourself, without ignoring the shortcomings you might have

Do one thing at a time. To focus your efforts, consider setting yourself a daily goal. Spend a few minutes in the morning planning your day, and decide what the main thing is that you want to achieve and what the desired outcome should be

Don’t neglect important but less urgent work like product discovery. Author suggest Eisenhower Matrix towards the same

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Figure 6: The Eisenhower Matrix to prioritise time

The book ends with the advice about taking care of one’s health and not prioritizing one’s job over everything else. As the book says, there is more to life than work!

Overall, I feel this book packs a few punches for tackling practical PM situations and can be read quite enjoyably by middle and senior levels of product professionals. I can however identify a few things which could be improvised upon in future editions

    • The book is probably more biased towards Agile ways of working. It also emphasizes role of Scrum Master in first two chapters which seems out of place with overall theme of the book
    • Although chapters are supposed to be independent from one another, a certain background implicitly is assumed which could be bewildering for new PMs
    • Sometimes I feel the content could be sequenced better. Conversion techniques appear under negotiations, whereas stairway case for behavior change appears in two chapters with similar level of detailing
    • For couple times, points seem to be just enumerated and they don’t necessary gel with the structure of the chapter

The book can be ordered from Amazon. Could not find it on Flipkart!

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