M. is one of the best product leaders I ever hired. He has a sharp mind, visionary thinking, flawless large-scale execution management, always sees the strategy and bigger picture but is also meticulous with the details. Truly a rare product leader, one that you know you can count on to help you take the entire company to the next level.
But managing him wasn’t always easy. True to his mission to make sure we are doing the right thing, he often challenged me on why we are doing certain things and wouldn’t let go until he got a solid answer that made sense to him.
On one hand — that’s what a good product leader does. M. saw himself — and rightfully so — as the gatekeeper, ensuring we are taking the entire company in the right direction.
On the other hand — I kept hearing “no” time and again from my most prominent leader in the team, and nothing I said made a difference. The conversation was in a deadlock, and too many times I reverted to what I hate doing which is asking them to move forward without really enrolling them into the mission.
There were many “let’s agree to disagree” statements, and a lot of frustration on both sides.
One day, I realized what is it that made it so difficult for me to have a productive discussion with M.: the conversation always stopped at “I don’t see it the same way as you are” (on either side). We didn’t get to actually discuss solutions and alternatives and were instead stuck on the disagreement itself.
Now, disagreements exist. You will not always agree with your boss, and your team will not always agree with you. But just leaving it at that does not help. It’s great to acknowledge that you don’t see things the same way. I always ask “why?” to try to get to the root cause of it, and understand exactly what is it that we are not agreeing on. But sometimes this is not enough to move forward towards action.
Making Product Discussions Productive
Once I realized that this was the situation with M., I decided there must be a new way out: whenever we couldn’t get beyond the “no”, I asked him to come up with an alternative suggestion.
It did a few things for us:
First, it is often much easier to discuss a specific alternative than the big theoretical discussion of whether we should do something or not. It is more concrete and allows both sides to look at the practice rather than the principles we each believe in.
Sometimes, I would see a solution I could agree to which I didn’t think of myself (and is often better than the one I had in mind since in most cases M.’s concerns were valid ones). In other cases, I could better understand what is it that I don’t feel comfortable with regarding the suggested solution, and with this new understanding, we kept the discussion going.
It also required M. to see things in a more holistic way. One can always say “no”, but having to actually think of a concrete solution required him to see my side of things as well.
And last but not least, it reestablished the partnership between us. When you just say “no” and leave it at that, you and the other person are now on opposite sides of something. By seeking an alternative that both of you are happy with, you are on the same side with the same goals.
Imagine my relief when I had my strongest team member back as a partner. As it often happens, it actually made it easier for me to give up and let M. lead in the direction that he believed was the right path.
So What Can You Learn From This?
When you think your manager or your CEO is leading your product in the wrong direction, don’t respond to them with just a “no”. There is not much they can do with that.
Try to understand where they are trying to get to and come up with an alternative suggestion. It will keep the discussion going and will also help them know you are with them as a leader.
From my experience both as a manager and in working with many CEOs and senior managers, all of us are much more willing to change our minds if we see a solution that makes sense and satisfies our needs. It doesn’t have to be the initial solution we began with.
Don’t wait for them to come and ask for an alternative, they won’t always know that this is what‘s missing.
And whenever someone you depend on (your team, your colleagues, R&D leads) is telling you ‘no’, and you feel the discussion is stuck, ask them to come up with a suggestion. I found it a super effective tool to move things forward and used it successfully numerous times — both for myself and for my customers — whether they were the CEOs or the people having to tell them ‘no’.
P.S. the same things work with your spouse and any other relationship in your life. I keep bringing to work insights I learned at home and vice versa — especially in product, where relationships play such a big part in your ability to succeed. This is advice you can practice anywhere.