I have always loved mathematics. I see the beauty in the patterns the numbers create. I love the abstract thinking. And of course, I love problem-solving, which is the living heart and soul of product management.
Over the years, I realized there is another reason I love math so much.
It is a world of 100% certainty. There is one, clear, correct answer. If you find a way to get to it, you can be sure you are right. You can prove every step of the way, and there is nothing to argue about.
What a great world to live in!
So simple and clear. Everything is either right or wrong, black or white. No opinions. No questions. No alternatives.
If only product management was that simple…
In product management, the opposite is true. There is almost never one correct answer. Almost anything depends on so many factors, only some of them can be objectively measured. Our decisions are often impacted by what we think the future will look like, and that for sure has no one correct answer (at least at the time of the decision).
As a result, two product leaders who are working on the same product, even with identical experience and background, will make different decisions. They will define the problem differently, and as a consequence also the solution. They will prioritize differently. And so, eventually, they will build different products. Both can be a success, because as I said — there is no one correct answer.
It’s the Man Inside the Machine That Matters
This puts a lot of emphasis on you, the product leader.
But wait, what?
As product leaders, everything we do builds on top of the fundamental principle that it’s not about us.
Our opinion is only an opinion. What we think and prefer doesn’t necessarily represent the customers. We are the voice of the market, not of ourselves.
People are challenging almost everything we say, and we must support it with data to prove that we are right.
And you know what? We are great at it. This is part of who we are and and a necessary part of our professional etiquette. This is what makes us great product managers.
But sometimes, it can also be destructive.
Not All Decisions Can Be Made in Consensus
It happens when we are unable to make decisions because people challenge them. I often see product managers who are “stuck” because they have tried everything they can to convince everyone to move in the direction they believe is right, and people still object. They don’t know what to do next.
Of course, some objections really do stop you from moving forward. For example, if your CEO says explicitly that they are not willing to move in the direction you suggested, you probably need to rethink everything. But while most product objections are not show stoppers, people still treat them as such, and are paralyzed by them.
Why does it happen?
Because in a world of so much uncertainty, almost every decision is risky by definition.
That means that to be able to lead, especially without authority, we must be willing and able to take risks.
And taking risks is, well, risky.
Especially when facing very strong opinions of people around you.
So when people tell you that you are wrong (they never say “maybe”, do they?), how do you know if you are about to make a critical mistake, or is it simply a matter of taking a calculated risk?
How do you move from being stuck to action?
3 Paths to Move Your Product Forward Despite Objections
1. Understand exactly what the disagreement is
Get to the bottom of it. Usually, when you dig deep enough, you get to the core belief that eventually creates two opposite opinions. When you argue about the end opinion, it becomes futile at some point. But when you try to get to the root cause, there is often a very simple thing that you are disagreeing on with the person in front of you. Any many times this thing is indeed a matter of opinion, belief or preference.
It is much easier to leave the discussion, when you understand that the disagreement is, for example, on how pervasive do you think a certain technology is going to be 3 years from now (and is it a bet you should be making), than if the disagreement is left at the higher-level of whether you should support this technology or not.
In some cases, these discussions will solve themselves, and during this thought process, one of the parties will be convinced on the other side’s original opinion.
In other cases, you will understand that there is some further research that you can make to dissolve the disagreement (for example let’s have a better assessment of the future of this specific technology — so that it becomes more of a well-based assumption than an opinion), and you’ll be back in the previous situation.
And in some cases, it is indeed a completely subjective topic. But it will become a very specific one. You will know exactly what is it that you see differently than the other person, and it’s okay to have different opinions.
2. Lead the process
When you are trying to get to the bottom of the disagreement, people will not always have answers. You need to help them find the (sometimes hidden) logic behind their opinions. Ask many why’s, suggest alternatives, reflect what you hear from them.
Make it a real discussion where your only mission is to fully understand where they are coming from. Don’t worry about getting to agreement, focus on helping them think and helping them help you.
Assess the risk
If we have already established that you are about to take risks, you need to assess it and see if you are willing to take it.
The assessment should include things like:
- How likely is the risk to actually materialize?
- What would be the impact?
- Is there good mitigation to it?
- What is the alternative cost — of doing nothing, delivering later, delivering something else?
I can dive deeper into each, but this post would be too long. If you are interested, ping me and I’ll get back to this topic in a future post.
3. Take the risk
If after the assessment you still feel this risk should be taken, then take it. Simple and easy, right?
Jokes aside, it would be somewhat simpler since you now understand the risk at a much deeper level, including alternative costs and mitigation options.
The other side of it is that you have to be willing to take it upon yourself. You — the product leader — are the one who is making this decision. It takes courage, especially if you are risk-averse by nature, but it also gives you a lot of freedom.
If you are the one taking the risk and you take it upon yourself to deal with the consequences, it makes it much clearer that the decision is yours.
I highly recommend actually saying it out loud — “I am willing to take this risk.” It makes it much easier for people to accept it — because they understand it’s a matter of risk management and not a matter of the objective truth.
With great power comes great responsibility. If you are responsible enough, your great power shouldn’t frighten you. Use it.