“Product managers are the CEOs of their product.” It’s a popular phrase, but it’s not true.
A good product manager is not someone who’s able to build every idea that comes to their mind. That represents a lack of clarity and prioritization around their customer’s problems. Nor are they someone who has a clear vision and strategy, but fails to build alignment before jumping to execution.
Rather, a good product manager is someone who can rally others around a clearly defined product vision, strategy, and roadmap and, in doing so, build consensus on their product direction among leadership, stakeholders, and the product team. Product team here refers to the smaller cross-functional triangle of product management, design, and engineering.
Reaching consensus on your product direction can feel like a daunting task to even the most experienced product managers. With so many problems to solve and so many potential ways to solve them, how do you get others on the same page in terms of which tasks to focus on?
To gain consensus among leaders and stakeholders, you’ll need a strong product strategy rooted in data and research with as many biases removed as possible. This begins with clear but broad problem statements, usually originating from leadership.
For example, your company leadership might decide it wants to increase retention by 5 percent in Q3. With your problem statement established, you should conduct discovery on the best opportunities to make an impact, including data analysis, competitor analysis, customer interviews, and internal feedback.
It’s important not to do this work in a silo. There are several individuals you should collaborate with across various disciplines, including design, engineering, analytics, and product marketing. Each role brings its own expertise and perspective, which will only make your product strategy stronger.
Whoever you involve, always begin by asking questions. In the case of our example for increasing retention, your strategy presentation might involve:
You should use the insights you collect from answering these questions to build a strategy that is valuable, viable, usable, and feasible. Collaborating across design, engineering, analytics, and other stakeholders enables you to build a stronger strategy while also obtaining early consensus from key partners.
You should see your manager as one of your most crucial partners, not just somebody who expects periodic status updates and decides whether you get a raise during the next review cycle.
A good manager is with you every step of the way to provide coaching, support, and feedback on the strategy you’re building. Don’t wait for this to come to you; seek it out.
Good managers know the right questions to ask to help their employees increase the quality of their work. By sharing your strategy early on, your manager can guide you to explore things you might not have considered on your own.
Involving your manager early in the process can also help you prepare for the stage in which you need to gain broader consensus on your product strategy and roadmap. For example, you may have accidentally excluded some opportunity from your strategy that a member of leadership is particularly passionate about. This doesn’t mean you should immediately add it into your strategy, but you can prepare yourself for an educated discussion on why you chose not to include it.
Perhaps most importantly, your manager can provide support when it comes time to build consensus with the rest of leadership. When your manager is consulted on your strategy ahead of time, they’re better equipped to back you up when you encounter challenges from top leadership.
If you’ve adhered to the first two best practices, you should already have a product strategy you’re confident in and early consensus from your direct manager and close collaborators. Now it’s time to get consensus from others in leadership.
Depending on the size of your company, this could range from senior product leadership to the executive team, but your approach should remain the same regardless of your audience.
This is one of the most important times to leverage your storytelling skills as a product manager. You want to paint a picture of how your strategy and roadmap will contribute to your prescribed problem areas and goals.
You might structure this story as follows:
Begin by restating the goal and/or broad problem area you’re focusing on. Everyone present in the meeting should already know them, but leading with this ensures you’re all on the same page.
Next, share a summary of the more specific opportunities you’re looking to solve in pursuit of the goal. For example, share the three highest-impact opportunities to increase retention by 5 percent in Q3, and explain that you’ll dive into each in detail. Let your audience know that your aim in this meeting is to get consensus on your direction, and you welcome feedback and dialogue throughout.
Present the details of each focus area. This includes problem statements, data analyses, user interview syntheses, and any other discovery results that support your strategy. Use these as a way to lead into your proposed solutions.
Conclude by recapping each solution and noting the projected impact, along with where they fit into your roadmap’s timeline.
If any parts of your strategy or roadmap are met with conflicting viewpoints, don’t feel discouraged. This is normal and expected, and usually isn’t a poor reflection on the work you’ve done. The important part is how you respond to feedback and disagreements (more on this later).
Consensus building doesn’t end after you get everyone to buy into your product roadmap. During the execution phase, you’ll need to win consensus from a wide variety of people frequently. This includes UI/UX approaches, technical implementation options, go-to-market strategies and deliverables, and many other cross-functional areas.
The most critical things to get consensus on are those that impact scope and timelines. As products move through development, you’re likely to encounter scope creep, dependencies with other teams, and various external factors that impact your ability to deliver against the proposed timeline. When this happens, it’s your responsibility as a product manager to facilitate tradeoff discussions with those involved and reach consensus on how to move forward.
Sometimes, you may need consensus among only the direct team and stakeholders. Other times, you may need to involve leadership, especially if there are risks or large timeline shifts.
In any case, you should always make sure everyone who needs to be involved in the discussion has a seat at the table and communicate effectively with everyone else. For example, “We decided to cut scope by removing X feature to stay on track. We’re looking to follow up on this with future iterations.”
When attempting to build consensus on your product direction, you should be confident in your recommendations, but not brash or immutable. No matter how much upfront work you put into building a strong strategy and roadmap, it’s likely you’ll encounter opinions from others that aren’t included in your plan.
There are two broad buckets these opinions will fall into: ideas you’ve already evaluated and those you haven’t.
For ideas you’ve already evaluated and decided against, refrain from immediately jumping in to say so. Listen to what the other person has to say, because they may offer a viewpoint on the idea that you hadn’t previously considered.
For those you haven’t evaluated, ask follow-up questions to gather as many details as possible. Sometimes, these ideas will obviously not fit into your strategy, typically because they have little to no impact on your goals. However, if it feels like there’s merit and you don’t have enough information to make a decision at the moment, say you need to look into it and will follow up. Then actually do so by conducting some expedited discovery and deciding whether that avenue is worth pursuing.
Through all phases of consensus building, you’ll encounter perspectives that don’t align with your own. Whether you have the information to address them in the moment or need time to dig deeper and follow up, always exhibit humility during those discussions. Not only will a humble approach keep you open to ideas that may result in a stronger product direction, it’ll help you maintain relationships and increase your chances of building consensus now and in the future.
Product management is often referred to as both an art and a science, and consensus building is a prime example. By combining the science of quantitative discovery and success metric projections with the art of collaboration, communication, and user empathy, you can approach consensus building with the confidence (and humility) required to be successful.
Featured image source: IconScout
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