Years ago, while companies were adopting new methods, there was typically one leader who decided everything for every team. With agile and scrum methods, we started to break down strict job descriptions so that “one ring to rule them all” methods became long gone.
Now we do a lot of talking about empowering teams — building team synergy and a trusting team spirit. This includes giving people the confidence to believe that what they are building helps improve the product development process. Having an empowered product manager leading the team, in particular, makes a huge difference.
In this article, we will talk about the importance of building trust in product management. We will learn tricks to build this type of positive environment and see the results we can get from having an empowered product manager.
An empowered product manager is put at the center of the decision-making process by the organization. They’re given full responsibility to guide other roles and disciplines.
We always hear about empowered engineers and teams, but most books and articles forget to mention empowering product management roles. If you want to boost your product delivery process, empowered engineers are not enough. You should add empowered product managers to the list.
In big corporations, managing each team with different disciplines is getting harder and harder. Empowering the team means not only solving problems but also deciding how to solve them and giving them the power to make these choices.
Due to the nature of our jobs, we product managers work with cross-functional teams, customers, and more. Nowadays, many software companies hire a ton of product managers — often excluding the appropriate amount of project managers, product owners, and business analysts. They tend to expect product managers to fill all these responsibilities at the same time.
Wearing multiple hats is hard to manage, and we need to make sharp decisions instantly. Because the line is blurred and we often absorb project managers’ and business analysts’ responsibilities too, our teams need answers in those areas as well!
So what does a product manager need to provide a confident, consistent, and stable decision in stressful moments? A little help from our leaders, obviously 😇
Product managers are the ones who build trust in our decisions. But those who we report to, often senior leads, are creating a suitable environment for us. Let’s try to list some of the options that support our powerful decisions:
Product managers get our real strength from our development team. An empowered engineering team helps a PM build a good product. But if there is no synergy inside the team and between PMs, teams can not achieve the goals they want.
When building a team, leaders need to be careful about the characteristics of who they’re putting together. A well-built friendship may solve half of the problems.
In addition to characteristics, a team’s background can be made up of many different disciplines. This will add different perspectives, which is almost always a good thing! Questioning ideas is a valuable skill, but asking different types of questions in a team is almost heaven.
I know you’ve heard “The choice is yours, you can do whatever you think is best” a lot. And most of them end with “Who told you to do this in such a way?”
In theory, we all have the power to decide. But in reality, every product manager wants their team to build everything in their own specific way. To create an empowered team, we first need to destroy all of our “my way or the highway” rules. There are many ways to do every task — millions, even, and people are strong with their own ways. Forcing people to do things one specific way without asking their feedback is a recipe for disaster.
Going up a level, if a more senior leader questions a product manager’s idea, the development team and business teams will start to question it too. This means chaos for a healthy product development process. After one or two of these, the product team might start to ask upper management about these decisions too. And this will slow down the process. This is dangerous — upper leadership should trust product managers and make it known that their decisions are respected.
Powerful ideas and product development processes can only exist when a product manager feels that their decisions are respected. An empowered product manager, and, in turn, an empowered product team, will not only solve the problems but will also create options to solve them and select the best option. You will see an increase in creativity.
If you want a 100 percent empowered team, product managers need to be accountable for their solutions. That includes both success and failure.
When a product fails, it’s important to discuss the whys and hows so that we, and our team, can learn from mistakes. And when a product succeeds, credit needs to be shared all around.
A real empowered team can face any consequences and feel responsible for the outcomes. Encouraging a sense of ownership of the product means feeling bad when things don’t go correctly. Powerful teams can only be created when they see the positive and negative consequences of each decision.
Giving product teams a sense of liability will make the team more powerful and you will be surprised when you see the power of lessons learned.
Every leader wants their team to be powerful and manage their own business by themselves. But once we start to build a product, everything changes in an instant.
Sometimes leaders start to ask questions, sometimes they just want to tell teams what to do when faced with a problem. Of course, product managers need help, and leadership’s job is to help and support that. But there is a thin line here.
Being a problem-solver versus a coach can get mixed up by leaders. Yes, solving problems is good, but answering questions and solving problems without being prompted to do so is a common mistake. Being an impatient and impulsive leader makes it impossible to create an empowered team.
For example, in one product development process, I was trying to find a solution and my leader asked me about its progress. While I was explaining the problem, she provided an answer to solve it. My first reaction was to implement that specific solution.
However, the problem was that what I defined did not fit the vision we created. I returned to my leader, and she said she didn’t know that aspect. She gave me an answer to a problem she didn’t fully understand, and this whole process made me lose almost one week of work. My perspective was blinded by her idea, and I almost lost my creativity about solving the problem.
Leaders should take a deep breath and ask questions to lead people to their own answers. There may have been some important points that were missed. Leaders are responsible for clearing obstacles and providing guidance, and coaching methods to create an empowered team.
The product vision is what lights the product manager’s path when they are in the dark. In our daily decision-making trees, we always seek the answer that’s more compatible with the product vision. In an unclear product vision, product managers can lose their way and start to ask questions.
For a big organization with multiple product teams, this will be a disaster. Every part of the product may be developed in a different path. In such cases, you can see leaders suggesting that product teams didn’t define a successful product roadmap. And this is where micromanagement starts.
If a leader cannot provide the required guidance, deep diving into the problem will not solve the problem at hand. The real problem is the wrong direction. With the confusion about strategy, no one on the product team can provide successful, powerful decisions.
A well-defined product vision is the most powerful guide for an empowered product team. It gives teams the strength to make crucial decisions to achieve one specific vision. With the help of the vision, PMs will find their own way to find creative solutions.
Leaders are not always responsible for a successful product strategy, but they are responsible for ensuring the strategy is compatible with other teams in the organization.
As product managers, we need a plan to succeed in the product vision. Product strategy is our plan to achieve the goal. An empowered team can create a successful strategy, but without a leader’s advice, it may create a lack of company-wide vision. The leader can feed the product team with enough input to create an effective strategy.
A wrong product strategy can end up with a product that appeals to only a narrow segment rather than appealing to all customers.
An empowered product team is created by continuous knowledge-sharing by the leaders. In the software world, we are facing agile changes every day. Maybe our overall vision will not be affected, but perspective can. Teams that are being kept updated with one another will feel safe to make tough decisions.
Specifically, if a product manager needs to ask every question to leaders before having a proper answer, that indicates a lack of empowerment.
When micromanagement starts, creative solutions die. People tend to do what they are told, and when the team feels unsafe to provide their own ideas, it is really hard to make them.
Remember, you hired product managers, not business analysts or product owners. Product management has a bigger role in leading the team while considering customers, vision, and outcomes. If there is no room to be creative, you might miss all the opportunities you have.
Featured image source: IconScout
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