Politics and Product Teams

Recently at Seattle Product Camp 2010, I led a discussion with Jennifer Doctor, a senior product marketing professional from Sage on the topic of Politics and Product Teams.

Jennifer and I knew there would be a mixture of product management and product marketing professionals, both leadership (manage teams and portfolios), and those who contribute (manage products and strategy). It was our goal to represent both and offer a top-down, bottom up view of how politics influence product teams.

The discussion was excellent, and the feedback from the standing room only crowd was very lively and engaging. At the beginning of the discussion, we all agreed that politics don’t always have a negative side and quite often provide a platform for improved communications, working relationships and changes in organizations.

In this post, we’ll look at the warning signs and maneuvering through politics from a leadership perspective. Jennifer will discuss the issues from a contributors perspective.

What are the warning sign of politics in your organization? Those at the product camp shared:

“I see the empire builders working on their agenda and not what’s important.”

“Disruptive innovation surfaces with no alignment to the company vision.”

“There’s visible  favoritism that impact decisions.”

“When communications go dormant or there’s too much useless noise, I’m suspect.” 

“We hear executives openly disagree with peers on key issues.”

“Individuals often have personal agendas and disregard team or company dynamics.”

“People hoard information on a consistent basis and won’t provide key data for decisions.”

“It’s evident that there is a  fear of turf wars.”

“A lot of conversations and decisions happen through back channels.”

“There’s visible tension and internal competition across stakeholders.”  

“There’s a lack of trust in key areas of the company or with key leadership.”

“Inefficient analysis is used to rush decisions and it’s rushed by a few.”

No matter what warning signs you see or hear, product management leadership has to constantly be aware, prepare for and effectively maneuver teams through any situation. 

Maneuvering through Politics  

Before product camp, I asked several senior executives from different industries to share some ideas on how product management can effectively prepare and maneuver through politics. Here’s what they said:

“Don’t get sidetracked in your day-to-day activities and forget to use your product management radar. You have to keep your head up and listen constantly.”

“Align yourself with strong senior leaders who are connected and can provide you with current information on the political climate.” (Read my prior post on The Executive of Influence.)

“If possible, maintain a seat at the executive table or have a strong advocacy with someone who does.”

“Make sure your team is accountable and measurable, and executive management understands and values what’s being measured.”

The executives I spoke with really value product managements leadership and want you to be more active and visible. The outside-in evidence and market validation often dispels any political related actions. How does product management build value and use this to counteract politics?

Building Value in Product Management

From my experiences, product management’s value increases when the following happens:

  • Product management has an established set of methods that the team follows, aligns to and uses. The methods don’t need to be complex, but simple, actionable, repeatable and measurements created, communicated and managed.
  • Product management must be a consistent resource that relies on real data and not gut instinct.
  • Product management must be measurable and the team knows how it is being measured, executives and other stakeholders are made aware and the team is rewarded for its positive contribution.
  • Product management must be nimble in its actions, organizational structure and willingness to lead change. We’re you first or last to know your company was going Agile?
  • Product management must be resolute and committed to develop and grow each member of the team and find ways to improve its execution.

A Few Last Words

While politics won’t go away, product management leaders must be prepared, actively work to understand what’s going on, and maneuver their teams through the process. To do this, I would recommend the following:

  • Avoid open forums where ideas and people are criticized. Make meetings purposeful and constructive.
  • Avoid conjecture, speculation and misinformation. Don’t start the conversations, STOP them. 
  • Avoid being the gridlock. Product management is the solution, not the distraction.
  • Avoid gut instinct. Product Management is in a unique position to make decisions based on real customer/market data. Data can squelch political situations. Invest in the facts.
Please leave a comment or share the post with someone in product management. To view the complete product camp presentation and notes, go to the SlideShare link.
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Comments

  • Geoffrey Anderson  On November 22, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Great post as usual Jim. I have long searched for the neutral, politics free environment, and it just doesn’t exist. Once an organization grows to 3 people or beyond, factions materialize, and have the potential to become corrosive.

    Your suggestion of maintaining a seat at the executive table is crucial. Last two gig’s for me I have had that, and you can see the factions/dynamics in real time, and ensure that you are not caught up in the distortion zone. As product management, we are charged with steering expensive resources, and potentially existential survival to the organization (if you are small enough, a single failure will lead to the “shut the doors” chain of events.)

    I find that to get this access, it is imperative that Product Management reports to the CEO, or VP/GM of the business unit. Reporting through Marketing usually means that you are removed from the executive table discussion, and reporting through Engineering, well, that just makes the baby Jesus cry.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    Geoff

    • Product Management Tribe  On November 22, 2010 at 11:24 pm

      Geoff, thanks for your comments and especially validation that “a seat at the executive table” is crucial for product teams. Based on recent surveys (see Pragmatic Marketings Annual PM Survey), product management continues to report to executives (CxOs), and that’s great news for sustaining visibility and value.

  • Justin T. Smith  On November 23, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Great article. I’d love to see an expansion on your thoughts around politics in product management teams. This is a key issue that I haven’t seen much coverage on in the blog space.

    Cheers,
    Justin Smith

    • Product Management Tribe  On November 23, 2010 at 2:04 am

      Justin – thanks for the comments. I’ll definitely consider the idea of focusing on the politics in product management teams. Are there areas that you feel should be included or discussed?

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