Inside Product Management Politics

In my post Politics and Product Teams, I received a comment from Justin Smith asking, “I’d love to see an expansion on your thoughts around politics in product management teams.” 

Over the past several years, while attending product camps and working with product management teams and their leaders, I’ve often asked, “Are their politics in your product management team? “The responses vary, but almost every contributor or team member says, “yes,” while the leadership usually responds, “not really” or “I don’t think so.” 

This post will take an inside look into product management team politics, dynamics and suggest how leaders and teams can use politics to improve credibility and reduce negative impact. 

A Look Inside – By virtue of the role, product management is often involved or dragged into some political situations. Whether you like it or not, your company reorganizes, product(s) are acquired, leadership changes, development has a great idea, a new competitor enters the market, a new channel partnership is formed or the CxO spoke to one of your most important customers. 

Each of these examples intersects with product management and if not managed, may drive negative wedges into the team. Leaders have to be cognizant of all the moving parts within a company and vigilant in staying current and on top of things that may or may not impact the team. As an example, a few years ago, I was leading a product management team for a very acquisitive company. It wasn’t uncommon for the company to acquire several companies or substantial products each year. I recall two senior product management leaders debating, and then arguing over who would own an upcoming acquisition. The product portfolios aligned with each business unit and would fill competitive and roadmap gaps while adding revenue growth to each.

A political tug-of-war emerged and the situation began to drive wedges between the two senior leaders, two product management teams and other stakeholders became concerned. How did we resolve the conflict? I asked each group to present a business case on how we could create a new business unit. Each team was asked to work with each other to fully investigate technology, resources, market dynamics and how this could succeed. Together, we reviewed the business cases and during the session, I found the communications barrier was fixed, several solutions were proposed and the two teams better aligned. Privacy was replaced with transparency and it was evident to the teams that their business unit should be merged to create a new one. 

While it wasn’t a perfect exercise, it moved the negative into positive energy and refocused the teams on the business and not individual agendas and creating new wedges. 

The Good Side of product management politics has several upsides. Teams that practice positive influence, build credibility and share authority within their teams create an atmosphere that is recognized by other organizations. 

In their four-part series on “Politics are Necessary, but Not Necessarily Evil” by Jane Perdue, Susan Mazza, Mike Henry Sr. and Jennifer V. Miller  they shared, “Truly skillful execution of the behaviors associated with politics is usually perceived as genuine, authentic, straightforward and effective. Politically skilled managers are masters of four behaviors: social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability and apparent sincerity.” 

If product management and its leadership builds a foundation on the four areas outlined, its creates stronger business-orientation and reduces political battles with other stakeholders. This creates a confidence in many executive teams and provides product management with a seat at the executive table. 

While positive political skills may create the strategic and visible element your product management team desires, leaders own the responsibility of developing and strengthening teams. At a minimum every product management team requires:

  • Defined product management charter stating teams values, goals and deliverables
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
  • Organizational structure aligned to team strengths and experience
  • Sustainable and repeatable processes that everyone knows and uses daily
  • Common product management language aligned with goals and stakeholders
  • Measurements and metrics that are clearly defined and communicated
  • Ongoing team and contributor assessments and education
  • Opportunities for team growth and career movement

In organizations where a product management foundation is present, I find teams establish a cadence that’s repeatable and actionable. It eliminates negative politics, dispels the unknown and sets a course for each team member. 

The Ugly Side of product management is loaded with personal agendas, privacy and personalities that don’t gel. Leaders who fail to recognize these attributes often do irreversible damage to the team, its credibility and value to the organization. 

In a series of posts on The Good, Bad and Ugly of Product Management by On Product Management, Saeed Khan asked a series of questions to his readers and those in the product management community. There were many good things that surfaced, but participants stated that negative politics occurred when:

  • Product management lacked authority.
  • Product management was inefficiently organized.
  • Product management has poorly defined roles, process and tools.
  • Company culture didn’t believe in good product management.
  • Product management lacked resources, education and time to do a good job.
  • Product management leadership was weak or inexperienced.   

To combat the negative politics within product management teams, leaders have to look inward. Assessing the teams capabilities, watching team interaction and dynamics, and reviewing each individual personality with other non-product management stakeholders are a few ways to gain insight into potential issues.

Finding new avenues to communicate, educate, engage and reward your team will build confidence, trust and eliminate political unrest. In the past I’ve used offsite meetings, small group lunches, outings,  team meetings, and lunch and learn sessions to build personal and product management skills. 

Please share any ideas on how you’ve addressed product management politics, whether the good or the ugly. Your comments are alway welcome.

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  • bob corrigan  On November 30, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    As always, very thoughtful. Regrettably, the very word “politics” has become charged with meaning that transcends what it truly means:

    1. Using or marked by prudence, expedience, and shrewdness; artful.
    2. Using, displaying, or proceeding from policy; judicious: a politic decision.
    3. Crafty; cunning.

    I like to think of PMs as artful, prudent, shrewd, crafty and cunning, but only if they are doing so in defense of the customer. Unfortunately, that is rarely the situation, and politics for its own sake (primarily the pursuit of and acquisition of power) is the norm.

    • Product Management Tribe  On November 30, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      Bob, thanks for the comment and insight. I completely agree that the word “politics” immediately changes how people think and yet, the word in itself is very positive.

  • Product Management Tribe  On December 1, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Joshua – I appreciate you including one of my post in your fall 2010 reading. Your contribution to the Product Management community is greatly appreciated.


  • […] Inside Product Management Politics By virtue of the role, product management is often involved or dragged into some political situations. Whether you like it or not, your company reorganizes, product(s) are acquired, leadership changes, development has a great idea, a new competitor enters the market, a new channel partnership is formed or the CxO spoke to one of your most important customers. If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed! […]

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