#40 - Influencing without Authority as a Product Manager
Key Product Leadership skill
‘Influence without authority’ is an immortal phrase in product management.
You have to bring together a bunch of tech professionals (Software engineers, UX designers, User Research, Product marketers, Customer enablement, Product Analytics) and make a valuable and functional product happen. That’s difficult enough without also not being their “boss.”
Some like to compare a Product Manager to the CEO of the product. The key difference between these two roles is authority. The CEO has all of it and you have none of it.
Influence without authority is the skill of driving product development and ‘telling people what to do without formally being authorized to do so. You need to lead and guide, without having the power to snap your fingers and make things happen, and the only way to do that is to build up your influence.
I recently spoke at Product Folk’s Women in Product event about “How to Influence as a Product Manager: Consistently get buy-in from your team and your stakeholders”
Sharing the Excerpt of the session here with Parina Anand, from the Women In Product team.
Let’s walk through a day in your life.
There’s not a typical a typical day, which is a big part of what makes the function and role both so fun and so challenging.
But typically, during a week I find myself focussing my time on
Working with the product leaders to ensure we’re aligned on MindTickle’s top priorities: learning about our consumers, competitors and market, as well as creating, assessing, updating and communicating a clear product vision and strategy.
Reviewing the sales funnel, the important deals in the pipeline, and what can the product do to unblock them
Reviewing our demo calls with potential customers, to understand if their product needs are changing
Working on Competitive Strategy - Positioning/Messaging
Reviewing the customer feedback from our CSAT and determining what it means for Product
Reviewing the adoption of newly launched capabilities
Looking at what’s happening on the ground - data from our Salesforce and marrying that to what we see in Product Usage - trying to draw insights from it and figuring out the next best thing for us to day
Looking at designs of a new capability, getting into a user research call, or reviewing the sprint demo with the team
Dissecting any critical or positive recent analyst feedback
Meetings with engineering to take decisions on architectural trade-offs, determine possibility set for the next level capabilities we want to bring in
Hiring and building the team, working with new leaders to help them build their next-level skills
One on one with peers across different cross functional teams, to brainstorm together on some big problems, opportunities
Competitive study (that’s mostly for weekends when I have an uninterrupted couple of hours)
Reviewing Product requests of our customers
Constantly looking at product outcomes to see if we are meeting our OKRs
It’s a constant context switch that you learn over a period of time. But amidst everything I also make sure to block focus time for myself when I have to think about hard problems.
Influence without authority is the skill of driving product development and ‘telling people what to do’ without formally being authorised to do so. Let’s unpack this a little. What does ‘Influence’ mean here? Also, the PM role requires influencing without authority. What frameworks do you use to align multiple stakeholders and what communication channels have worked best for you for successful collaboration?
Influencing means getting others to buy in to the vision you have, and not get to just agreement or an alignment on something. It means equipping others to sell your vision to their teams as well as other stakeholders.
Influence is like a muscle that needs to be trained and flexed periodically throughout your career. It takes time to develop, and doesn’t just appear overnight.
A PM is accountable for the success or failure of the product. But it’s interesting that the PM does not code, sell, market or support the product . Execution is driven by influence.
Here’s my framework to do this, which has evolved over a period of time.
1. Explain you're ‘why’
‘Just Do It’ is a great tagline, but not for a Product Manager! The people you work with are smart, and they’ll want to know the reason why behind all of your decisions. Bring them into the conversation, and help them to understand what drives you. Show them the data, the research, and explain your reasoning.
This works for you in two different ways. Firstly, you’re able to make a better case for your own decisions. Secondly, they may be able to poke some holes in your thought process and offer a more useful perspective.
Explaining your ‘why’ is the easiest way to fast-track alignment and trust between yourself and your teams. It shows that you respect your teams enough to explain the reasoning behind your decisions, and it opens the door for further communication.
2.Identify key stakeholders
Identify who is benefited, and who may object - resolve conflicts upfront.
3.Stay focussed on the problem, be obsessed with it - but not by the solution.
The solution can come from different stakeholders - engineering, design, and User Research. Better outcomes are achieved when you collaborate with all people, and do not start with a solution-first approach.
4.Convey the value of solving it problem
Anchor it to some already establish belief in the org
If improving user experience is a common belief, get your narrative fixated on the common belief. That way people will be able to say what big rock can be moved with this.
5. Embrace resistance
No one likes to be disagreed with, especially when you feel you’ve earned the right to be right. But that’s not always how it works in business – someone is always going to have a voice that’s louder than yours or an opinion they feel more strongly about.
Instead of pushing back against it, embrace it! While it’s tempting to bat away every piece of criticism and hope everyone forgets about them, this does both you and the product a disservice.
6.Call for org attention
In whatever form factor - whether it’s your product syncs or all hands, keep reinforcing the progress on the idea, any roadblocks, any help you need.
Data is the biggest asset in your arsenal. It ensures that conversations stay factual and don’t become about what he said/she said and personal opinions. Make sure you have access to all the right data and you present it in the right way to tell your story.
Eventually, I think 1 super important thing is building trust-based relationships with people - your peers, your teams and your leaders goes a long way.
What I’ve also found useful is every couple of months having so no agenda kinda meetings with key stakeholders, where you are just connecting with them at a very personal level.
That’s where you can have a free-flowing discussion of ideas. That helps you understand and empathise on where other people are coming from on their priorities
It’s not always about you influencing people. Be vulnerable to being influenced by others as well. Take a long-term view of people, relationships, and products. Like Naval Ravikant says - Long term gets you compounding interest!
You want to empower the teams you work with. They may be looking to you for concrete direction. You want to provide them with more flexibility. They want more specifics. How do you strike the balance between empowerment and direction? How do you increase the amount of empowerment over time?
Empowering the team is a key to building a great organisation. In a 40 people startup there is extreme ownership , but when you grow ,sometimes it becomes a chain of command -this person will approve, that person will give the final buy-in. You go to break that. Everyone should have a complete empowerment. How many times in our sprints we’ve heard - “Oh I was blocked on this because of person Y, but I couldn’t get them to change the course”.
So in any new role that I start, or when anyone new joins my team, the first few discussions that we have are never about work. They are about the team.
Over time I have also created a user guide to myself. How do I work the best , my blueprint, my strengths and weaknesses as well. And I insist people who are on my team to share that about themselves as well. I first need to understand how they work the best. What are their areas of strengths and how does that complement mine.
We then establish the core are of their responsibility to begin with , and decide goals for them over time - where is that their aspiration is. There are folks who want to build teams, there are folks who want to stay ICs . Some folks love growth facets of product , some people like doing product market fit expansion work and some are good at enhancing existing features. Understand that well.
I also tell my teams to look at the $ value of their decision going wrong, and if it’s not too high - just go for it. Because that’s how you will learn the best , by your own experiences.
I clearly ask them areas where they think they need my help and what are the things they would to like to drive independently.
That’s how I built my team from scratch at my past stint as founder, that’s what I am doing today as well, as a Senior Director of Product.
There’s a lot of pressure on product leaders for certainty — have the right answers, have the plan, have the strategy. But sometimes things aren’t certain. It’s a juggling act. You want to inspire people. But also be realistic about the unknowns. Can you talk us through how you approach this challenge?
I’d like to quote my favourite product person here - John Cutler.
Most teams jump from high-level goals straight to feature ideas (w/ "success metrics") The most successful teams 1. Have a strategy 2. Translate that into models 3. Add minimally viable measurement 4. Identify leverage points 5. Explore options 6. Run experiments.
The product vision is a broad, aspirational articulation of long-term business and product goals. It acts as a timeless statement of purpose.
The product strategy starts with the product vision but tailors it to your customer, market, and organisational goals—it’s a high-level description of how the product will achieve the vision.
Borrowing from Gibson Biddle , think about how our product delights customers, both now and in the future. How could it deliver even more delight in the future?
What is our hard to copy advantage ?
Differentiating becomes even more important if you’re entering a crowded market or coming after an established player. You need to give people a reason to choose you, and to even pay attention in the first place.
Be the highest quality
Be the most convenient
Be the safest
Sell a proprietary product
Sell something that makes people feel great buying
Focus on a niche underserved market
Be the cheapest
Who do we consider as key competition for this product? Are they a legacy player, potential disruptor , current competition? What are the capabilities that come up wrt competition? What is our stand on each one?How do we run the business in margin enhancing ways?Based on the above what are some of the key product bets for us over the next few years?This is a list of key product bets and the hypothesis we have around each of them.
Answering these questions with the appropriate depth can help you think of things you wouldn’t have otherwise - or wouldn’t have until it’s too late.
Dialogue in companies is often disproportionately tilted to the people who speak the loudest, are aggressive in their delivery, and want to “own the room”. How do we make room for different perspectives and people who want to be more thoughtful and inclusive in their delivery?
I think that happens all the time. Data is a very powerful leverage that we can have.
When you depersonalize decision-making, it’s not about you or what you think or what the HiPPO thinks. It’s about what the facts state. Be hyper-focused on what your customers are saying, get competitive data and other external benchmarks in your analysis.
Build your data arsenal to cover the most important things the highest-paid person will be concerned with or judged by—usually, that’s the bottom line. If you have data that speaks to the highest concerns of the highest-paid person, it will help drive decisions.
Before heading into a meeting where a decision needs to be made, try to build consensus among others. The more prepared and informed the larger group is about the facts around a decision, the more apt they will be to challenge the highest-paid person.
Quick hacks I have done in past - shared pre-reads ahead of the meeting, presented with a flyer for everyone that contains details of alternatives backed with data.
As you move up the ladder, you’ll naturally gain more authority, but that doesn’t mean you need your influence any less. Whether you choose to continue as an individual contributor or go down the people-management route, your life will be much easier if people believe in you not because they have to, but because they choose to.
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