Innovative organizations are transforming to be more customer-centric, value learning over winning, and to start with problems rather than products. Product leaders within these companies are the driving force behind such critical shifts, and understand that it requires stakeholder action to make an impact.
Alpha teamed up with General Assembly to bring together more than twenty senior product executives from Fortune 500 and growth-stage organizations, including General Electric, JP Morgan Chase, Prudential, American Express, AARP, and PwC. After dinner and drinks, the group had a series of engaging conversations about decision making within product organizations, especially in the face of adversarial stakeholders.
The objective of the evening was to address the product leader’s multi-dimensional role, in which they aren’t just managing stakeholders up or down, but must have a truly 360 degree perspective. Participants were guided through several tools to assess stakeholder viewpoints and communicate ideas in a compelling and interesting way. After significant discussion (and even some friendly debate), participants learned the following takeaways:
Disagree and commit
The problem with consensus is that it is too unrealistic to expect so many different stakeholders with varying objectives to agree with each other. Instead, product leaders should optimize for commitment. When stakeholders understand that disagreeing won’t necessarily derail a meeting (but is instead the point of the meeting), they are less likely to sit silently.
When product leaders value commitment over consensus, people slowly become more comfortable sharing their concerns, rather than keeping them to themselves — or even worse, sharing them with each other privately after the meeting adjourns. One very specific way to practice “disagree and commit” is to interpret all silence as disagreement. In other words, if you suggest something to a group, and the group is silent, you might say “I am taking that silence to mean that everybody in the room vehemently disagrees with me. Please share your disagreements.”
Be mindful of the ‘meeting after the meeting’
There’s one surefire way to render decisions in a meeting ineffective and it’s to set up the dreaded ‘meeting after the meeting.’ That’s when one direction seemingly generates consensus during a meeting, but immediately afterwards one stakeholder pulls aside others to voice concerns. The ‘meeting after the meeting’ is a destructive force that stands in the way of product leaders seeking to impact their organizations.
The reason it happens is because, in many organizations, there is a stigma against disagreement. It is seen as a sign of strife or discord. Therefore, key stakeholders don’t feel comfortable voicing their concerns with a plan during the meeting, and instead do so privately afterward, thereby blocking action.
Studies show however that disagreement of an appropriate nature is a sign of a healthy culture. To help facilitate healthy disagreement, Intel pioneered and Amazon adopted the practice of “disagree and commit,” where the goal of a decision-making meeting is not to reach consensus, but rather to achieve commitment.
Address the personas in the room
Participants were assigned different personas for a role-playing exercise designed by General Assembly’s corporate training program in order to practice disagreeing but committing to a decision. Interestingly, many teams struggled to reach commitment and instead kept instinctively aiming for consensus.
Participants discussed the various personas and which they felt were most helpful and hurtful to the decision-making process. Surprisingly, from the perspective of ‘disagree and commit,’ participants felt that the ‘daredevil’ – the anti-traditionalist who poses the riskiest, alternative ideas – was most helpful. The ‘daredevil’ made disagreement comfortable, if not encouraged, and enabled teams to feel as though they weighed a spectrum of possibilities before committing to one in particular.
On the other hand, the most hurtful persona was not the most bold; it was the most quiet one. The “BFF” who acts as though they want to make everyone happy instead of speaking their mind was considered most likely not only to continuously shift the group’s focus on consensus over commitment, but also to stage a ‘meeting after the meeting.’
Transforming the organization takes more than knowing best practices – the crucial step is understanding how to implement change and drive action across differing stakeholders. In more ways than one, product management is really about the management of people. The best product leaders do just that.