Dealing With Conflicting Advice As A Product Manager

homer getting conflicting advice

One of the most underrated skills for Product Management is the ability to synthesize a lot data, with much of it simultaneously pointing you in conflicting directions. It’s not dissimilar to trying to make a decision by looking at what “internet experts” recommend…

As a Product Manager, you will be getting input from a lot of different sources: customers (of course), analysts, competitors, prospects, advisors, industry experts, colleagues, partners, management and more. If you think you’re likely to basically hear the same thing over and over from all these stakeholders, so you can just focus on what you hear the most frequently (or loudest), you’d be wrong (for more than one reason). In fact, if these type of conflicts give you a headache, then Product Management is probably not the job for you.

Fred Wilson recently wrote about a similar experience that startups in an accelerator program go through, with every person they meet as part of the program (smart, experienced people) offering them solid but contradictory advice. He called that specific phenomenon mentor/investor whiplash. What these new startups & CEO’s are going through is what a Product Manager also has to deal with, day in, day out.

But I believe conflicting information should not pose a problem for a few reasons. Firstly, you should already be absolutely crystal clear on what your vision is for where your product is going… what will it do, what will it not do, who will use, why will they use it, what does it look like, what makes it unique, etc. If the feedback you are getting would mean steering you away from your vision, then you want to apply a very high discount factor to it. I’m not saying ignore it or don’t be open to new ideas, but it’s critical you have total commitment to your vision.

There’s nothing worse than a Product Manager who flip flops around on their product strategy based on who they spoke to last (believe me – I’ve worked for more than one of them). You will lose the confidence of your team very quickly, and you’re going to end up with a crappy product in the not-so-distant future. So as long as you have a clear picture of what your future looks like, it makes it very easy to decide how some feedback/advice/idea falls into that picture (or not). If you’re operating without a vision, you have no “filing cabinet” to put the feedback into, so you can’t distinguish good/bad, helpful/useless, relevant/irrelevant.

One of the character traits I can’t stand are people who like to surround themselves by “yes men”. To hear only one view point before you decide something is the worst case scenario: you miss implications and opportunities. So this leads me to the second reason why I don’t see conflicting information as a bad thing: when you get all differing data points, you can understand everybody’s perspective, get new ideas, and see both sides of any decision. This in turn should give you personally new ideas, things to consider, and stretch your own thinking.

People tell me I tend to ask a lot of hard questions, but I just don’t see it that way. I think if you don’t have answers to all of the questions coming your way, then maybe you haven’t thought through everything in the first place. And if that’s the case, I personally would appreciate the back and forth dialog, not complain that the questions are too hard. Questions are not criticism – it’s a way to make sure you’ve thought everything through. I personally always ask people on my team to push back hard on anything I say that they disagree with – it’s much better to hear it early, than after you’ve finished executing on a bad assumption.

5 whysLastly, getting conflicting information will often provide you with the prompt to really make sure you get to the root of the feedback/suggestion. Some people might explain this as asking “why” 5 times. Let’s say you have a customer request your product to add feature XYZ, it looks logical and something other customers you know will want it, so you put it on your backlog. But then another customer asks you for the exact opposite thing of feature XYZ. Because of the resulting cognitive dissonance, you will ask “why” they want that. Only when you ask why, will you get to the real feedback/insight. This is what you should have done the first time around anyway, but my point is that conflicting information often forces you to have that discipline because your brain will want to resolve these two opposing view points.

So as you can tell by now, i think if you are Product manager, you should be seeking out conflicting information, not shying away from it – it is a good thing, not a bad thing. Whenever my managers used to tell me I did a good job on something, I would say “don’t tell me what I’m doing well – tell me what I could be doing better”. So I was very glad to read the following earlier this week:

“They won’t always be right, but I find the single biggest error people make is to ignore constructive, negative feedback. Don’t tell me what you like, tell me what you don’t like.” – Elon Musk

Note that this does not mean you have to agree with the negative feedback and change your approach, but always be seeking alternative views. And on that bombshell, I’ll open up the comments to any hard questions you may have for me 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Dealing With Conflicting Advice As A Product Manager

  1. Raji

    Nice article. Thanks for posting. 🙂 Here are my questions: I’ll let you decide whether it is hard or easy for u 😉

    1. To start with, when do you realize you have a clear vision that aligns with company goals? or you dictate company goals? 🙂
    2. When do you realize you’ve a clear vision on product strategy especially when you joined a company new?
    3. What do you do if you cant sell your vision or have lot of resistance from top management/ board of directors? Would you try to resell it in a different way?

    Reply
    1. obeleask Post author

      Hey Raji – great questions. I had a few sentences in the blog about this topic, but I removed them before publishing as I thought it might be worth its own blog at some point 🙂 But I’ll try to cover some of it here:
      1) People will tell you the order is company goals, then product goals, but I don’t really agree and have not seen it work this way in practice. They are interlinked, and it can take a few rounds back and forth between them to get it all completely aligned. Until everyone’s on the same page, you’re not done yet.
      2) Another way of thinking about your product vision, is to think of it as a hypothesis. This is what you believe will make you successful, and why you think that (e.g. who will buy your product, why would they buy it vs the competition, etc). So you know it’s clear to you when you can successfully defend your hypothesis from the harshest scrutiny (from investors for example) – that’s why it’s important to ask “hard” questions early on! Then it’s a matter of executing on it and finding out if you were actually right or not 🙂
      3) If you can’t convince your board/management/etc, then I’d say there are 2 likely scenarios:
      One is that your vision is incomplete, weak, faulty, etc. In which case, you need to keep improving it or modifying it.
      Two is that you’re seeing something they aren’t seeing. In this case, if you can’t convince anyone at your own company whose trust you already have, then you have to really analyze yourself – will you be able to convince anyone outside the company either (like a customer to buy from you, another investor to give you money, etc)? However, the fault doesn’t always lie with you (especially if you work at a BigCo) – so if you deeply believe and are passionate about a given topic, and you are entrepreneurial, then maybe it’s for you to go out and make it happen on your own! If not, then put your good idea on the shelf, along with the rest of them 🙂

      Reply
  2. Pingback: 5 Tips to Managing Conflicting Opinions In Product Development - Toggl Blog

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