Watch the video to see his talk in full. Or read on for an overview of his key points:
- People problems are leadership problems
- How to dismantle dysfunction
- Leading with context and accountability
All Problems are People Problems
Christian begins by explaining how working in product is a little like being in a soap opera – the drama never ends. Providing an example, he details how a one-on-one consultation he was part of, escalated into a company-wide argument. The discussion resulted in a fly-by “swoop and poop” from the CEO, who provided criticism and disengaged direction, leaving more questions than answers.
Christian has learned that communication issues are universal from experiences like this. Regardless of company, product, or location, he says, leaders will often identify people as the problem after repeated misalignments.
Product people repeatedly raise challenges with communication, resources, conflicting priorities, stakeholders, the roadmap, business cases. These are rarely technical issues. As Christian says, maybe every problem, rather than just being a people problem, is actually a leadership problem.
People Problems Are Leadership Problems
Christian explains that in agile organisations, you don’t need less management, but rather better leadership and management.
The role of both is to understand the strategic context of the organisation – knowing what’s important, and to communicate the business mission and direction. The “why we do the why” he says.
Quoting influential Silicon Valley coach Bill Campbell, Christian also explains that “leadership is about recognising that there’s greatness in everyone and your job is to create where the culture can emerge”. It’s a culture of alignment and context, “taking them to and beyond competency” with streamlined objectives.
Lead with Strategic Context
Next Christian discusses alignment. In many modern product organisations, the solution to alignment is to have meetings. Meetings typically are booked when people need more clarity, and are looking for alignment, or want to manage stakeholders, or need more visibility on planning and updates, or when an organisation only has one form of communication.
Christian explains that when leaders aren’t transparent, everything becomes essential and therefore teams are expected to do everything at once. “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do,” he says. “What is important right now, and what’s important next.”
Missionaries and Mercenaries
Strategic context allows us to be missionaries not mercenaries, Christian says. “Missionaries are all in; they understand the why, mercenaries just say yes.” To understand why, he says, we must lead with evidence-based discovery, asking:
- Will they buy or choose it?
- Can they use it?
- Can we build it?
- Can stakeholders support it?
From discovery, we can lead to alignment activities. Meetings may be required, but they can be optimised, with reduced length, headlined topics and supported with discovery narratives and briefs.
Stakeholder management is equally key to alignment and can be problematic. Christian sees a solution in evangelism; inspiring support by focusing on shared goals, justified with product walk-throughs and data. What’s key, Christian says, is that “everyone has a voice, but not a vote”.
The Importance of Trust
As leaders, Christian says part of your job is to be a part-time therapist. You need to know the problems facing your teams to avoid disconnection and to foster a culture of trust – from onboarding, to one-to-ones, to assessments.
He says that leaders need to be vulnerable, show understanding, courage and positive intent, in order to get the same from teams. By giving context, establishing a transparent supportive culture and engaging at all levels, leaders can oversee great products built by great product teams. “If it’s not hard,” he says, “you’re not doing it right.”