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How To Manage Product Tension and Lean Into It Effectively "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 30 October 2020 True Conflict, Leadership Premium Content, managing conflict, Premium Content, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 24483 Product Management 97.932
· 122 minute read

How To Manage Product Tension and Lean Into It Effectively

In my book, Managing Product = Managing Tension, I’ve focused on what it is that impacts the products we build and how we manage them, namely; mind, matter, and moves. Each of these factors in their own right creates tension and in my new book, I outline how we can make the most of these tensions to create great products.

I’m sharing Chapters 1 and 5 with Mind the Product members:

If you like what you read, go ahead and buy the book!

Managing Product = Managing Tension

‘Discomfort causes us to think differently, to engage our brains more and in different ways, and this is how we come up with better solutions to problems.’  Shane Snow

In this chapter we will explore:

  • How the very nature of product management lends itself to tension.
  • The mind of people impacting the product.
  • The matter that a product is made of and how it affects development.
  • The moves people make in relation to the product.


I call it the ‘To Jump or Not’ tension: deciding whether to jump into the pool because everybody else has, even though the water is absolutely freezing, and you really don’t want to go in. It is the situation in which a stakeholder argues that we should be building a feature ‘because the competitor already has it’ whilst the product person is concerned about blindly following the competition without good reason or benefit to the customer. ‘To Jump or Not’ is one of many tensions we can encounter when managing products. I am, for example, thinking back to an experience I had a few years ago where a senior stakeholder brutally interfered with what I thought was a great product plan.

When a senior stakeholder throws a spanner in the works …

I was excited. The new feature that the team and I had planned would drastically simplify the onboarding of new customers onto our platform. Instead of asking people for their personal details early on in the customer journey, we would demonstrate the benefits of our app first and ask for details later. We discussed our assumption that this new feature would drastically reduce the number of people leaving the app as friction would be removed. Happy days!

Then the Chief Marketing Officer interjected … He expressed his concern about missing out on valuable customer data. ‘Despite some customers not signing up, we do get important customer data when they register,’ he explained. ‘This data is then used for our targeted marketing campaigns, and I am concerned that we might well lose this data if we stop asking people to register upfront.’ I was still contemplating the CMO’s words, when he then spoke in a tone that did not leave much room for dissent: ‘So, I have decided that we will stick with the existing onboarding flow.’  You could feel the tension starting to build in the room, with everyone turning to me to see how I would respond …

I paused and said that I understood his concerns but reiterated the need to simplify the onboarding flow for our users in order to create a better experience and increase the number of completed signups. We considered alternative onboarding scenarios which our team had explored and settled on a compromise whereby the first step of the onboarding journey both asked for a limited number of personal details and outlined the app’s benefits.

This is just one of many examples that I have encountered in my career as a product manager; you have a seemingly great creative idea, but an important stakeholder is worried about a potentially negative consequence of that same idea and puts a huge spanner in the works.

Before I became a product manager, I used to be a digital project manager. My primary responsibility as a project manager was to ensure that projects were delivered within budget, time and scope.[1] Highly detailed Gantt charts helped with planning and tracking my projects.[2] Each project would start off hopefully, confident that we would meet the deadlines and dependencies specified in the project plan.

I quickly learned that these project plans are not worth the paper they are written on. As Mike Tyson says, ’everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. It would quickly become apparent to me that the technology underpinning the new website was more complex than we had originally accounted for; or the client would not sign off on the new homepage design (never mind that we did deliver it on time, in scope and on budget).

I thus learned the hard way that working on technology never is a linear or predictable process. This is particularly true when we use new technologies in products or when prevailing technologies are applied in untested, novel ways. The very nature of the product management process is highly fluid and unpredictable. The mere fact that you are working with technology drives uncertainty as well as the involvement of multiple cross-disciplined people. As we will see throughout this book, the tension that we experience when managing products is the net result of a variety of ‒ often opposing ‒ causes and effects. Take, for example, the strains we can feel when having to satisfy both the needs of our end users and those of the shareholders of our businesses.

Does that by default make product management more pressured than other professions?! Not necessarily, but the position of a product manager does undoubtedly generate innate tension. When you are covering the commercial, experiential and technical aspects of a product and all the unknowns inherent in any of these areas, it means that you are often flying in the face of uncertainty whilst dealing with highly demanding stakeholders. All these factors combined feed into the highly pressured nature of product management.

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

‘A great product manager has the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer, and the speech of a diplomat.’  Deep Nishar 

Managing products is a bit like an everlasting tug of war, with various forces pulling in lots of different directions at the same time. The three main forces we see are the mind of the people involved with the product, the matter that the product is made of and the moves that people make in relation to the product.

For example, you might have a product person coming up with a great product idea that customers will love, whilst the salesperson struggles to figure out how to best commercialise it. Or the engineer who wants to make the software code more elegant, seemingly immune to the pressure to take the product to market as quickly as possible. These tussles can make the difference between being first to market or a product never seeing the light of day; between customer delight and customer indifference; between customer value and commercial realism.

For the purposes of this book, I define product management to include both building the product and its subsequent management and iterations throughout the product life cycle.[3] There will be parts of the book where I will zero in on developing a product or feature, and other places that highlight the continuous iterations of a product. The three core components of product management, each of which, in their own right, can cause tension are mind, matter and moves.

Product Management = Mind 

Tensions caused by the ‘Mind’ of the individuals and teams involved with the product, their attitudes, approaches and mental states.

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Tensions caused by the ‘Matter’ of which the product is formed. Whether the matter of your product is technological or physical, it might not always ‘act’ the way we want or predict it to.

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Tensions caused by the ‘Moves’ made with respect to the product. Moves such as decisions to create or terminate a product or the processes we put in place to manage a product throughout its life cycle. Not only do we need to be aware of the distinctive tensions inherent within mind, matter and moves individually, we also encounter tension as a result of friction between different factors or due to specific circumstances. The mind of people involved in developing products, for instance, can be rather unpredictable. This doesn’t have to be problematic in its own right but will lead to friction or uncertainty if the product matter is very unpredictable or if the moves designed to guide the product development process hinge on certainty. Or take a totally unprecedented circumstance like the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused a lot of tension in its own right. Tension is therefore the cumulative result of cause, effect and circumstances which manifests itself in a multitude of ways when managing products:

  • Uncertainty
  • Friction
  • Creativity
  • Tough decisions
  • Ambiguity
  • Challenges
  • Constraints
  • Unclear territory
  • Problems
  • Opinions
  • Doubt
  • Anxiety
  • Conflict

Better understanding of both the reasons and manifestations of tension is critical if we want to improve the ways in which we manage them when creating products. Take ‘people and technology’, for example; this tension alone can completely derail the development of your product. In this book I will argue that tension is neither good nor bad. Tension is inevitable and it is down to us to manage tension effectively.

How the nature of product management causes tension
Fig. 1 – How the nature of product management causes multiple tensions along the way

The nature of product management gives rise to multiple tensions and, if we are not careful, it could leave a mark on the product and impact its value to the customer (See fig. 1). In this first chapter we will see the tensions heaped on the product, caused by the mind, matter and moves respectively.

Product Management = Mind + Matter + MovesProduct Management = Mind 

‘Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.’  George Washington Carver

When I took on my first role as a product manager, I was very excited. One of the reasons for my initial excitement was that I expected to focus solely on products, no longer having to worry about dealing with other people, their personalities and agendas. Or that’s what I thought. The reality of being a product manager could not be further removed from my initial assumptions: These days, I probably spend eighty percent of each day interacting with other people!

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the problematic nature of product management is all down to products and the technologies or materials that they are made of. The mind of the person(s) involved in designing, building and marketing products are just as pivotal. At the start of this first chapter we talked about the inherent tension between technology and people. Collaborating effectively with other people can be just as complicated, if not more so. In this section, we will look at the following challenges to cognitive diversity and collaboration, as well as the existence of emotional triggers.

 Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Three tensions caused by the mind when managing products:

1.        The ‘Not Seeing the Wood for The Trees’ tension. 

2.        The ‘Dysfunctional Family’ tension.

3.        The ‘You’re Only Human’ tension.

1. The ‘Not Seeing the Wood for The Trees’ tension

‘What you really want is people to solve problems in diverse ways ‒ to have a creative team, you want people to think of different types of ideas.’  Scott Page

Product management is a team sport. When I interview product management candidates for a role on a product team, I always explore the products they have worked on. When I hear candidates talk about ‘I built_____’ or ‘I acquired ______ new customers’ I probe to find out about both their specific individual contribution and how they collaborated with others.[4]

The main reason why I am always keen to explore collaboration, as well as individual contributions, is because of my strong belief in the value of ‘cognitive diversity’ which occurs when different perspectives and problem-solving approaches come together.[5] Creativity triggers a focus of critical judgement, rather than a suspension of it; as creators master their own creative process, less and less is left to explore alternatives. Instead, creators aim to try and get to their desired final result as quickly and efficiently as possible.[6] Going through such a creative process collectively therefore generates pressure and opposing points of view, starting with reaching agreement about the desired end result, let alone figuring out as a team how best to get there.

Cognitive diversity is closely linked with so-called ‘healthy tension’ or ‘constructive conflict’ which, if exercised wisely, fuels innovation and team success.[7] In both instances, people will respect each other’s different perspectives and opinions, and aim to resolve issues in a productive manner. Achieving a state of productive disagreement sits in the middle of the ’Conflict Continuum’ developed by business author Patrick Lencioni.[8] In this continuum, productive disagreement is flanked by artificial harmony and destructive conflict. At first glance, the idea of ‘artificial harmony’ might sound appealing but there is often a lot of discontent hiding underneath the group agreement or it risks being based on the lowest common denominator. Equally, a state of deconstructive conflict is not desirable either. Whilst it is impossible ‒ and as I will point out later in the book, not conducive to product innovation ‒ for team members to always agree, we don’t want teams to be in a state of conflict that doesn’t move the team or the product forward (See fig. 2).

Product Conflict
Fig. 2 – Product Conflict: the sweet spot in between artificial harmony and destructive conflict

In reality, I see an additional dimension playing out; ‘noise’ caused by people sharing their viewpoints haphazardly and not listening to each other. We thus get caught up in a cacophony of split perspectives, losing sight of what really matters or what is actually happening. In my experience, cognitive diversity becomes troublesome when people don’t respect or trust different views or approaches, have divergent interests or follow different goals. You might have come across companies or teams where people only pay lip service to the concept of cognitive diversity. Equally, friction rears its head when people fail to shed deeply-held biases.[9] As much as we like to see ourselves as totally rational beings, the reality is that we aren’t.

Throughout our lives, we develop so many different learnings and biases, some more ingrained than others. Unlearning these ‘priors’ can be really tough and cause friction between people and teams.[10] As a consequence, this often simply creates noise, with people failing to reach agreement on anything. Wayne Greene, a highly experienced product management leader and consultant, has reflected on this noise and compared it to ‘walking into a dysfunctional family’. Greene explained to me how product managers might feel like a ‘mini CEO’, owning the product, but the reality is that ‘you almost need a degree in psychology’ when working with others on products.[11] Cognitive diversity is priceless with respect to developing great products, but we need to recognise that it can also cause a great deal of friction.

2. The ‘Dysfunctional Family’ tension

‘They did not need to be close friends to work together. But they need to trust each other.’  Kirsten Beyer

Spotify is a great example of a collaborative approach to product management. About ten years ago, they introduced their ‘squad’ structure, which represents their cross-functional approach to product development. Each squad is designed to act as a self-contained unit, consisting of a product person, designer and engineers. The squad should thus have all the skills and tools needed to design, develop, test and release to production.[12] Naturally, Spotify’s approach has evolved since its introduction, and Spotify employees are at pains to stress that they never set out to create a ‘Spotify model’ and that squads were only meant as an output and not as a goal in its own right.[13] In other words, it is a common misconception to think that assembling squads will automatically get people to collaborate effectively.

I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a squad-like fashion, working closely with engineers, designers and testers on a day-to-day basis. However, I have also come across businesses where collaboration wasn’t a given. For example, I joined a company a good few years ago which had an impressive engineering team and a team of equally committed project managers. Notwithstanding everyone’s good intentions, the two teams operated as silos, and cooperation between ‘tech’ and ‘project management’ was limited. Instead, it felt more like there was an imaginary fence between the two sides with people tossing things to each other over the top of it.

In her article ‘The Collaboration Blind Spot’, Harvard University researcher Lisa B. Kwan writes about why groups of people can feel threatened when they are being asked to collaborate.[14] From her research, Kwan has found that resistance to collaboration tends to emerge ‘especially when those groups are being told to break down walls, divulge information, sacrifice autonomy, share resources, or even cede responsibilities that define them as a group.’[15] People can thus interpret collaboration as a sign that their own importance to the company ‒ as a team or individual ‒ is waning. As a consequence, they become defensive and uncommunicative in trying to protect their area or role. Having seen such behaviours play out first-hand, collaboration can add an additional layer of complexity to the product development process.

‘Collaboration is rarely all bliss’ claims Allen Gannett in his book ‘The Creative Curve’, and so-called ‘conflicting collaborators’ are the best people to work with, according to him. You don’t want to, Gannett explains, collaborate with someone who is so easy to get along with that they don’t push you. Instead, you want to work with someone who will help you discover and overcome your flaws or those of your creative idea.[16]

A conflicting collaborator has specific traits which compensate for your flaws.[17] Let’s say that Rosy has great product ideas but struggles to turn them into action. Kevin, a colleague of Rosy, isn’t necessarily the best at coming up with ideas; his forte is the practical execution of other people’s ideas. Paired together, Rosy and Kevin form a great team, and complement each other well.[18] Their productive partnership is then thrown off track when Mona joins the team; she brings a wealth of experience but finds it hard at times to venture beyond what she already knows. As this simple, fictitious example shows, collaboration is hardly ever straightforward, and putting complementary skills together will not create a high-performing team overnight. However, if managed well, collaboration can act as a strong source of creativity and innovation.

3. The ‘You’re Only Human’ tension

‘Our emotions have a mind of their own, one which can hold views quite independently of our rational mind.’  Daniel Goleman

As Sylvester Stallone’s character once said in the film ‘Rocky’, ‘In the boxing ring of life it’s not how hard you can hit, but rather how many times you can get hit and keep moving forward.’ This quote is spot on when it comes to emotional triggers; you will feel a blow each time your weak spot is hit; however, the test is whether you have the resilience to continue. Before you ‘feel’, you are likely to experience an emotion first.[19] Emotions are effectively a survival mechanism, an instant response which in turn triggers a certain feeling.[20]

Emotional triggers are people, words, opinions or situations that provoke a strong emotional reaction within us. In her famous TED talk, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that emotions are rooted in predictions.[21] She explains that emotions are primal, helping us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way.[22] It’s our past experience that our brain uses to predict and trigger associated emotions.

Emotions that can be triggered include anger, rage, sadness and fear.[23] For example, when other people disagree vehemently with my view of the world, I will often feel sad and lonely. Over the years I have at least become aware of this trigger and its impact, but it can nevertheless affect the way in which I collaborate with others or the ways in which I behave.

I once worked with a colleague who other colleagues described to me as ‘a tough cookie’. Granted, he was a bold character who wasn’t afraid to stand up for his opinions and take drastic action. I realised, however, that my colleague was still susceptible to what other people thought of him, often asking ‘what do people think of me?’ or ‘what did they think of my decision?’ A clear example of someone who appeared to be made out of Teflon, whilst in reality having his own emotional triggers to deal with.

When your emotions are triggered, Dr. Marcia Reynolds explains in ‘Outsmart Your Brain’, a host of neural, biochemical, and hormonal actions are initiated based on what your brain perceives you need to feel happy or satisfied.[24] Psychology professor Michael Gazzaniga argues that people have a built-in system which creates a narrative about why we do the things we do and which helps decide how we respond to certain triggers. Both Gazzaniga and Reynolds explain how we react emotionally if the following needs or desires are not being met[25]:

  • To be liked
  • To be understood
  • To be in control
  • To be included
  • To feel valued
  • To be right
  • To feel needed
  • To be respected
  • To feel safe

Understanding your emotional triggers is essential in any walk of life. But when you are managing products and the level of collaboration that comes with that, recognising your own and others’ emotional triggers is absolutely imperative. Even if the number of people involved with a product is small, these people will most likely have diverse backgrounds, disciplines and perspectives. Their emotional triggers and personal styles will most likely vary too.

When collaborating with others we need to be aware of these differences and be respectful of dissimilar emotional triggers ‒ our own and those of others. People’s failure to recognise and manage emotional needs or triggers ‒ their own or those of others ‒ can introduce an extra level of frustration to the already uncertain endeavour that is product management.

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

‘The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.’  Robert M. Pirsig

 Learning about the definitive nature of software code …

I am not a software engineer myself and perhaps that is one of the reasons why I have always been in awe of engineers and the work they do. When I started my career in the digital space, I remember a colleague explaining to me that ‘coding is pretty black and white’, as she showed me the code that she had just written. It took me a while to make sense of her code, but I could see how she had created a set of instructions and rules for when to apply them.

My colleague then taught me about basic ’if statements’ in a common coding language, meaning that you need a set ‘condition’ to be true for a specific instruction or ‘statement’ to be executed. If the condition is false, then the statements get ignored:[26]

if(condition_1) {

   /*if condition_1 is true execute this*/



else if(condition_2) {

   /* execute this if condition_1 is not met and

        * condition_2 is met




In short, get an instruction wrong and the product won’t behave in the way you expect it to!

The story above illustrates the certain character of software programming, with the onus on the software engineer to make sure that the instructions put in are (a) the correct ones and (b) executed as expected. Until machine learning takes hold fully, computers will be dependent on humans feeding instructions, and those humans not messing up their commands.

Craig Strong, Global Speciality Practice Advisory Lead for EMEA at Amazon Web Services, emphasises the effort required to develop software solutions, which can be high in cognitive load and complexity. ‘Changes which seem simple to some people can in fact be a lot of technical work.’ For instance, code inheritance, domain logic, rules and technology dependencies. Strong adds: ‘I’ve witnessed many people with little knowledge on the technology side be very dangerous in this context, manifesting disrespect for the tech. As a result, they underestimate the time something should take to develop or disrespect the proposed timelines from the tech team which can in turn can cause human conflict.’[27]

Whether the product is an app, website, API, self-driving car or smart speaker, errors in the code written can cause ‘crashes’ or ‘bugs’. Whilst Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson argues that ‘bugs are an inevitable byproduct of writing software’, most engineers will strive ‒ as a matter of professional pride, if anything ‒ to reduce any room for error.[28] Software development can be very complex, both when working on existing systems or implementing new technologies. This is the reason why coding is such a painstaking, almost binary discipline. Its focus is on eliminating any sense of ambiguity, aiming to make the software as repeatable and predictable as possible.[29]

 Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Three tensions caused by the matter when managing products:

1.        The ‘Tell Me What to Do’ tension.

2.        The ‘Knitting Spaghetti’ tension. 

3.        The ‘Who’s the Boss’ tension. 

1. The ‘Tell Me What to Do’ tension

‘For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.’  Margaret Heffernan

Involving humans in product management can equate to opening the floodgates for the herd. Products are never developed in isolation; from making product decisions to people building and using the product, humans are heavily involved at every stage. Despite this being a good thing for the most part, the combination of technology and people can lead to clashes and frustration.

The creation of products leaves little room for ambiguity, but humans are not built like that. Products are designed and built in a highly rational and calculated manner. For instance, when designing and building a car, the different materials and components that make up the car dictate its design and build. Materials like steel and aluminum aren’t particularly malleable and don’t leave much room for nuance! As humans, in contrast, there will be times when we make fully rational decisions and times when we clearly don’t.[30] At times, emotional or contradictory thoughts or behaviours will take over.[31] In addition, creativity requires a healthy degree of irrationality. Would we have had the lightbulb or the automobile if people had complied with the status quo or accepted, logical ways of thinking?!

Bringing a group of people together as part of product development means introducing emotion, creativity, uncertainty, contradiction and a whole host of other behaviours. If you offset this against the more rational, predictable nature of technology products, you have got the second cause for product management tension

2.The ‘Knitting Spaghetti’ tension

‘Creativity can solve almost any problem.’  George Lois

The world’s greatest products and inventions wouldn’t be anywhere without creativity, and creative geniuses spurring them on. From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, the most famous product people and inventors all share one key trait: creativity. Some of these visionaries are well known for displaying ‘challenging behaviours’: Steve Jobs and his tendency to erupt in anger or Marie Curie’s insistence on working with highly radioactive materials.[32]

Creativity is an intangible phenomenon and can’t be captured in checklists or fixed processes; creativity means coming up with original or unusual ideas, which can be applied to existing or fresh problems. Especially when working on problems that haven’t yet been solved (successfully) you will need to think in novel and unexpected ways. Solving these problems involves uncertainty, unknowns and relentless iteration. Take British inventor James Dyson, who set out to solve the problem of traditional vacuum cleaner bags rapidly filling up with dust and losing suction power as a result. Dyson went through thousands of prototypes to finally come up with a vacuum cleaner that used centrifugal force instead of a bag, to successfully separate dirt from air.[33]

Creativity is hard to direct
Creativity is hard to direct and cannot be delivered on demand

Such an evolution becomes even more of a challenge when coupling innovation with heavily regulated industries or process driven companies. Would Steve Jobs have become such a prodigy had he manufactured airplanes? How would Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, have fared if she had worked in the pharma industry as opposed to underwear?[34]

The impalpable nature of creativity can be a breeding ground for frustration when developing products. Creativity is hard to direct and cannot be delivered on demand. In Chapter 3 we will examine the nonlinear nature of creativity, and the unpredictable outcomes of divergent perspectives coming together. This clashes with the demanding nature of all competitive and pressurised environments.

3. The ‘Who’s the Boss’ tension

‘Managers who do not understand people’s different thinking styles cannot understand how the people working for them will handle different situations.’  Ray Dalio

One of the things I love about being a product manager is the front row seat that you often get within a business. You will be involved in commercial and strategic aspects as well as technology and design. Product people repeatedly engage with a wide cross-section of people and disciplines, both inside and outside their businesses.

In the space of a typical working day you can have talks with the sales team, discuss a go-to market strategy with a marketeer or sit down with engineers to plan implementation. These are all ‘stakeholders’ that a product manager needs to engage with. Marty Cagan, an internationally renowned product management expert and author, lists the following stakeholder examples:[35]

  • The executive team ‒ The CEO and leaders of finance, marketing, sales and technology.
  • Sales and Marketing ‒ To make sure the product and the business are aligned.
  • Finance ‒ To make sure the product fits within the financial parameters and model of the company.
  • Legal ‒ To make sure that what you propose is defensible.
  • Compliance ‒ To make sure what you propose complies with any relevant standards or policies.
  • Operations ‒ To make sure that people at the front line of your business, e.g. working on the supply chain or in customer support, know about your product or can work with it.
  • Business Development ‒ To make sure what you propose does not violate any existing contracts or relationships.

These people typically also bring their own approaches to problem solving and I strongly believe that cognitive diversity can contribute significantly to great products and high-performing teams. The downside of having such a rich diversity of views and approaches, however, is the risk of much ’noise’ or ‘analysis paralysis’:

  • ‘Who makes the decisions around here?!’ ‒ Think of the marketeer, the salesperson or the business owner all having a view on the product or how to solve a customer problem. It is plain to see how endless debates can ensue without ever reaching a decision.
  • ‘Can we please agree on an approach to solving the problem?’ ‒ Similarly, if a problem has been agreed but there are a multitude of potential approaches to solving a problem, how do you identify the best approach quickly and efficiently?
  • ‘We’re not all in the same place!’ ‒ Especially when stakeholders are not collocated in the same place, communicating and collaborating effectively can be a thorny affair.

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

‘If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.’  Anatole France 

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

Three tensions caused by the moves when managing products:

1.        The ‘Hold on To Your Seat’ tension. 

2.        The ‘I Love It When A Plan Comes Together’ tension. 

3.        The ‘You Can’t Have It All’ tension. 

1. The ‘Hold on To Your Seat’ tension

‘The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.’  Eric Ries

Success is never guaranteed when you are developing a new product or iterating on an existing product. Unless you are a market leader or a monopolist, there are so many factors that determine product success. Will customers want the product, and pay for it? How about that pesky competitor that managed to get to market first? What about that new technology that we still know so little about? These are the kinds of factors that companies struggle to control and why product management is not a straightforward or linear process.

 Waze: the uneven path from a tiny startup to a $1 billion exit

Waze illustration

If there only was a magic recipe or checklist with all the steps required to create a successful product … A few years ago, I attended a lecture by an Israeli entrepreneur who told the story of the humble beginnings of a GPS navigation app, and all the mistakes he and his colleagues made in building their product. Uri Levine was the name of the entrepreneur and ’Waze’ the name of the app, which was eventually sold to Google for a hefty $1 billion. From shifting focus to dealing with gnarly technology and scaling issues, Levine painted a vivid picture of the bumpy road travelled when building Waze.[36] His story made me realise that there is no special blueprint for managing successful products. By contrast, managing products often feels more like playing a pinball machine, having to carefully navigate the multiple flippers within the machine.

Ever driven a car in the mountains? Going from curve to curve, without knowing what is around the next bend? That is what managing products often feels like. Successful product companies like Amazon have developed a knack for taking the mountainous curves as expeditiously as possible so that they can learn quickly what awaits around the other side of the mountain.[37] Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has said ’Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day.’[38]

Learning early and often helps to minimise risk but can in turn create a huge amount of uncertainty and ambiguity. Product people will embrace this ambiguity; often out of choice or simply dictated by the circumstances they operate in. This appetite for uncertainty often conflicts with how the rest of the organisation functions. Hope Gurion, an experienced product leader and coach, pointed out to me that ‘the way product works is so countercultural to how the rest of the organisation operates. Think about accounting and sales, for example, where things tend to be a lot more predictable and certain, whereas products are flying in the face of uncertainty.’ Gurion went on to explain how product people often question or assume things will go wrong, ‘with everybody else assuming that things will go right.’[39] Consider the scenario where we start an experiment or ‘spike’ a new technology, not having any certainty about outcomes of these experiments.[40] In a world where people are looking for certainty and predictability, the experimental nature of product management can introduce significant pressure.

2. The ‘I Love It When A Plan Comes Together’ tension

‘In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’  Dwight D. Eisenhower

 My thinking that projects would materialise exactly as planned …

As I mentioned earlier, before I became a product manager, I used to work as a digital project manager. At the beginning I managed a lot of government projects, and I had to create project plans in Microsoft Project. Each time I put together such a plan for, let’s say, the build of a website or an app, the world felt like a better and more certain place. In my project plans, things always happened according to plan within the set timeframes, seamless handovers between different teams, everything according to spec and all within a pre-agreed budget. Any project dependencies would be dealt with smoothly by the various people involved in executing the project …… sounds of breaking glass.

I have learned over the years, and the hard way, that working on technology projects or products does not follow a linear or predictable path. Plans are malleable or, as the quote by Fujio Cho, Chairman of Toyota Motor Company, goes: ‘Plans are things that change’. These are just some of the things that I have seen go wrong when working on software products:

  • Unexpected complexity ‒ The underlying technology or workflows turn out to be way more complex than expected. As a result, thinking about, writing and testing software code takes longer than anticipated.
  • Altered scope ‒ We all say that we should not be doing it, but it still happens regardless: scope creep. Specific product features are agreed, often complemented with a list of things that are not in scope, upfront. As soon as we start working on a product, a request comes from left field, suggesting: ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have _____.’
  • Communication breakdown ‒ People responsible for different aspects of the product fail to communicate effectively with each other. The development process thus becomes a relay race where colleagues drop the baton in an effort to pass it on. Think, for instance, of the designer who has spent a lot of time designing an elaborate user interface, which the engineer then says cannot be implemented …
  • Change in priorities ‒ Whilst the product team has committed to building a specific product or feature, a new commercial opportunity arises for the sales team and a revision of priorities is required. Or your biggest competitor has just launched a similar feature. This often means that teams have gone back to their product roadmaps to discuss whether it makes sense to deviate from the items on the roadmap.[41] This can generate significant friction if the organisation treats the roadmap as a set in stone plan, an artefact that promises certainty and predictability …

Managing products is an uncertain business. It is therefore an illusion to think (1) that we can fully control a successful execution of a plan and (2) that everything will go as planned. However, this does not make planning or roadmaps redundant; a product roadmap is a beneficial communication and collaboration tool, as long as we accept that we might have to deviate from what was initially planned.

3. The ‘You Can’t Have It All’ tension

‘A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.’  Ludwig Erhard  

A significant part of managing products comes down to successfully handling constraints and making tough trade-off decisions. As Brandon Chu, VP of Product & GM of Platform at Shopify, explains, ‘product teams are constrained by the money, people, and time they have to launch a product.’[42] In project management this is referred to as the ‘Iron Triangle’, with its three angles occupied by cost, scope and time (See fig. 3).

The ‘Iron Triangle’ shows the constant trade-offs between cost, scope and time
Fig. 3 – The ‘Iron Triangle’: constant trade-offs between cost, scope and time

However, when it comes to product management, teams can often have all three variables in play at one time, which continuously changes the shape of the triangle. Alex Watson, Head of Product at BBC News, says ‘it is well known that if you fix two sides of a triangle, the third is what has to flex.’[43] Teams can thus be held back by all three of these constraints when working on a product, which means that you will have to compromise on cost, time and quality ‒ sometimes one of these or all three at once ‒ related to your product or business:[44]

People ‒ This is often the biggest constraint, as most companies have a limited number of people that can work on a problem at a given time. It can, however, be made even worse in companies when teams lose focus as a result of switching their attention between various products.[45] John Medina, a Developmental Biologist, has studied the brain and our ability to multitask. Contrary to popular belief, he has found that our brains are not conditioned for multitasking, actually slowing us down and increasing errors by 50 percent.[46] Similarly, our instinct to simply throw more people at a problem has also proven to be inadequate, often causing delays to software projects, as it takes time for people to get up to speed and to manage communication overhead due to the increased number of people working on the same project.[47]

Cost ‒ How much does it cost to develop a new product or to iterate on an existing one? Typical cost components are (1) salaries to hire and pay the team (2) marketing and business development to drive the product’s go-to-market strategy (3) operations to maintain a product and (4) operational and capital expenditure to enable teams to iterate on the product.

Timings ‒ Given that time is a finite resource, you will have to make difficult decisions that will affect ‘speed to market’, i.e. how quickly a product or feature can be launched.[48] A team might be working on Product A, but is then asked to work on Product B. If the decision is made for the team to move its focus from Product A to B, the release timings of Product A will suffer as a result. This concept is called ‘cost of delay’ which can be calculated by taking the projected value of a product or feature, dividing it by the duration of its build. Businesses suck up the value of each product or feature until it and any items preceding it are delivered.[49]

Long-term vs short-term ‒ Compromises can enable parties to achieve a desperately needed short-term ‘win’ that boosts morale, moves the business forward or simply generates badly needed revenue. These tend to be more short-term goals which can well be at odds with long-term business objectives.[50] Jo Wickremasinghe, Product Director at Zoopla and someone who has worked with and led numerous product development teams, describes the associated challenge for product managers and product development teams of ‘being able to deliver against both short-term and longer-term aims at the same time.’[51]

Competing customer demands  In an ideal world, we would develop products for all the people and build those features that make all our customers happy. Whether you work in a business-to-consumer (‘B2C’) or business-to-business (‘B2B’) environment, you will have to choose between often conflicting customer demands, simply because product resources are limited.[52]

New vs existing products ‒ Think of it like going to the casino; as a company, which products do you place your chips on? Do you go all in on new products, or instead spread your bets between existing and new products? Not only is this important from a strategic perspective, it also determines how you allocate time, budget and people.  The aforementioned Craig Strong shares how he has witnessed times where resentment surfaces between existing product teams and business units: ‘the signal that these new products are the future, sends a signal to the other areas that they are the past.’ Strong has seen the subsequent tension between product teams play out in pretty undesirable ways: ‘I recall a time where I was in a very large tech company and I was working on the new innovative product. I heard many times from the main function in the business “that’s never going to work” and off the back of that resources were limited and delayed. It thus created competition for resources or delays internally where integration was required.’[53]

Product is a results business ‒ At the end of the day, building and managing products is all about achieving results. For the customer and for the business. Even when we talk about creativity or building the unprecedented, both are geared towards realising specific results. Take the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who when designing a house, would first conceive of the result that he wanted to create. As Wright stayed focused on the results he wanted to create, the ‘how’ of obtaining those results emerged organically, and only after the ‘what’ had been crystalised fully.[54] However, even determining product success can be a tense process. Hope Gurion explains that the friction here does not have to be a bad thing: ‘This target setting creates healthy tension, because it requires critical thinking by all people involved. It fosters tension ‒ healthy ‒ around success criteria.’[55]

The very nature of product management is a true breeding ground for tension. Whether it is the often-uncomfortable marriage between humans and technology or the necessity to compromise, frustrations and frictions are innate to developing products.


Managing products is a strenuous business. There are three overarching factors responsible for this strain: the very nature of product management, the substance which makes up the product and the fact that people are involved in each aspect of building products. We need to acknowledge the existence and impact of these three factors before we can start thinking about how to best manage product tensions.


How the very nature of product management lends itself to tension:

  • Designing and building products is like an everlasting tug of war, with various forces pulling the rope in lots of different directions at the same time.
  • There are three main forces that are constantly trying to pull the product into different, and often opposing, directions: the mind of the people involved with the product, the matter that the product is made of and the moves that people make in relation to the product.

The impact of the mind on the product:

  • Disagreement and friction between the people involved with the product.
  • The multiple, and often opposing, minds when collaborating. 
  • The emotional triggers that are sparked when managing products.

The impact of the matter on the product:

  • Leaves little room for ambiguity or nuance when creating products.
  • The substance of the product ‒ e.g. software code or raw materials ‒ puts constraints on human creativity.
  • Multiple people working on the product matter cause friction and ‘noise’.

The impact of moves on the product:

  • Products are surrounded by so much uncertainty that it is hard to predict things ‒ as product managers we are walking an uneven path.
  • Your moves in relation to the product will rarely go fully according to plan.
  • The constant need for tough trade-off decisions causes a lot of tension.

Leaning into Tension Effectively 

“Failing to engage in conflict is a terrible decision, one that puts our temporary comfort and the avoidance of discomfort ahead of the ultimate goal of our organisation.” Patrick Lencioni  

Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

In this chapter we will explore ways to lean into product tension effectively:

  • Start with yourself and understand your appetite for tension, before actively seeking or embracing it.
  • Optimising ‘Product Tension’ using techniques that help you zoom in on your product and its competitors.
  • Being OK with ‘Individual Tension’: what are the ways in which you personally can be (more) comfortable with tension.
  • Tools and techniques: each aspect covered in this chapter will have related tools and techniques for you to apply. You will find these in the toolkit section at the end of the chapter.


Think of the last time you felt that creeping tension while managing a product. I imagine that it wasn’t a nice feeling; the strain of working on something that lagged behind its competitors or the mounting frustrations in your product team when you missed a critical deadline. The previous chapter outlined how tension can pave the way for growth, as an individual, a team or as a product. In this chapter, we will explore some critical tools and techniques to use if you wish to look for tension proactively or embrace existing pressures or frustrations in an effective manner. Before we explore some tools, we will start with the self and your own appetite for tension.

Start with yourself

“I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion.” Billie Jean King

The product that you and your team built is not doing half as well as you expected. You are struggling to raise funds for your startup. Or the priorities set by senior leadership at the large corporate organisation you work at don’t align with your customer needs. There is a rift within the product development team about how to best solve a critical customer problem through your product. And then there is me encouraging you to lean into the tension?!

Yes. Scenarios like the ones above can act as the perfect launch pad for growth and learning. And in fact, when tension is absent, you or your product team might be doing something wrong. As Ken Chin, an experienced digital product leader, explained to me, ‘I always mention to my teams to expect tension as a normal part of a high-performing team. If not, you are probably not being innovative enough.’

Adding to Chin’s words, I expect product managers and product teams to pursue tension actively – both internally and externally. Actively seeking tension and conflict is a daunting prospect for most of us and I am no exception. Not a day goes by without me feeling some sense of anxiety or tension – self-induced or external ‒ or just the classic imposter syndrome. It has made me realise that I need to start with myself when it comes to leaning into tension.

‘Who am I?’

How self-aware are you?! To be able to embrace tension or conflict, it is important that you are aware of how you see yourself and how you see others. Equally, consider how others perceive you. For instance, do you know when you feel most vulnerable as a product manager or what your colleagues think of you? I know that I often picture myself as a fraud or imposter, which will at times shine through in my behaviour. Equally, I am aware that colleagues of mine sometimes wish I would be less direct and opinionated.

‘What sets me off?’

As we covered in Chapter 1, emotional triggers are those people, words, opinions or situations that provoke a strong emotional reaction within us. Such reactions are typically based on a narrative built up in our brains since birth, this system interpreting all the ‘inputs’ we receive against our pre-existing narrative and we respond accordingly. There are common ‘life scripts’ that come into play and we tell ourselves things like ‘everyone else is better than me’, ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘failure is for wimps’. Anger, sadness and fear are often triggered as a result. When working in cross-functional teams, I used to feel both anger and sadness when I imagined the team were pointing the finger at me for a product underperforming or for not being clear about priorities.

‘How do I react?’

What is your go-to behaviour in difficult or uncertain situations? How do others behave when the heat is on, and why? My first response in tense situations is often to take things personally, getting very defensive or passive-aggressive as a result. Awareness of these tendencies and behaviours is critical if we want to manage tension or conflict constructively. Tools such as the iMA test or the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator provide valuable insights into your personality and preferences.

When I took the iMA test ‒ a quick behavioural survey designed to gain insight into your performance and collaboration style ‒ the outcome was that I am ‘cool, independent and competitive’ and that I ‘need to be in control of my situation and also need tangible evidence of progress.’ I am aware of how anxious or irritated I can get when things are not going to plan, making me more likely to behave impulsively. Knowing these things about myself doesn’t mean that I will never display those behaviours again, but it does help in pre-empting certain situations or triggers.

‘Creator or editor: What am I?’

Creators are more likely to dive headfirst into tension, actively looking for uncertainty and learning, and happy to start from a blank page. As a creator, you will find yourself more often than not in a situation where people will give you direct feedback. As Reid Hoffman ‒ serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist ‒ suggests ‘you might even be actively asking others to point out what is wrong with your idea or creation.’ In contrast, when you are editing someone else’s idea or product, there is less of a need to fly in the face of uncertainty or embrace tension. Most of the strong product people I have come across are creators, and very aware of the tension this mindset brings.

‘How does uncertainty impact me?’

When we talk about dealing with tension, it is critical that we consider our appetite for uncertainty. Some people appear to absolutely thrive on ambiguity, whereas others ‒ myself included ‒ have a natural tendency towards certainty. In Chapter 3, we looked at the tension between known and unknown as innate to product management; we will need to understand how comfortable we are ‘dancing with uncertainty’ as Jonathan Fields, founder of the Good Life Project, puts it.

Managing products requires the understanding and acceptance of doubt. If we want to get our teams, colleagues and customers to lean into tension, we will first need to harness the power of doubt and uncertainty. The fact is, most product people will have to go through the so-called ‘valley of doubt’; given all of the uncertainty involved in bringing an innovation to life and to market, it is reasonable to feel anxious about the journey (See fig. 14). The valley of doubt describes the points during the product journey where people across the organisation will need to take leaps of faith, and product people will typically encourage others to take these leaps.

Diagram to show how uncertainty affects product managers
Fig. 14 – The Valley of Doubt and how we go from high confidence to a rude awakening

Rik Higham is a Product Lead at Deliveroo and highly experienced in product management and experimentation. When I interviewed him for this book, it quickly became apparent that as much as product managers might dislike unknowns, part of us will actively be looking for it. Higham explained that as a product manager ‘you are in a position where you hear a lot of noise, but at the same time you need to actively go out looking for the most valuable noise.’ When you actively decide to step into the unknown or a pressure cooker, you will need to accept the friction and ‘messiness’ that comes with it.

‘Which battles am I willing to fight?’

Given the tension seeking nature of product management, you will face lots of challenges and battles. Lots of them! While you can’t always remove them, you have the power of choice. Do I react to the tension or do I let it be (for now)? You don’t have to react; you have a choice and you can learn to observe yourself instead.

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference’ goes the ‘Serenity Prayer’ which was widely used by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and subsequently adopted by the Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a helpful approach, see it as taking a helicopter view or ‘going to the balcony’, effectively detaching ourselves from the tense situation. Techniques like Suzy Welch’s 10/10/10 Rule are also great in taking a step back or picking your battles: how will I feel about this 10 minutes from now, how about 10 months from now, and how about 10 years from now?

Deep knowledge of your perceptions, triggers and behaviours isn’t just critical in view of tension. I believe this kind of understanding is also indispensable for successful collaboration due to the need for empathy when interacting with others, i.e. the ability to assume and understand other people’s viewpoints. In order to truly empathise with others, we need to understand and empathise with ourselves first. We will cover this more deeply in the next chapter.

Tension Tracker

We have arrived at a point in the book where I would encourage you to reflect on which of the tensions covered applies to your product, company, team or you individually. Which tensions are relevant to your situation, and why? What is your appetite for actively managing these tensions, even going as far as leaning into them? Understanding the impact of these tensions as well as your team or business’ current response and identifying appropriate ways to best manage tensions and pressures when managing products.

Understand the tension profile of your product, your team or you individually by answering the following questions. Take a moment to reflect on the triggers, emotions and behaviours in the face of pressure or ambiguity. Ask your teammates to complete the Tension Tracker, after which you can use the tension profiles of your team members as a discussion starter. Are there any significant discrepancies between the different scores, and if so, why? Where are we in agreement, and why?

Even if your colleagues don’t complete the Tension Tracker, use its questions as a conversation starter about the appetite for tension within the team. You can then use the outcomes from this to pick and mix from the different tension management tools and techniques that we will be covering in the next section.

Tension Tracker: where do you feel the tension?


Product Tension

1. My product suffers from a lack of differentiation compared to our competitors:

Not true: my product is highly differentiated (1 point)

Somewhat true: my product could differentiate more (2 points)

Very true: my product is almost the same as other products in the market (3 points)


2. Choose one of the following statements which best explains the lack of differentiation in your product:

My product was the first mover in the market, and we could do more to keep innovating (1 point)

The market is highly saturated, and it is becoming increasingly hard to stand out (2 points)

There is a lot of internal pressure to keep up with the competition by simply copying competitor features or propositions (3 points)


3. Which of the following best describes the competitive power of your product?

Customer experience: customers find my product easy to use (1 point)

Speed to market: we gain a lot of early traction with customers by being quick to market (2 points)

Pricing: my product is priced competitively; customers rate its value for money (3 points)


Team Tension

4. At my company, there is strategic alignment between business goals and day-to-day priorities.

True: our product team executes against a well-defined business strategy (1 point)

Somewhat true: we do have clear strategic goals but there is room to work on ad hoc initiatives or to iterate on products (2 points)

Not true: did someone say strategy?! (3 points)


5. Which of the following best describes your working relationship with your direct stakeholders:

Fully aligned and collaborative (1 point)

OK, but we could be more aligned (2 points)

Conflicted as we come from opposing perspectives (3 points)


6. The product development team that I am part of is highly collaborative and aligned:

Very true: our days of ‘norming and storming’ are well behind us and we deliver value constantly against a shared mission (1 point)

Somewhat true: we could do with more discussion within the team to make sure we build the right product, and in the right way (2 points)

Not true: things are not going well in the team; we argue a lot and struggle to achieve our objectives (3 points)


Individual Tension

7. Select one of the following statements that best describes your approach to ambiguity:

‘I eat uncertainty for breakfast, and remain unfazed in ambiguous situations’ (1 point)

‘I don’t mind a few unknowns, but do need some level of certainty to hang onto’ (2 points)

‘I hate ambiguity, and like to feel that I am in control’ (3 points)


8. Select one of the following statements that best captures your approach to conflict:

‘I thrive on conflict as it leads to the best outcomes in the long run’ (1 point)

‘As long as the conflict remains healthy, I’m good’ (2 points)

‘I absolutely hate conflict; it makes me feel anxious and unproductive’ (3 points)

Your Tension Profile

Now add up the number of points based on your responses in the Tension Tracker. Your ‘score’ should give you an indication of your tension profile; your exposure to tension and ambiguity:

Low Tension:  < 10 points

Your exposure to tension ‒ internal and/or external ‒ is probably quite low. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a good thing, as it might hint at a lack of product innovation or cognitive diversity within your organisation. 

Medium Tension: 10 – 17 points

You experience tension on a regular basis, either in relation to the product that you manage or the people that you work with, or both. There is, however, room to build on this tension and use it constructively, to progress the product or improve your individual or team performance.

 High Tension: > 18 points

You are probably exposed to tension on a continuous basis, and not all of it healthy tension. Some of this tension is caused by a lack of internal alignment, e.g. with respect to product positioning or strategic direction of the organisation. It would be good to both optimise those tensions worth leaning to and identify any ‘unhealthy’ tensions which could be used constructively for the good of the product and the people involved in developing it.

Naturally, the indicative profiles generated through the above Tension Tracker are meant to be just that: indicative. If I had to score myself, I’d probably fall somewhere between medium and high tension, and this might even depend on which day you ask me!

Irrespective of your score, I believe there is value in reflecting regularly on your appetite for tension, and that of your environment. If anything, these reflections will provide food for thought on how to best optimise your situation ‒ embracing tensions for the growth of your product, your team or your personal development.

Ways of embracing tension

“Relax, let go and listen.” David Allen

The good news about tension is that there is a wide variety of practical tools and techniques out there to help pre-empt and manage it. We want to use tension for good, allowing it to make our products, our teams or us as individuals stronger. Tools like active listening and harm reduction work best if we not only apply them in real-life situations but also reflect on their effectiveness and learnings afterwards.

In this section, we will deep dive into different tactics and approaches available to managing the tension inherent in developing products. We will apply the lenses of both the product and the individual to managing tension, outlining how and when each individual tool can help pre-empt or mitigate tension.

Optimising ‘Product Tension’

“If you always do what you did, you’ll always get what you got.” Marian Diamond

Thus far we have mostly looked at the tensions we encounter on a personal level. How about the pressures or unknowns that impact our products? In Chapter 2 we encountered some of the internal and external tensions that a product is likely to face throughout its life cycle. Factors such as competitive threats or customer bargaining power can make life hard for a product. In this section we will look at a number of useful tools and techniques you can use to mitigate the impact of such tensions on your product or decide whether to not pick up the battle. From competitor analysis to lean product development, there are a number of ways to successfully optimise product tension.

Optimising ‘Product Tension’ = Mind + Matter + Moves

 What are the tensions that your product is or will be facing? How can you best seize these tensions for the good of your product or business?

  1. Competitor analysis: using tools such as SWOT analysis, OODA loop, Kano model, Lean Canvas and direct customer feedback to understand competitive pressures and identify market opportunities for your product.
  2. Managing risks and unknowns: identifying your riskiest assumptions ‒ about the product and the customer ‒ and creating experiments around these assumptions. Running a pre-mortem creates a shared understanding of key risks or unknowns to test. Formulate a hypothesis to determine a measurable outcome.
  3. Apply constraints: you can apply deliberate constraints to your product, or a constraint is imposed through an external factor. Irrespective, it is worth actively exercising constraints as a way to reduce complexity and tension.

1. Competitor analysis

“If all you’re trying to do is essentially the same thing as your rivals, then it’s unlikely you’ll be very successful.” Michael Porter

‘Obsess over customers, not over competitors’ is a well-known quote by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos from one of his annual shareholder letters. While I agree that there is little point in agonising constantly over your competitors’ every move, I do believe there is value in studying the market in which your product operates and the direct and indirect competitors within it. Conducting competitor analysis will not remove external pressures but will help in identifying early where the tension is coming from and its (potential) impact on your product.

Chris Butler, Product Manager at Facebook, talks about real competitive analysis being about learning to love your competitor, using it to inform how to best take on the opportunities and challenges ahead. ‘Competitive analysis is essentially how your strategy works in comparison to your competitor’s strategies in today’s world.’ Before delving into ways in which we can analyse competitors, let’s first look at the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of it:

  • Understand where your product fits ‒ Reviewing competitors helps you to understand where your product sits within the market and its main point of differentiation, analysing and comparing aspects such as features, pricing, and perceived customer benefits.
  • There is no need to look at ALL competitors ‒ It is impossible to keep up with all of your competitors, all the time. When you narrow things down, you are likely to find that only a small percentage of companies in the market either scoop up most of the revenue or offer direct competition within your specific market segment.
  • Treat competitor analysis for what it is; valuable guidance ‒ Instead of becoming obsessed with your competitors, get obsessed with your customers and their needs! As Chinese general Sun Tzu outlines in ‘The Art of War’: ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ It can be very helpful to understand the competitive landscape and the position of your product or business within it, without becoming completely distracted by the features a competitor product does or doesn’t offer. You should avoid allowing the competitive landscape to dictate which features should or should not be included in order to avoid what I call the resulting ‘featuritis’! Instead of actively fighting your competitors, concentrate on finding a way of bypassing your competition altogether. This comes back to creating ‘the moment of choice’, akin to deciding which battles to pick, as covered in the previous section.
  • Find the perfect niche for your product ‒ The likelihood is for most of us that your product will be targeting the same customers that other companies and their product are already serving. Your product needs to be exceptional and differentiated enough for customers to consider switching. Look at the market and ask yourself: ‘are we solving the same problem, but differently?’ or ‘are we tackling a different customer problem altogether?’

In the toolkit section at the end of this chapter, you will find some common tools you can use to analyse your competition: the SWOT analysis, the OODA loop, the Kano analysis, the Lean Canvas and direct customer feedback.

2. Managing risks and unknowns

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been’.” Kurt Vonnegut

Identifying and testing riskiest assumptions

Tension becomes immediately apparent the moment you understand you are making decisions based on assumptions. Consciously or unconsciously we create assumptions, and before we know it, we treat them as ironclad truths and certainties. We all have biases and make unconscious assumptions. When developing products, the trick is to both identify and qualify our biases and assumptions early and often. Not all assumptions or biases need challenging, but it is critical to identify and test those assumptions that are instrumental to the success or failure of your product:

  • ‘We believe customers will pay for this product.’
  • ‘We believe we can build this new feature, using this new technology, within the given timeframe.’
  • ‘We believe that customers will find this improved feature easier to use.’

The first few times I heard assumptions like the ones mentioned above I assumed they were true ‒ mostly based on the experience level of the person uttering them. But then I learned to convert these assumptions into questions or bets by simply adding a question mark or adding the words ‘I bet’:

  • ‘We believe customers will pay for this product?’
  • ‘I bet that customers will pay for this product.’

Do we know which customers will use our product? Why would they pay for our product? How big is the gamble that we are taking on this product? 

  • ‘We believe we can build this new feature, using this new technology, within the given timeframe?’
  • ‘I bet we can build this new feature, using this new technology, within the given timeframe.’

How do we know we can successfully utilise a new technology? Why do we think we can deliver within a given timeframe? What if things don’t go to plan? 

  • We believe that customers will find this improved feature easier to use?’
  • ‘I bet customers will find this improved feature easier to use.’

Why do we think we will improve ease of use for the customer? Why are we certain?

Converting assumptions in measurable hypotheses

With all these examples, ‘how do we know?’ is the principal question. As soon as we phrase strongly held beliefs and assumptions as questions or bets, the underlying equation shifts from certainty to uncertainty. This uncertainty comes from information hidden within these assumptions. For instance: we don’t know whether customers will use our product, let alone pay for it. Or that the technology that we are banking on can be implemented effectively. By embracing uncertainty, we unlock valuable learning and risk management through customer research and experimentation.

To learn the right things from customer research, experiments or even product launches we need to formulate a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a more granular version of the original assumption and is formulated in such a way that it is easy to test and measure specific desired outcomes:

We believe that [doing this] for [these people] will achieve [this outcome].

We will know this is true when we see [this market feedback].

For example:

We believe that by introducing a free trial feature for people new to 10 pin bowling they will spend more time honing their virtual 10 pin bowling skills.

We know this is true when we see 5,000 people signing up for a free trial within three months of releasing the free trial feature.

Once you have formulated a hypothesis, you can use it to test a specific product area, feature or workflow. A focus on behavioural outcomes or changes is a key aspect of hypotheses. In other words, does the product succeed in the user showing more or less of a certain behaviour? Let’s say that you are building a money saving app and you want to test whether the app is indeed helping its users to save more. The core premise here that you want to test is whether the product does successfully motivate users to save more. A simple ‘before and after’ test, where we compare individual saving behaviours with and without the app, should prove or disprove our main hypothesis.

Moreover, if your goal is to mitigate product risk, it makes sense to test your riskiest assumptions first. You can use simple prototypes to test risky assumptions such as ‘this feature will definitely solve our customer problem’ or ‘customer will pay for this new feature’ before committing lots of time, money and effort to solving a problem. I will include an example of how to take an assumption and convert it into a hypothesis in the toolkit section at the end of this chapter.

Conducting a pre-mortem
use a pre-mortem to think about what could go wrong with your product
Fig. 15 – Use a pre-mortem to think about all the things that could go wrong

As helpful as ‘post-mortem’ sessions can be, how often do you find yourself wondering ‘if I’d only thought about that beforehand!’ or pondering what could have been. In a medical environment, a post-mortem offers the opportunity for health professionals and the family to establish a patient’s exact cause of death. With digital products, a post-mortem typically happens at the end of a project, after a big product release or a major system failure. The goal of these sessions is to reflect on areas for improvement and identify related actions for future projects and releases.The problem, however, with most post-mortem sessions is that often the patient has already died, or the project has failed. Any learning or actions for improvement can only be of real value to future projects or iterations. In contrast, a pre-mortem gives you a chance to think about a project or a piece of work and its associated risks before you commence (See fig. 15). A pre-mortem can be done either individually or as a group, with someone explaining the product or project, followed by participants imagining the product or project to have failed. For example:

  • ‘This product has failed because nobody wanted to pay for it’
  • ‘The technology didn’t work’
  • ‘The product was never released in the end because the regulator refused to approve the product and its underlying business model’
  • ‘The product has failed because many of its users complained about its poor user experience’
  • ‘The product failed because the design and build project had to be rushed in the end to get it over the line’

A pre-mortem enables you to start by working backwards, looking at the individual factors that could lead to failure as well as the actions to take in order to avoid certain risks from materialising in the first place. Once you have identified these factors, you can start thinking about how to best avoid or mitigate these risks from occurring. Naturally, it will be up to you and your team to figure out how to structure your pre-mortem, but the toolkit at the end of this chapter has some helpful pointers.

3. Apply constraints

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”  Orson Welles

Applying constraints can be done in two different ways with respect to welcoming and managing tension. Firstly, you can deliberately apply constraints to reduce the scope of problems to solve opportunities to venture into. As Brandon Chu, VP Product & GM of Platform at Shopify, explains, ‘when you are dealing with infinitely complex problems, it helps to put boundaries in place through constraints.’

Let’s not, however, forget that constraints are often imposed externally ‒ think for example of the ‘Iron Triangle’ and its constraints in terms of time, cost, scope and quality which we examined in Chapter 1. ‘Don’t let constraints curtail creativity, reframe constraints as a moment to be effective, for the team to reach full potential’ advises Chu.

It is what Carol Dweck, Psychology Professor at Stanford University, describes as the difference between a ‘fixed’ and a ‘growth’ mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their qualities are fixed traits and therefore cannot change. The same mindset applies to constraints, where people believe that their circumstances or limitations are fixed and cannot be amended or influenced. I often see this mindset rear its head when people complain about not having enough resources. They view a lack of people as an immutable constraint, whereas there are often creative ways to maximise customer value with the people that they have. Similarly, we could look at more ruthless prioritisation to ensure we focus on the right things with the people, budget and time that we have at our disposal.

Secondly, constraints are likely to evolve, often hand in hand with a product, organisation or individual(s). ‘Constraints are not immutable, they change based on creative exploration,’ explains Jon Kolko, Partner at Modernist Studio. Kolko and his team conduct qualitative research and based on people’s actual behaviours and real word views, constraints often emerge.

Jon Kolko and learning about people’s actual behaviours …

Kolko’s team recently conducted research within the financial space and spent time with customers of a large bank. ‘We spent 2-3 hours in their homes and had them show us how they think about and organize their finances. Some people showed us paperwork in file folders and walked through the materials. Others showed us digital tools that they use to manage their overall mental model of money. And, some showed us nothing – they had no way of organizing and no method for reflecting. One participant showed us money she kept in jars around her house, rather than in a savings account. Her explanation was that the money was out of sight, so she wouldn’t spend it. Even though it was literally in her field of vision, she didn’t see the money when she checked her bank balance on her phone, so she ignored it.’

Out of their exploration a theme became apparent to Kolko and his team: that people have developed strategies for managing their money, often based on a loose understanding of complex financial terms. That loose understanding is typically established through word-of-mouth recommendations from trusted sources, passed down from family behaviour, or based on illogical introspection. A constraint for any new product or service that the bank creates should therefore take into account this theme, and lead to a set of design constraints. Kolko explains that a ‘good’ solution supports the illogical and vague understanding people have about money. ‘The constraints have become vetting criteria for the quality of new ideas. These constraints challenge more logical approaches to money and begin to challenge even the most basic assumptions we make about customers ‒ they may not even know what a savings account or checking account is.’

Being OK with ‘Individual Tension’

“You’ve always been what you are. That’s not new. What you’ll get used to is knowing it.”  Cassandra Clare

Start with the self

Now that we have looked at ways to manage tension at a product level, the question arises as to how we handle tension as product people. We have already established that feeling tension is inescapable, so I recommend having an extensive toolkit to use whenever you are facing or feeling pressured or frustrated. Managing tension on an individual level will ultimately feed into your product as well as the team and organisation that you are part of. In other words, starting with the self will have a positive impact on the things that you work on and the people that you work with.

Being OK with ‘Individual Tension’ = Mind + Moves 

How do we best handle tension as individual product people? These are some tools and techniques you can use to manage any personal tension:

  1. Do a self-check: take time out to check your behaviours or thoughts.
  2. Listen actively: listen out to fully grasp where the other person is coming from.
  3. Manage conflict: we need to actively understand and manage conflict if we want to welcome tension.
  4. Acceptance radically: accepting situations or feelings for what they are, instead of constantly fighting battles.
  5. Say ‘I don’t know’: exploring the liberating and educational effects of admitting that you don’t know.
  6. Just ask: ways to ask questions, especially when you are dependent on the other person.
  7. Give and receive feedback: care personally but challenge directly when giving feedback, whilst listening to understand when receiving feedback.
  8. Disagree and commit: being comfortable with disagreement, but still getting to a decision and committing to the decision made.

1. Do a self-check

“You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.”  Ice Cube

To stimulate self-awareness, I highly recommend checking in with yourself on a regular basis. Irrespective of whether you do this daily, weekly, monthly or yearly, taking time out to do a self-check will help you to observe and critique your own tendencies. You can home in on certain behaviours, approaches or thought patterns that you have observed or that others have raised with you.

For example:

  • ‘Why did I respond rudely to the colleague that challenged my idea in the meeting?’
  • ‘How can I avoid taking things less personally next time I get feedback?’
  • ‘I have noticed how incredibly nervous I get each time people start asking questions during a product demo. Why is that? What can I do about my nervousness?’

Provided you take this exercise seriously and are honest with yourself, you can gain valuable insights and learnings. Not only will a self-check help you grow as an individual, it will also contribute to successful collaboration with others. We will cover this in more detail when we look at ‘reflection’ in Chapter 7.

2. Listen actively

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Dalai Lama

If you think about your ‘tension toolkit’ containing actual tools, then active listening would be the wrench. Listening actively helps you to open things up, prying things apart when you are listening to others. In ‘The Art of Active Listening’ Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker describe active listening as the art of listening for meaning; active listening requires you to understand, interpret, and evaluate what you’re being told.

So, next time you feel an inner urge to say something, to respond, try to stop this urge and instead concentrate on what’s actually being said. Here is what sometimes happens when I think I am listening but not doing so actively:

Speaker: ‘So we decided to do X. This felt like the best approach, because of Y.’

Me: ‘Why did they decide to do X, that doesn’t make sense!’ (completely ignoring the ‘Y’ part of the speaker’s statement.)


Speaker: ‘The difficulty is that I don’t know how to best design this feature.’

Me [thinking: ‘Whatever!’]: ‘We should never have designed this feature in the first place!’

It is easy to see from this example how people like me run the risk of missing critical bits of a conversation, due to my urge to respond before listening actively. Listening actively is a major manifestation of empathy since it allows you to truly hear what the other person is saying; switching perspectives with the person speaking and thereby grasping their intentions.

As Rik Higham says, there can be a significant amount of noise in creating products, coming from the people we are working with. I would go a step further and suggest that you apply your active listening skills to the things that you are saying ‒ to yourself and your others ‒ too. While active listening might not help remove tension it is an important tool with respect to the initial understanding of tension, listening out for its meaning and potential impact. 

3. Manage conflict

“When you have a conflict, that means that there are truths that have to be addressed on each side of the conflict. And when you have a conflict, then it’s an educational process to try to resolve the conflict. And to resolve that, you have to get people on both sides of the conflict involved so that they can dialogue.” Dolores Huerta

Being able to avoid or manage conflict is an important skill if you are looking to welcome tension when managing products. In the previous chapter we saw that there are two conflict types to consider here: task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict occurs where people have a difference of opinion about the task or challenge at hand, whereas relationship conflict centres around personal friction. To manage disputes effectively we need to apply another useful distinction; that between tolerable conflict and structural conflict. Tolerable conflict only occurs against the backdrop of trying to achieve what is realistic and least risky. Given the limited extent to which conflict is tolerated, I believe that this level of conflict is insufficient in fully embracing tension and creating successful products. At the other end of the spectrum, structural conflict hints at a situation that is almost beyond resolve, since there is a persistent gap between potential solutions which can’t be bridged. In other words: structural conflict is not resolvable, and therefore not helpful when leaning into tension.

Tension needs some form of resolution, especially when the tension is affecting people. When comparing tolerable and structural conflict, the question arises how we can determine whether conflict is truly structural or actually tolerable, but negatively affecting risk-averse people. Learning about the exact nature of conflict helps us better understand whether the conflict is structural or not. What is the source of the conflict and why is it considered an issue? Do people see opportunities to resolve the conflict? How constructive are our conflicts, and why (not)? Are people looking at a way out of the conflict together? How do the people involved in the conflict feel? Do they all feel the same?

Instead of avoiding or blowing up conflict between people, I suggest using conflict for good. Non-structural task conflict is desirable when developing products. It is often very healthy and constructive to have a difference of opinion within a group of people about the task or challenge at hand. Ross McNairn, Chief Product Officer at Travelperk, uses friction to help people get out of their comfort zone and to challenge. He explained to me how this approach is not aimed at the person, but rather a style. McNairn’s approach to conflict feels close to that of ‘Conflict Manipulation’, a concept introduced by Robert Fritz. Conflict manipulation consists of two steps:

  1. Intensify the conflict ‒ Usually by presenting a ‘negative vision’ or unwanted consequences if action isn’t taken.
  2. Take action to reduce the pressure ‒ Actions designed to reduce pressure, usually by preventing any unwanted consequences from happening.

Granted, conflict manipulation can sometimes feel more reactive than proactive, but does offer a measured and constructive approach to managing conflict. If you are in a situation where you want to create conflict proactively, then I would recommend applying the Ritual Dissent approach or acting as your own adversary (see the toolkit at the end of this chapter). 

4. Radical acceptance

“What would it be like if I could accept life – accept this moment – exactly as it is?”  Tara Brach

If you are anything like me, and you experience regular tension when managing products, you could benefit significantly from accepting radically. With the tensions I have experienced ‒ both externally and internally ‒ I sometimes wish I could rewind and just accept these situations for what they are. I first learned about radical acceptance from reading the book by Tara Brach, where she explains that Radical Acceptance is ‘the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is.’

I have come to interpret and apply radical acceptance to stop the urge to fight reality, and instead accept things for what they are. This means that when we experience tension, instead of combating it we can use radical acceptance as a tool to lean into it. Accepting things for what they are doesn’t mean that we have to either just give in to the situation or simply feel sorry for ourselves. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t feel frustrated or anxious when tension hits. But instead of trying to suppress feelings of discomfort, we accept the emotion for what it is and don’t try to ignore it. Start by taking some hypothetical but common product challenges:

  • We haven’t shipped anything for a while …
  • Why has this feature been deprioritised and why now, given that we have already been working on it for months …
  • We need more people to deliver all the things we committed to …
  • Why is our Chief Marketing Officer telling us what product and features to create, even fancying himself as a bit of a designer!?
  • I know that I will be hung out to dry at our executive meeting since our main product is clearly underperforming …
  • What do I know about solving this customer problem? This is a completely new area to me, and I feel like an imposter …
  • This feedback from the engineers about how I messed up prioritisation last quarter hit me hard …
  • I do wish we had a clearly defined business strategy and objectives, as it would make it so much easier to prioritise and make tricky trade-off decisions …
  • Why does my Chief Technology Officer never seem to be listening to me!?

Accepting some of these challenges or feelings will not make them go away or make them feel any less challenging, but I have experienced first-hand how this acceptance can help in keeping your emotions under control in the moment, being more ‘emotionally controlled’, as Dr Carole Pemberton who specialises in resilience, refers to it.

Up until a few years ago, obstacles or backward steps of any kind used to frustrate me immensely. Anything that didn’t go to plan when developing products would throw me; any feedback about me or my product would feel like a punch in the gut. Accepting things for what they are, does at least allow me not to lose it in the moment and remain realistically optimistic. You can find some suggestions for how you can practice radical acceptance in the toolkit at the end of this chapter.

5. Saying ‘I don’t know’

“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”  Gilda Radner

Being honest and saying that you don’t know enables you to welcome the uncertainty and seize the opportunity to explore. It seems so simple, three words, and yet it can be one of the hardest things for us to say. I bet that the following hypothetical scenario will ring true to a large proportion of readers of this book:

CEO/CPO/CTO/CFO/CMO/COO (or any other impressive-sounding job title you can think of):

‘Do you think it will be hard to build this new feature that isn’t on the roadmap?’

Me (on the back foot, thrown by this question posed by my larger than life executive):

‘Uhm, no, should be fine.’

I have found that this scenario does not only play out when facing a superior but just as much between peers or when managing direct reports. We don’t want to be seen as ‘weak’ or lacking expertise. Instead, we like to be perceived as all-knowing and confident. Which makes the climb down when we have to confess that we didn’t know, and that we didn’t have all the answers, all the harder.

In situations where there is ambiguity, because we are doing something that has not been done before or it is likely that things will change, it can be dangerous not to admit that you don’t know. If we give off the impression that we do know or that the situation is in hand, we are adding significant risk of future tension.

Junior Product Manager:

‘Have you got experience with doing X? I am unsure how to best go about it.’


(scratching my head, stroking my chin, as I don’t have a clue)

‘Do Y, that’s the best thing.’

Alternatively …

Junior Product Manager:

‘Have you got experience with doing X? I am unsure how to best go about it.’


‘I don’t unfortunately, but let’s figure it out.’

I find it interesting that some places seem to have a culture where you are not expected to have questions after your initial honeymoon period at the company, or where it is frowned upon when you say that you don’t know and have to look into things. This approach doesn’t fly, in scenarios where there are lots of unknowns or where there is tension that is worth embracing, since this tension by its very nature will evoke questioning and a need to discover and learn continuously. There is simply no expiry date on uncertainty or new opportunities.

It is, therefore, ok to say that you don’t know and that you will find out or learn. It doesn’t matter whether you are a junior product manager or a highly experienced product veteran. As Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design and author of ‘The Making of a Manager’ states, it is ok to say, ‘I don’t know but let’s figure it out together.’ Don’t pretend that you know what you are doing or that you have all the answers.

Justus Fokker, a freelance product manager, says, ‘If you didn’t feel like an imposter, you would probably not  appreciate what you don’t know.’ As Fokker explained to me, we can only make other people feel comfortable saying that they don’t know if their leaders are honest about not knowing themselves. When leaders admit that they don’t know, they allow the team to admit that they don’t know. In fact, I believe that being open about not knowing opens the door for yourself and others to learn continuously.

6. Just ask

“The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.”  Edmund Burke

In the previous section, we looked at the scenario where someone asks you a question. How about a situation where you ask the questions as a way to navigate through tension or uncertainty? What if the situation is new and you are keen to learn and find answers? In this section, we will go through a number of techniques you can use to ask questions and learn.

5 Whys

I presume a lot of you will already be familiar with the ‘5 Whys’ technique where you ask ‘Why’ five times to get to the bottom of an issue (see toolkit at the end of this chapter). Originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within car manufacturer Toyota, the primary goal is to figure out the root cause of a defect or problem. By simply repeating the question ‘Why?’ five times, each answer forms the basis of the next question. The ‘five’ in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem. A hypothetical problem could be the problem of the coffee I ordered at the coffee shop that was delivered cold. This is what the analysis could look like when we apply the 5 Whys:

  1. Why? – The coffee machine did not work properly. (First why)
  2. Why? – There was not enough hot water in the machine. (Second why)
  3. Why? – The hot water indicator did not indicate an issue. (Third why)
  4. Why? – The hot water indicator had not been checked recently. (Fourth why)
  5. Why? – The barista did not know to check the hot water indicator on a regular basis. (Fifth why, a root cause)

Asking ‘Why?’ five times can be particularly helpful when dealing with unknowns or complex situations, collaboratively working through the questions to get to the underlying issue at hand.

Humble Inquiry

Sometimes we ask questions or even the 5 Whys whilst already knowing the answer. This is because we are keen to verify whether we have got the right answer or because we see value in the other person getting to the answer. It can be equally valuable asking those questions when you don’t already know the answer. Or where you feel reluctant to say, ‘I don’t know’. Think about that very complex problem that you and your team are looking to solve or a domain of expertise that you are unfamiliar with.

Edgar Schein, a former MIT professor specialised in organisational culture, refers to this kind of questioning as ‘Humble Inquiry’: asking questions to which you don’t already know the answer, based on an attitude of curiosity, interest or wanting to learn something about the other person. When inquiring humbly you are asking as opposed to telling or assuming; you are humble because you are dependent on the other person because he or she knows or can do something that helps you achieve your task or goal. Over the years I have developed my own set of go-to questions that I typically ask when I am curious or want to learn about the other person:

  • What did you do/decide?
  • Why did you do/decide that?
  • What is the difference? Why?
  • Just for my learning, can you please explain?
  • What are the pros and cons?
  • What kinds of risks most concern you, why?
  • How do you know that?
  • How did this become a problem in the first place?
  • I’m not sure I understand you, could you please talk me through that.

This is not a finite set of questions, but humility is the one aspect that all these questions have in common. The questions are open-ended, rather than closed or leading questions. You are listening actively to what the other person has to say in response to your question as well as the person speaking to you.

7. Give and receive feedback

“Saying ‘your work is shit’ is way better than saying ‘you are shit’, but it is still totally obnoxious.”  Kim Scott

When you feel like the walls are coming down on you or when the temperature is rising, feedback becomes even more critical. Both giving and receiving feedback is an important skill for all people, but I have found that as a product manager you are especially exposed to feedback. Given that we work with so many different people at any given time, it can feel like the feedback can come from anywhere. There is no doubt that we need to listen to feedback while also being prepared to give it.

What if you feel that the work of a teammate is below par? Or you are missing a shared sense of urgency among your team? What if you have just delivered a product with plenty of bugs? In the book ‘Radical Candor’, Kim Scott examines the factors that underpin an environment where people don’t shy away from difficult conversations. Scott explains how trusting relationships are key to being fully honest and open with each other. Once a relationship of trust has been established between people, it becomes so much easier to practice ‘radical candour’ on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there is no set formula for developing trust. Scott, however, has identified two dimensions that help people move in the right direction: ‘care personally’ and ‘challenge directly’:

  • Care personally – Scott slashes the idea of people having two radically different personas – with people’s work persona being radically different from their private persona. Instead, she suggests you need to be your whole self to ensure strong relationships. Scott also talks about genuinely caring for the people who work for you as a critical prerequisite for a strong relationship.
  • Challenge directly (1) – ‘Challenge directly’ involves telling people that their work is not good enough. I have found this the hardest part to implement as there is a fine line between challenging directly and coming across as overly critical. Scott argues that challenging people ‘is often the best way to show them that you care’. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, challenging people directly can be a great way to establish a relationship.
  • Challenge directly (2) – Challenging people, in a clear but constructive way, is often appreciated – despite it feeling hard initially (for both the giver and the receiver of the challenge). It shows (1) you care enough to point out both the things that are going well and the things that aren’t and (2) that you are willing to admit when you are wrong and that you’re committed to fixing mistakes that you or others have made. At the end of the day, it is all about fixing a problem or, as Anthony Casalena, Founder / CEO of Squarespace says, ‘if you don’t listen, you create this seismic shift whenever something breaks.’
  • ‘Operationalising’ good guidance – In ‘Radical Candor’, Scott introduces a helpful matrix, which has four quadrants to consider in light of how to best care personally and challenge directly: ‘ruinous empathy’; ‘manipulative insincerity’; ‘obnoxious aggression’ and – the desired one – ‘radical candour’, where you challenge directly without being discouraging.
  • How to criticise without discouraging? – Be humble, both when receiving and giving feedback. Be helpful and specific when giving feedback, offer guidance in person and immediately, criticise in private, and don’t personalise. Make it clear that the problem is not due to some inflexible personality flaw and share stories when you have been criticised for something similar.

Scott helpfully offers practical tips if you are actively looking for feedback or guidance, which I have included in the toolkit at the end of this chapter. Similarly, American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg has written extensively about non-violent communications that are founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying circumstances. Rosenberg’s non-violent communication framework (‘NVC’) consists of four elements: observation, feeling, needs and request:

  • The concrete actions we are observing that affect our wellbeing;
  • How we feel in relation to what we are observing;
  • The needs, values, desires, etc. that are creating our feelings;
  • The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives.

NVC works both ways: giving honest feedback through the four aforementioned components and receiving feedback empathically through the same components. In design critiques, people provide feedback to the designer about his or her work. As the aforementioned Jon Kolko outlines in his book ‘Creative Clarity’, a good design critique feels like a dialogue, governed by a layer of trust and solely focusing on the work. This means that the designer is receptive to criticism but also has a chance to explain and justify creative decisions in a way that isn’t defensive. Consequently, the relationship between the designer and the participants of the design critique isn’t combative. Bob Iger, CEO of Walt Disney, offers similar guidance: ‘Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small. People will often focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent thoughts: If you start petty, you seem petty.’

8. Disagree and commit

“If you have conviction in a particular direction even though there is no consensus, it is helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?”  Jeff Bezos

The risk when leaning into tension too much is that we never get a chance to step away, and the tension gets the better of us as a result. The risk with group discussion is that we can get stuck in a rut, endlessly trying to reach consensus. ‘Humans are often natural conflict avoiders,’ says Duncan Barrigan. Barrigan is the Chief Product Officer at GoCardless, and very experienced with team processes. ‘People need to have the confidence to disagree and then commit,’ he explains.

The ‘disagree and commit’ principle has two ultimate objectives. Firstly, to encourage the team to disagree when making an important decision. It needs to be understood that it is ok to disagree with one another. For instance, a few years ago, I saw a yellow sign on one of the walls at the Government Digital Service in London, stating among others that it is ok ‘to challenge things you’re not comfortable with’. This is a good example of creating an environment where it is ok to disagree.

Secondly, disagree and commit aims to unite the team in committing to a decision once it has been made. ‘Whilst it is good to have disagreement, it will eventually have to be closed off by a decision,’ Barrigan mentioned when we talked about the potential downsides of dissent. Jeff Bezos wrote in his now famous 1997 Amazon shareholder letter that disagree and commit doesn’t mean thinking that your team is wrong or missing the point; ‘it’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.’ ‘Do no harm’ is the only thing that I want to add here: making a decision to commit to even if there is disagreement, provided the decision doesn’t harm your customer or your product.


To successfully identify and manage the tensions specific to your product or feature, it is important to develop a thorough understanding of both your product and you as an individual. Understanding your product, its customers and its competitors enables you to be more proactive in terms of pre-empting or diffusing any tensions that your product might be facing, now and in the future. Once you have identified any risks or unknowns, it pays off to learn early and often whether these risks and unknowns hold true or not.

I believe it is just as important to understand you. Being aware of how you manage tension, listen to others and your appetite for dissent as well as learning to pick your battles. These aspects aren’t just beneficial to you as an individual but also, as we will see in the next chapter, when collaborating within a team to develop great products.


       Product Management = Mind + Matter + Moves

 To lean into tension sensibly and productively, it is important to focus on both our products and ourselves.

 Start with yourself first to understand your appetite for tension and become aware of the tensions you are experiencing. Ask yourself questions like:

  •  What sets me off?
  •  How do I react?
  •  Am I a Creator or an Editor?
  •  How does uncertainty impact me?
  •  Which battles am I willing to fight?

There are two main ways to embrace tension: optimising ‘Product Tension’ and being ok with ‘Individual Tension’.  Optimising product tension means that you make the most of the tensions that are affecting your product or business.

  • Analyse the market and your competitors to pre-empt competitive pressures, as well as defining the position and points of differentiation for your product. You can use tools such as SWOT analysis, OODA loop, Kano model, Lean Canvas and direct customer feedback in this respect.
  • Manage risks and unknowns and make sure to learn early and often about risks, to your business ‒ bottom line, operations or reputation ‒ or your product ‒ customer experience, scalability or performance.
  • Apply constraints: accept the inevitability of constraints ‒ financial, regulatory, technical or operational ‒ and use constraints as a way to reduce complexity and tension.

Managing your personal tension is as important as managing the tension affecting your product. There are a number of things you can do to both be aware of tension and to address it:

  • Doing a regular self-check to zero in on your feelings, thoughts or behaviours.
  • Listen actively to fully understand what is happening or where the other person is coming from, to gain a better perspective on the tension and how to manage it.
  • Conflict can be conducive to your personal growth and development, provided you manage conflict, understanding the nature of the conflict and steering it towards a resolution.
  • Accepting radically doesn’t mean that you resign yourself to the situation or throw in the towel. Instead, you accept things for what they are (and aren’t).
  • It is ok to say, ‘I don’t know’, admitting that you don’t have the answer or need to look into the matter. 
  • If you are ever in doubt about whether to ask a question, just ask and concentrate both on what you want to know and how to ask the question.
  • Be direct and specific when giving feedback, focusing on the task or behaviour and not on the person. Listen to understand and not to respond when receiving feedback.
  • To avoid tension due to indecisiveness, follow an approach where you and your team disagree and commit, being clear about the point where a decision needs to be reached and committed to.

Toolkit:  Leaning into tension effectively

1. SWOT analysis

Outcome: Identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for your company or product.

The SWOT analysis, devised by Albert Humphrey from Stanford University’s Research University Lab, is probably one of the more traditional ways of studying and comparing competitors. It might be an older method, but SWOT still holds true and is a tried and tested way of understanding your competitors:

Strengths ‒ Specific characteristics and attributes which offer a company a competitive advantage. For example, one could argue that design, brand, a loyal customer base and innovation are key strengths of Apple.

Weaknesses ‒ Specific characteristics and attributes which reduce the competitive strength of a business. For example, major debts and inadequate online presence hinder lots of today’s retailers in trying to compete effectively with Amazon.

Opportunities ‒ Advantageous situations or circumstances that can create new competitive powers for businesses. Think, for example, of entering new geographic markets, new customer segments or new product opportunities.

Threats ‒ Disadvantageous situations or circumstances which can hamper companies in their ability to compete. For instance, the high cost of labour can hinder companies to compete effectively with those competitors that operate in countries where labour is cheap.

2. OODA loop

Outcome: Using the observe, orient, decide and act stages to make decisions.

The OODA loop was introduced by military strategist John Boyd, who developed the so-called OODA loop based on his experiences as a fighter pilot and later as an instructor, as a way to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. The ‘loop’ consists of a set of interacting loops, originally designed to be kept in continuous operation during a combat situation. These days, the OODA loop is often used as a decision-making framework, helping people make tough decisions. The model consists of four distinct stages: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act:

  • Observe ‒ Our observations are the raw information which we base our decisions and actions on. Taking a ‘helicopter view’ or, as author William Ury calls it, ‘going to the balcony’, we can detach ourselves from the situation and understand quickly what is going on. Which companies are competing with your product? Do they form direct or indirect competition? What is the impact of their competition on your business or product? These are some sample questions that act as ‘source material’ for the subsequent stages of the OODA loop.
  • Orient ‒ At this stage you are very likely to know what needs to be done, understanding both your position and the options available to you. John Boyd states that we tend to filter information and action, based on our culture, genetics, our ability to analyse and previous experience. In order to win, Boyd argues, we need to get inside of the OODA loop of our adversary.
  • Decide ‒ Based on your current mental perspective, you will make a decision and determine what actions you need to take.
  • Act ‒ You now act on the decision made; implementing the action or approach that you decided on during the previous ‘Decide’ stage.

If you apply the OODA loop in a competitive context, the trick is to go through the OODA at a much quicker pace than a competitor when managing products that you will continuously need to innovate and improve on your existing products. Whilst there is no need to get obsessed with your competitors, the OODA loop does show the importance of understanding your competitor’s context and what their logical next move might be.

3. Kano analysis

Outcome: Understand your product’s hygiene factors and ‘delighters’ and compare against competitors, all considered from a customer satisfaction perspective.

Developed by Noriaki Kano in the early eighties, the Kano analysis provides a theory for customer satisfaction (See fig. 16). The model classifies customer preferences into five categories:

  • Must-be quality: These are the requirements that customers expect and consider normal. For example, when customers shop with an ecommerce site, they expect to be able to pay online. An online payment feature is therefore considered as basic hygiene for any ecommerce site.
  • One-dimensional quality: These product attributes result in customer satisfaction when fulfilled and customer dissatisfaction when not fulfilled. An example of this would be when a company promises 24-hour delivery. The customer will be satisfied when a product is indeed delivered within 24 hours but will be dissatisfied if it is delivered outside of the promised timeframe.
  • Attractive quality: These are the so-called delighters; those product attributes which will cause unexpected satisfaction when satisfied. Thinking back, for example, to when I used white goods site ao.com a few years ago; when I copied the name and type of a certain washing machine to compare prices online, the site automatically showed a notification letting me know that I could call ao.com and they would try to match any price I would find online.
  • Indifferent quality: These product attributes refer to aspects that are neither good nor bad, and they do not result in customer satisfaction or customer dissatisfaction. Whether a banking app has got pictures of happy customers is not going to make any difference to the users of the app, as long as they can carry out their banking transactions.
  • Reverse quality: These product reviews refer to a high degree of achievement resulting in dissatisfaction and to the fact that not all customers and their needs are the same. For example, some of your customers might be very tech savvy and therefore prefer high-tech products rich with features, whilst others might opt for a more basic version of the product instead.

[Insert Image 36b.JPG]

Fig. 16 – Understanding hygiene and delighters from a customer’s perspective

I find the Kano analysis very helpful when looking at the competition from a customer point of view, as well as gaining a better understanding of the marketplace and the position of the relevant competitors in it. Understanding what the ‘basic needs’ and ‘delighters’ are in your market will help you understand:

  • The position of your product ‒ Understanding where a product sits vis-a-vis customer expectation.
  • Which battles (not) to pick ‒ Where do you want your product to play and what will you be playing for? Are you happy to just focus on so-called ‘hygiene’ factors or do you want to focus on more uncharted territory?
  • Potential product opportunities ‒ Where are the opportunities for either improved or totally new products, and why? Identify potential niches i.e. a subset of the market which a product could focus on.

4. Lean canvas

Outcome: Investigate the components that make up the business model for your business or product.

Ash Maurya’s ‘Lean Canvas’ is a great framework for better understanding your product and market, as well as comparing and contrasting competitors (See fig. 17):

  • Problem ‒ List the top 3 problems that a competitor product is trying to solve. Are these the same problems your product is looking to solve?
  • Solution ‒ What are considered the top 3 features of a competitor product? Why?
  • Key metrics ‒ How does your competitor measure success? Can their product’s success be quantified? If so, how does this compare to what your product has achieved thus far?
  • Unique value proposition ‒ What is the unique benefit of a competitor product? One can assess this either from the vantage point of the customer or from a company’s positioning of the product. What makes the product stand out or get customers to switch from an incumbent product?
  • Unfair advantage ‒ An aspect of the product that can’t be easily copied or bought. Think for example of the breadth of online content that the likes of Spotify and Netflix have amassed over the years. Do their catalogues form a barrier to entry for your product or service?
  • Channels ‒ Which paths to customers are your competitors using? Consider whether competitors have both an offline and an online presence? How successful are they in their routes to market, and why (not)?
  • Customer segments ‒ Which customer segment(s) are your competitors targeting? What are the specific characteristics of these customers and are they different from the customers that you and your product are going after?
  • Cost structure ‒ Just as it is critical to understand your own company’s business model, it is important to understand the business model of your competitors. Think for example about the cost to acquire customers, people, content, etc.
  • Revenue streams ‒ Do you have a rough idea of what the revenue streams of your competitors look like? How do they generate gross margins on their products or transactions?
Ash Maurya’s ‘Lean Canvas’
Fig. 17 – Ash Maurya’s ‘Lean Canvas’ zooms in on our business or product

5. Direct customer feedback

Outcome: Learn about competitor products directly through the customer.

My favourite way of analysing competitors is hearing directly from customers. For example, when I worked at a digital music service, I ran sessions simply observing people using Spotify, Rdio (which died a few years ago) and Soundcloud. This way, my colleagues and I could learn first-hand about how people felt about our product in comparison to the competition.

With digital products and services, it is harder to do a traditional ‘blind product test’ ‒ where people don’t know which products or brands they are using ‒  but you can still observe and listen to people testing different products which are all trying to solve a similar problem. People will happily tell you why they think product A is better than product B, especially when you make it clear that you don’t have an allegiance with any of the tested products.

At the same time, you want to avoid getting too hung up on the product vantage point. ‘You can’t only look at customer problems through the lens of our product,’ says Darlene Miranda, ‘because this feels myopic’. Miranda, VP of Product Management at Sterling, suggests that we instead ask the following: look at how customers do things currently and why they do things in a certain way?’

Products will naturally be surrounded by a healthy level of tension. Even if a product is a first of its kind in the market, there will be a need to stay ahead of any new entrants. Understanding the competitive positioning of your product helps to understand how to best differentiate your product and drive future innovation. While I strongly believe one should worry more about customers than competitors, it is important to fully understand how your product and underlying business model compares to competitors, enabling you to stay ahead of the competition

6. Red teaming

Outcome: Simulate the moves you expect competitors to make and how you would respond.

If you truly want to understand about your competitors and their products, or want to pre-empt their next move, then red teaming might just be the exercise for you. Equally, if you want to let in the tension surrounding a new product or innovation, you can use red teams to work through the things that could go wrong, anticipate potential competitor moves and identify countermeasures.

Just like the OODA loop, red teaming hails from the military world and helps businesses think differently, combat deeply ingrained assumptions or challenge groupthink. As we have seen, groupthink or complacency can be devastating when developing great products. Having someone who plays or is a devil’s advocate and challenges prevalent thinking is often a welcome aspect of the product management process. Instead of just analysing the competition, you could have dedicated teams acting as competitors.

These so-called ‘red teams’ take playing devil’s advocate to the next level; the mission of such teams is to force businesses and people to think differently. Red teams will push businesses to consider alternative points of view or contemplate worst case scenarios. Red teaming thus makes us aware of our assumptions and cognitive biases and offers us a means of overcoming them. Red teaming exercises are applied in a wide range of contexts:

  • Cybersecurity ‒ Companies hiring specialised red teams to attack their technology and exploit security vulnerabilities. Going beyond standard penetration tests, red teams will act as aggressively and unrestricted as any hacker would.
  • Intelligence ‒ Whether it’s NATO, the CIA or the Israeli army, they all have teams dedicated to doing ‘alternative analysis’, set up explicitly to challenge prevalent assumptions within intelligence bodies.
  • Business ‒ When developing a business strategy, companies often consider a best-case scenario, assuming that everything will go to plan. Red teaming exercises can help in laying bare any strategic gaps or flaws, helping companies scan the business environment for both threats and opportunities.

Irrespective of context, red teaming is all about rigorous questioning and thinking unconventionally. Red teams often consist of people who have proven to be contrarian thinkers. These are the three phases of a typical red teaming exercise:

  1. Using analytical tools to question the arguments and assumptions that too often go unquestioned during the regular planning process.
  2. Using imaginative techniques to figure out what could go wrong ‒ and what could go right ‒ with the plan in order to expose hidden threats and missed opportunities.
  3. Applying contrarian thinking to challenge the plan and force the organisation to consider alternative perspectives.

Red teaming offers a great opportunity to figure out and mitigate anything that could go wrong with your product or imagine the kinds of products your competitors might be developing.  It’s also kind of fun and great for team-building exercises

7. Turning an assumption into a hypothesis

Outcome: Prioritise the riskiest assumption and turn it into hypotheses that can be tested and measured.


‘We believe customers will pay for this product.’


We believe that by introducing a new ‘daily genre-based recommendations’ feature for our subscribers only, we expect more of our customers to sign up for a subscription.

We know this is true when 1,000 customers sign up for a subscription after having received free daily recommendations for a 5-day period.

How you subsequently test a hypothesis is the relatively easy part, as there are numerous ways to test, varying from simply launching the product to doing a painted door test. At Basecamp, the company which we first encountered in Chapter 1, new products or features don’t get Beta-tested. Instead, the belief at Basecamp is that ‘the market will tell us the truth.’ In a painted door test, you use the suggestion of a feature or a solution to learn how many people actually use it. When a customer clicks on the call to action of the dummy feature, a message will appear that says something like ‘Thanks. This feature isn’t live yet, as we’re thinking about building it. Could a product manager reach out to you to learn more about your interest in this feature?’

The main prerequisite for any successful test ‒ i.e. proving or disproving your hypothesis ‒ is being clear about what you are trying to learn and why. How can we quickly test the riskiest assumption which will determine product success or failure? Once we have proven this hypothesis, what is the next riskiest assumption worth testing? The tension inherent in managing products is thus brought forward and kept under control.

8. Conducting a pre-mortem

Outcome: Assess any things that could go wrong and how to mitigate these risks from materialising.

A pre-mortem enables you to start working backwards and look at the individual factors that could lead to failure as well as the actions to take in order to pre-empt certain risks from materialising. Once you have identified these factors, you can start thinking about how to best avoid or mitigate these risks from occurring. Naturally, it will be up to you and your team to figure out how to best structure your pre-mortem, but these are some proposed aspects and scenarios worth considering when running one.

The product has bombed ‒ Rather than considering the possible failure of a product or project, in the pre-mortem the product is assumed to have failed. Similarly, if you are doing a pre-mortem at the start of a new project, it is really helpful if all pre-mortem participants think of any reason why the project could fail dramatically.

Does this mean that nothing will go wrong? ‒ Of course, even with the most detailed pre-mortem exercise and follow-up, things will not go according to plan and the unexpected will still happen. However, right from the get-go, you are creating an environment that allows people to think and continuously talk about risk. You are effectively creating an environment where people can speak freely about potential risk scenarios, without fear of being seen as impolite or difficult.

Identify threats and risks ‒ There are a number of ways to elicit risks and threats from the pre-mortem. You could do a simple ‘brain dump’ or try a more structured approach whereby people need to come up with risks within certain areas (see ‘Categorise failures’ below).

Analyse likelihood ‒ Once you have collated threats and risks, you can use a simple scale ranging from ‘highly unlikely’ to ‘highly likely’ to assess the likelihood of a specific risk or threat materialising. I have found that the activity of placing risks against the aforementioned scale, helps create a shared understanding of the biggest risks. It also focuses the mind on the actions that need to be taken or things that need to be in place to mitigate risk.

Are the right people in the room? ‒ When running a pre-mortem session with a number of people, it is important to make sure you have got the right people in the room. For example, if you are looking to work on a digital product, it’s important to have developers and designers present. Similarly, if you’re working in a highly regulated industry, having a compliance person brainstorming upfront about potential risks will work in your favour.

Brainstorm and assess preventative actions ‒ Once you have collectively established your highest risks, you can start thinking about ways to mitigate these risks. Realistically, you might not be able to stop all risks from happening (think about a garden party being impacted by a sudden rain downpour …). In these scenarios, you can still figure out how to best reduce the impact of a risk happening and come up with a ‘plan B’. For example, if the heavens open during your garden party, people could always seek shelter in the tent that you put up ‘just in case’.

Not a one-off exercise! ‒ The risks and actions that you identify during your pre-mortem are something that you can use as ongoing reference points. ‘How are we doing against risk X?’ or ‘We can see risk Y materialising soon, how can we best pre-empt things?’

Categorise failures ‒ When getting people to think about the reasons for failure, I always find it helpful to think about failures in specific areas, dependent on your product, market or organisation:

  • Marketing ‒ Think upfront about what could go wrong with your product’s go-to-market strategy and the marketing channels that you’re looking to use. For example, what would be the impact if product messaging fails to resonate with your target audience?
  • Customer ‒ What if customers don’t want to pay for our product? What if we’re addressing the wrong customer segment? What if we’ve got customer needs wrong?
  • Technology ‒ The chosen technology implementation doesn’t work, what do we do? The technology isn’t scalable!? At this stage, it’s very valuable to explore the complexities or unknowns related to the technical implementation. As a group, you might agree on running discovery sprints to test certain technologies or non-happy path scenarios to deal with some of the ‘unknown unknowns’ being discovered early on.
  • Stakeholders ‒ Many people like stakeholder mapping, but the pre-mortem can also help in figuring out who the relevant stakeholders are upfront and how best to communicate with them. It can also be helpful to identify which stakeholders have the most knowledge in a particular domain.
  • Cost ‒ What if our budget gets slashed halfway through the project? What if costs spiral because we failed to budget properly? What if the technology we’ve chosen turns out to be far too expensive or complex to implement?
  • Compliance ‒ Compliance and regulation can sometimes be easy to forget at the start of a project. However, compliance can have a massive impact on a product or a project. I was once involved in a project where we only found out halfway through that launching in China would be very tricky from an internal compliance and external regulation point of view. This proved to be a major stumbling block and it would have been far better if we had identified this as a major project risk beforehand.
  • Competition ‒ What if your direct competitor launched the same product as yours, but just a bit quicker? Or we imagine a situation where the product has failed because the competitor lowered its product price. Do we need a plan B for when this scenario happens? If so, what should this plan look like?

9. Listen actively

Outcome: Not just hearing what the other person is saying, but truly understanding where they are coming from.

Fully understanding what is being said and where the other person is coming from helps us reduce noise and filter out the key aspects to know or act on. In order to listen actively, the onus is on the listener to actively develop and apply a number of components:

  • Acceptance – Acceptance is about respecting the person that you are talking to; irrespective of what the other person has to say but purely because you are talking to another human being. Accepting means trying to avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying, at least initially. I have often made this mistake; being too keen to express my views and causing the speaker to feel disrespected.
  • Honesty – Honesty comes down to being open about your reactions to what you have heard. Similar to the acceptance component, honest reactions given too soon can easily stifle further explanation on the part of the speaker. This also means that we need to set aside any previously formed opinions about the speaker or your views on the subject of the conversation.
  • Empathy – Empathy is about your ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level. Centring your understanding on your own view instead of on a sense of what should be felt, creates empathy instead of sympathy. Empathy can also be defined as your desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of your own experience.
  • Specifics – Specifics refers to the need to deal in detail rather than generalities. The point here is that for communication to be worthwhile, you should ask the speaker to be more specific, encouraging the speaker to open up more or ‘own’ the problem that they are trying to raise.

Practically speaking, the four components of active listening mean that you will spend more time listening than talking, restating or clarifying what you have heard and deciphering the feelings behind the words. For example:

  • Speaker: The difficulty is that I don’t know how to best design this feature.
  • Me [Thinking empathetically and accepting the speaker]: I hear what you are saying, and I can imagine it must be difficult to design a new feature from scratch.
  • Me [Listening for specifics and asking]: What is it about the new feature that you aren’t sure about? Would it help if we did some sketches together, just to get going?

Apart from these four components of active listening, Gibson and Walker suggest a number of tips to help improve our listening skills:

  1. Minimise external distractions
  2. Face the speaker
  3. Maintain eye contact
  4. Focus on the speaker
  5. Be open-minded
  6. Be sincerely interested
  7. Have sympathy, feel empathy
  8. Assess the emotion, not just the words
  9. Respond appropriately
  10. Minimise internal distractions
  11. Avoid ‘me’ stories
  12. Don’t be scared of silence
  13. Take notes
  14. Practice emotional intelligence
  15. Check your understanding

10. Ritual dissent

Outcome: being able to facilitate sessions where people can share their challenges, doubts or ideas in return for constructive feedback.

When I first heard the term ’Ritual Dissent’ I imagined a state of constant disagreement, with people dissenting as a matter of course. Almost as if the conversations that people have around the watercooler or behind closed doors are out in the open all the time

In fact, ritual dissent is a workshop method designed for people to air their challenges, doubts and suggestions and receive constructive feedback in return. The main idea behind ritual dissent is that ideas are reviewed and criticised without facing the presenter of the idea. This technique helps to de-personalise the feedback and create a safe environment for the group to attack the idea vigorously (dissent) or suggest a better idea or improvement instead (assent). Listening and constructivism are two key ingredients of ritual dissent:

  • Listening ‒ While the presenter is outlining her idea or a series of ideas, the group presented isn’t allowed to talk or ask questions; they have to listen in silence. Once the presenter has finished her presentation, she turns around with her back facing the group, after which the group will start discussing the idea. The presenter isn’t allowed to interact with the group and can only take notes while she listens intently to the group discussion (See fig. 18).
  • Attacking ‒ Participants in ritual dissent should be made aware that the idea is not to be fair, reasonable or support but to attack the idea (and not the presenter) or to provide a better alternative. The goal is to learn from others through complete openness and to end up with the best, stress-tested ideas.

Ritual dissent has been designed to avoid people making decisions on groupthink or easily reaching consensus. The lack of eye contact and the obligation to listen in silence create an environment where people can truly listen, and focus exclusively on what a person is saying, not who is saying it. With others going through exactly the same process, feedback is less likely to be perceived as a personal attack, but supportive and as part of the course.

Using Ritual Dissent to actively listen
Fig. 18 – Using Ritual Dissent to actively listen to what someone is saying

11. Be your own adversary

Outcome: act as your own ‘devil’s advocate’ and challenge your own assumptions or ideas.

Ritual dissent is a good way for people to disagree and challenge in an open and constructive setting. It is like saying ‘it’s ok to knock out my idea, as long as you don’t knock me out at the same time …’ The same applies to red teaming, where a group of people will take on the adversary’s mindset.

However, you don’t need a workshop setting or a dedicated ‘red team’ to disagree or throw spanners into the works. Anyone can play ‘devil’s advocate’ at any given time, and you can even play this back internally. Chris Butler, who has done a lot of work around adversarial thinking, encourages us to be ‘adversarial to ourselves, at random moments’. You could take an outsider perspective and answer the following questions:

  • What holes are there in the evidence or assumptions that underpin my idea or decision?
  • Are you being honest with yourself?
  • What biases have you applied and how can you refute them?

12. Radical acceptance

Outcome: accepting things for what they are, understanding what is really happening and why.

  • Acknowledge your inner narrative ‒ What is happening here? versus what am I telling myself? What is the evidence?
  • Write it down ‒ I often use a ‘Thought Diary’, which is an idea that comes from Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (‘CBT’), and involves writing down the difficult situation that you feel you are in, your thoughts about the situation, the evidence for and against your thoughts, and any alternative thoughts to help reframe things (See fig. 19).
  • Determine what you can influence ‒ Radical acceptance is a key step to picking your battles; what are the things that you can realistically influence, and which things you can’t?
  • Recognise that you will make mistakes ‒ Instead of beating yourself up when you feel pressure or things don’t go according to plan, you accept mistakes that you have made. This doesn’t mean that the mistake will go away or lose its severity; you can change the way you perceive your mistake, making sure you learn from it and avoid making the same mistake twice.
  • Recognise when you are wrong ‒ For all the times that we might share an idea or thought that turns out to be wrong, we are likely to be wrong much more often. Rather than not sharing our ideas or thoughts, I suggest accepting that we will be wrong and learning from those experiences.

Radical acceptance is an important step towards both accepting, and ‒ where appropriate ‒ fully embracing certain tensions.

Write it down in your Thought Diary
Fig. 19 – Write it down in your Thought Diary

13. Ask ‘5 Whys’

Outcome: asking ‘why’ to try and get to the bottom of things.

If you don’t do anything else, just ask ‘why’. Such a simple word, but oh so powerful:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Why are we not doing this?
  • Why are you saying that?
  • Why is that your preference?
  • Why did we make that decision?

14. Radical candour

Outcome: being comfortable seeking and processing impromptu guidance.

In her book ‘Radical Candor’, Kim Scott offers valuable tips on how to best ask for and process guidance from others:

  • Have a go-to question: In order to make it easier and less awkward to ask your direct reports for performance feedback or guidance, Scott suggests using a go-to question. She learned this technique from Fred Kofman, who used to be her coach at Google and is the author of ‘Conscious Business’. ‘Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?’ This sample go-to question will get the conversation flowing and remove any feelings of awkwardness.
  • Embrace the discomfort: In the event your go-to question fails to have the desired effect, and the other person answers that everything is fine or struggles to come up with something ‒ remain quiet. It can be tempting to say, ‘Well, that’s great’ or ‘fine, let’s move on’ but that is not going to help. Leaving some silence or suggesting a follow up can help in getting your direct reports over their – understandable – hurdle.
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond: If you’re anything like me, i.e. not super comfortable with asking people for feedback, your initial response might well be to act defensively and respond to the criticism. Scott urges us not to do that; don’t start criticising the criticism! Instead, she suggests saying something like ‘So what I hear you saying is …’
  • Reward criticism to get more of it: If you received feedback, the next important thing is to follow up and show that you genuinely welcomed it. If you agree with what was said, you should make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.
  • Gauge the guidance you get: I love Scott’s suggestion to try and keep a tally of the number of times people reporting to you have criticised you. Equally, measure how often they praise you. Scott mentions that you should be wary if it’s all praise and no criticism! It means that you’ll have to work harder to get people to criticise you.

Now you’ve Started…

If you’ve enjoyed chapter 5 Managing Product = Managing Tension feel free to head on over to Amazon to buy the book and read the rest!



[1] See for an explanation of the difference between project and product management: “What’s the Difference Between Program, Product and Project Managers?,” David Goulden, June 17, 2017, https://www.clarizen.com/whats-difference-program-product-project-managers/;
“Product Manager vs Project Manager,” Andrei Tit, Medium, March 20, 2018, https://medium.com/paymo/product-manager-vs-project-manager-b4ac603d872a; “Project Manager vs. Product Manager,” Brainrants | Brainmates Blog, Updated October 2019, https://brainmates.com.au/brainrants/project-manager-vs-product-manager/.
[2] A Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule, named after its inventor, Henry Gantt, who designed such a chart around the years 1910–1915.
[3] “Exploit the Product Life Cycle,” Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business Review, November 1965, https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle.
[4] “My product management toolkit (31): hiring product managers,” Marc Abraham, October  5, 2018, https://medium.com/@maa1/my-product-management-toolkit-31-hiring-product-managers-4442740af77.
[5] See: “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies,” Scott Page, Princeton University Press, 2008; “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitive Diverse, “ Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, Harvard Business Review, March 30, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse; “Cognitive Diversity: what’s often missing from conversations about diversity and inclusion,” Sara Canaday, Psychology Today, June 18, 2017, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/you-according-them/201706/cognitive-diversity ; “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation,” Rocío Lorenzo, Nicole Voigt, Miki Tsusaka, Matt Krentz, and Katie Abouzahr, Boston Consulting Group, January  23, 2018, https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.aspx.
[6] Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 2nd Edition, 1989, p. 39).
[7] See: “Four Questions to Spot the Difference Between Healthy Tension and Unhealthy Conflict ,” Eric Geiger, January 18, 2016, https://ericgeiger.com/2016/01/four-questions-to-spot-the-difference-between-healthy-tension-and-unhealthy-conflict/; “Healthy tension in product teams,” Emmet Connolly, Inside Intercom, July 21, 2017, https://www.intercom.com/blog/healthy-tension-in-product-teams/; “What is healthy tension?” Tim Arnold, Leaders for Leaders, https://www.leadersforleaders.ca/blog/entry/what-is-healthy-tension; “Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument,” Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann, Profile and Interpretive Report (sample), CPP Inc., May 1, 2008.
[8] Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, April 2002).
[9] “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/07/why-diversity-programs-fail.
[10] “The Dominant Logic: Retrospective and Extension,” Richard A. Bettis and C.K. Prahalad, ,Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 16, Issue 1, 1995,
[11] Wayne Greene, interview by author, San Jose, June 27, 2019.
[12] “How Spotify builds products,” Henrik Kniberg, Crisp’s Blog, January 13, 2013, https://blog.crisp.se/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/HowSpotifyBuildsProducts.pdf.
[13] See: “The Spotify Model Is No Agile Nirvana ,” Ben Linders, InfoQ, October 12, 2017, https://www.infoq.com/news/2017/10/spotify-agile-nirvana/; “Why ‘the Spotify model’ won’t solve all your problems with Product Delivery,” Curtis Stanier, Medium, November 3, 2019, https://medium.com/@crstanier/why-the-spotify-model-won-t-solve-all-your-problems-4c31640c719a; “Failed #SquadGoals,” Jeremiah Lee, April 19, 2020, https://www.jeremiahlee.com/posts/failed-squad-goals/.
[14] “The Collaboration Blind Spot,” Lisa B. Kwan, Harvard Business Review, March – April 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-collaboration-blind-spot.
[15] Ibid 14.
[16] Allen Gannett, The Creative Curve, (London: Ebury Publishing, June 2018, p. 171).
[17] Ibid 16, p. 182.
[18] See also “The AEM-Cube: A Management Tool, Based on Ecological Concepts, in Order to Profit from Diversity,” Peter Robertson. Presented at the 43rd Annual Conference of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, 1999, Pacific Grove, CA.
[19] Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (London: William Heinemann, 2003, pp. 29 – 30).
[20] Marcia Reynolds, Outsmart Your Brains: How to Master Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel (Arizona: Covisioning, 2nd Edition, August 2017).
[21] “You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions – your brain creates them,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, TED @ IBM, January 2, 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/lisa_feldman_barrett_you_aren_t_at_the_mercy_of_your_emotions_your_brain_creates_them/.
[22] Ibid 21.
[23] See: The Ekmans’ Atlas of Emotions, http://atlasofemotions.org/.
[24] Ibid 20.
[25] Ibid 21 and “Who Is in Charge?” Michael S. Gazzaniga, BioScience, Volume 61, Issue 12, December 2011, pp. 937–938.
[26] “If else Statement in C++,” Chaitanya Singh, BeginnersBook, August 2017, https://beginnersbook.com/2017/08/cpp-if-else-statement/.
[27] Craig Strong, email to author, March 28, 2020.
[28] “Software has bugs. This is normal,” David Heinemeier Hansson, Signal v. Noise,  March 7, 2016, https://m.signalvnoise.com/software-has-bugs-this-is-normal/.
[29] “Software is actually extremely repeatable and predictable for the majority of business applications,” Justin James, Medium, August 11, 2018, https://medium.com/@jmjames/software-is-actually-extremely-repeatable-and-predictable-for-the-overwhelming-majority-of-business-4459aa7fc0b2.
[30] Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1, Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984); “Study suggests emotion plays a role in rational decision making,” Kate Wong, Scientific American, November 27, 2001, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/study-suggests-emotion-pl/.
[31] Julius Friedrich August Bahnsen, The Contradiction in the Knowledge and Being of the World, 1880.
[32] Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography (Simon & Schuster, October 2011);
Barbara Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius: The inner world of Marie Curie (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004).
[33] See: “How to Make It: James Dyson built a better vacuum. Can he pull off a second industrial revolution?” John Seabrook, The New Yorker, September 13, 2010, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/09/20/how-to-make-it; “How James Dyson Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary,” Shoshana Berger, Wired, November 19, 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/11/mf-james-dyson/; “How we made the Dyson vacuum cleaner,” Andrew Dickson, The Guardian, May 24, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/09/20/how-to-make-it.
[34] “Interview with Sara Blakely,” Guy Raz, NPR “How I Built This” podcast, July 3, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/08/15/534771839/spanx-sara-blakely.
[35] “Stakeholder Management,” Marty Cagan, Silicon Valley Product Group, April 30, 2013,  https://svpg.com/stakeholder-management/.
[36] “Lessons learned from Uri Levine, Co-Founder of Waze,” Marc Abraham, As I learn, May 14, 2017, https://marcabraham.com/2017/05/14/lessons-learned-from-uri-levine-co-founder-of-waze/.
[37] “Product management at Amazon – What is it like?” Marc Abraham, As I learn, November 26, 2015, https://marcabraham.com/2014/11/26/product-management-at-amazon-what-is-it-like/.
[38] “Why These Tech Companies Keep Running Thousands of Failed Experiments,” Ben Clarke, Fast Company, September 21, 2016, https://www.fastcompany.com/3063846/why-these-tech-companies-keep-running-thousands-of-failed.
[39] Hope Gurion, interview by author, Greenbrae, December 9, 2019.
[40] “What’s a spike, who should enter it and how to word it?” Andrew Fuqua, Leading Agile, September 13, 2016, https://www.leadingagile.com/2016/09/whats-a-spike-who-should-enter-it-how-to-word-it/.
[41] See: “No more features on product roadmaps – Have themes or goals instead!” Marc Abraham, As I learn, October 1, 2015, https://marcabraham.com/2015/10/01/no-more-features-on-product-roadmaps-have-themes-or-goals-instead/; C. Todd Lombardo, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan and Michael Connors, Product Roadmaps Relaunched (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2018).
[42] “The First Principles of Product Management,” Brandon Chu, The Black Box of Product Management,  January 7, 2018, https://blackboxofpm.com/the-first-principles-of-product-management-ea0e2f2a018c.
[43] Alex Watson, email to author, December 21, 2019.
[44] “Project Management: cost, time and quality, two best guesses and a phenomenon, it’s time to accept other success criteria,” Roger Atkinson, International Journal of Project Management, 1999, Vol. 17, No. 16, pp. 337-442.
[45] “Making Trade-offs is Product Management,” Wayne Greene, This Is Product Management podcast, Alpha, August 2018, https://www.thisisproductmanagement.com/episodes/making-tradeoffs/.
[46] “Brain Rules: The brain cannot multitask,” John Medina, March 16, 2008, http://brainrules.blogspot.com/2008/03/brain-cannot-multitask_16.html.
[47] Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional, 2nd Edition, August 12, 1995).
[48] “4 Reasons Speed Is Everything in Business,” Adam Fridman, Inc., July 5, 2015, https://www.inc.com/adam-fridman/4-reasons-speed-is-everything-in-business.html.
[49] “My product management toolkit (21): Assessing opportunities,” Marc Abraham, Medium, May 9, 2017, https://medium.com/@maa1/my-product-management-toolkit-21-assessing-opportunities-17f7f6343080; “Breaking down cost of delay: everything you need to know in a simple guide,” Planview Leankit , https://leankit.com/learn/lean/cost-of-delay/.
[50] “Leading Change: 3 Reasons Why Great Leaders Are Reluctant to Compromise,” Aad Boot,  LeadershipWatch, August 28, 2013, https://leadershipwatch-aadboot.com/2013/08/28/leading-change-3-key-reasons-why-great-leaders-are-reluctant-to-compromise-2/.
[51] Jo Wickremasinghe, email to author, January 2, 2020.
[52] “Welcome to product management – a city of trade-offs ,” Matthew Tse, UX Collective, April 16, 2018, https://uxdesign.cc/welcome-to-product-management-a-city-of-trade-offs-843c85a5212.
[53] Ibid 27.
[54] Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life (Fawcett Columbine, revised edition, 1989, p. 69).
[55] Ibid 39.

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