Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you
Stealers Wheel, 1973
Martin Eriksson made famous the diagram below, showing how product managers are at the cross-section of business, tech, and UX (by the way, I’m not implying any of these groups are clowns or jokers).
The first time I saw this diagram I thought: “That’s awesome, it shows product right at the heart of everything, the lynchpin of the whole organisation.” My chest puffed up, my arrogance increased (one of my many fundamental character flaws that I’m trying to work on) and I felt really excited for the days that lay ahead.
Like every story that starts with a nice rosy beginning, it didn’t work out that way. Most organisations have at least some level of dysfunction, and, try as I might to overcome this, it never seems to go away.
Over time, this diagram has become more like the map of the disputed territories in a war zone, with product management at the heart of the worst fighting.
Not quite so exciting or confidence building after all. We product managers are normally the people who get the heat when things go wrong. We’re consistently exposed to the competing and conflicting demands of the three areas of the Venn diagram.
I had thought that Product was supposed to be all about testing with users, coming up with amazing ideas, and having the freedom to execute them. But that just doesn’t cover the full reality that most of us are faced with.
The business wants more of everything: more products, better uptime, better performance, fewer bugs, and all with the same amount of resource. The sales and upsell teams are screaming at you to give them a cast-iron, guaranteed launch date. The tech team wants to focus on big technical projects. They want all products to be technically perfect before release and they point-blank refuse to even give an indication of an estimate of when something may be ready for launch. The UX team wants to spend weeks going back to fundamentals to understand the users more deeply and to test every single piece of the UI with users in real-life, face-to-face testing.
Did I mention that you also have an extremely tight budget and the ever-present threat that the business is going to pull the funding for the product in favour of something a client has told the sales team they want?
This is obviously a caricature of reality, but it can often feel like this when you’re at the heart of the battle.
It’s at this point that you become vulnerable to a complete meltdown. No one told you it would be so tough. The job did not come with a health warning (full disclosure, I moved from running my own business to being a head of product, making this journey even more jarring).
With each week that goes by you can sink further and further. You become no longer able to move in any direction as you simply don’t have the respect of the other teams.
I reached this point at one time in my career. Fortunately I realised that I had to do something radical. If my job felt like a war zone it wasn’t because of the environment. It wasn’t because the tech team was shortsighted, it wasn’t because the sales team was selfish, and it wasn’t because the UX team was too unrealistic.
IT WAS MY FAULT.
Yep. When you keep having similar problems with lots of different people then the only ego-shattering conclusion you can make is that it’s your fault.
OK, so what do I do now? How do I deal with this new bombshell? Am I completely useless?
Side Note – if you are looking for easy solutions neatly packaged into simple tips, this article is not for you
I had a short moment of panic, but then I realised that, if it was my fault that things were so bad, then surely it was in my power to fix it. It should therefore become my sole purpose to bring peace to this war-torn disaster zone.
I realised that if I wanted to get to that idyllic meadow of idea generation and autonomy for teams of tech, product and UX working together, I first had to build trust from every area of the business. There’s no point moaning that “it’s not the way things should be done” when you haven’t yet built confidence from all three circles in the Venn diagram.
Empathy and Understanding
This is why my personal journey to – I hope – at least an approximation of competency, travelled through the terrifying lands and rocky terrain of empathy and understanding.
This journey must start with the mantra “assume positive intent”. This means that, no matter what, you always assume that every person you work with is doing their best (please read Brene Brown’s opinions on this in her book Dare to Lead, it can be life-changing). How can you remain angry at someone who is only doing what they do because it’s the best or the only way they know? It can be very humbling when you acknowledge that the person who’s the target of your anger is actually doing the very best they can.
With that mindset in place I had to go through the long and arduous journey of putting myself in the place of the person I was failing. This could involve asking them for more information about what’s happening in their world, spending a day in their life and effectively doing their job for a day, or simply just spending some time thinking through what motivates them.
Just performing these acts can be enough to significantly increase trust, because that person then knows you care. When it comes to it, caring for others, and showing that you care for them, will solve more problems than you can imagine.
What I’ve just described sounds easy, but it is extremely hard. The truth is, we all care more about a tiny spot our face than we do about a million deaths in some faraway country. We are evolved to be naturally and inherently selfish, and overcoming this takes a lot of work.
The Empathy Trap
Empathy is the process of understanding what someone else thinks and feels and adjusting the way you behave as a result.
You may think that this all sounds great, but if I assume positive intent does that then mean that I accept their poor behaviour and allow them to treat me poorly?
And, if I’m changing my behaviour after thinking about the other person, will I just be trampled on and spend my time dancing to someone else’s tune? Does it mean I always say yes as I want to help that person?
This is what I’ve termed the empathy trap – essentially it is to assume and believe that empathy is weakness.
To answer the questions above, accepting poor behaviour or always saying yes is not empathy but self-interest. If you truly care for and understand the other person you will be willing to take the difficult step of explaining why something will not go their way or addressing any of their behaviour that falls below what you consider fair or reasonable.
True empathy also involves the real strength to put yourself in an awkward position if it is the best thing for that situation and it is what the other person needs to hear (but don’t go too far, of course).
The Road to Peace
If you have genuine empathy and understanding for all the people you work with and who are affected by your products, then you are on the right road. If you continue to show people that you care then they will work with you in a positive way.
A note of warning here. There are many many different factions involved in most of these internal company wars and the best you can realistically hope for is an uneasy ceasefire. That is, everyone still has their own agenda and they are just a couple of months of being ignored away from going right back into an all-out attack.
You can only maintain peace by continuing to embrace empathy with everyone involved in or affected by your project at every point along the journey.
The goal isn’t to make everyone happy. You will have to disappoint people. The goal should be that everyone agrees with the final decision made, even if it means their personal project won’t be done soon. Exercising real empathy should make that process much easier.
If you work hard on understanding your colleagues and avoid blaming the other person when things go awry and instead blame yourself, then you may be closer to harmony than you realise.