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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book How to Lead in Product Management

Q&A on the Book How to Lead in Product Management

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Key Takeaways

  • Hard skills alone are not enough to succeed as a product manager or product owner.
  • Developing the right leadership skills is crucial to successfully guide stakeholders and development teams and achieve product success.
  • Building trust and strengthening empathy are key to effectively lead and influence people.
  • Practicing listening deeply and learning to successfully resolve conflicts builds rapport and fosters collaboration.
  • Personal retrospectives and mindfulness practice help leaders grow and develop.

The book How to Lead in Product Management by Roman Pichler provides solutions for product managers and product owners to lead development teams and stakeholders. It covers practices like building trust, setting product goals, listening and speaking, resolving conflict, and securing buy-in to product decisions in order to achieve product success.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of How to Lead in Product Management.

InfoQ interviewed Roman Pichler about the challenges of leading stakeholders and development teams, empathy, leadership styles, building trust, listening and non-violent communication, collaborative decision making, mindfulness, and personal retrospectives.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Roman Pichler: I wrote this book after becoming increasingly aware that it is not enough for product managers and product owners to possess the right hard skills, for example, the ability to interview users, create an effective product strategy and actionable product roadmap, and prioritise the product backlog.

Products are developed, provided, and enhanced by people. Being able to effectively lead them is crucial to achieve product success. Additionally, virtually all the leadership books I’ve read are aimed at line managers and executives and don’t offer any specific advice for product people.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Pichler: I wrote this book with people who work as product managers or Scrum product owners in mind — who are responsible for making or keeping a product successful and for maximising the value it creates. Individuals who manage or coach product people, like head of product management, a product coach, Scrum Master, and agile coach will also benefit from reading the book.

InfoQ: What are the challenges of leading stakeholders and development teams? What makes it so special?

Pichler: There are six challenges that I see: first, product people usually don’t have any transactional power. They cannot tell the stakeholders and development team members what to do; they cannot assign tasks to them; and they are typically not in a position to offer a bonus, pay raise, or other incentives.

Second, the group product people have to lead can be large and heterogeneous. Cross-functional development teams and stakeholders from different business units can easily comprise of fifteen people.

Third, product people usually can’t choose who the team members and stakeholders are. Instead, they rely on line management to staff the development team and to select representatives from the business units as stakeholders. They hence have to learn to work with the people present.

Fourth, while leading people can be challenging on its own, product people also have to actively contribute to reaching shared goals and achieving product success, for example, by carrying out product discovery work, prioritising the backlog, or helping to create user stories. In this sense, they play a dual role: they are a leader and contributor.

Fifth, product people have to provide leadership at three levels: vision, strategy, and tactics. This provides the necessary guidance and ensures fast and consistent decision-making, but it requires navigating between the big picture and the product details.

Last but not least, working with agile teams means that product people benefit from agile practices but also have to follow them. This includes the dev team’s right to determine their workload and organise their work.

InfoQ: In the book you mentioned that empathy is a key leadership quality. Can you elaborate on why?

Pichler: I view empathy as our capacity to understand other people’s feelings, needs, and interests and to take the perspective of the other person — to understand where she or he is coming from. Empathy is possibly the most important leadership quality, as it allows leaders to influence others and it encourages positive change.

It also creates trust and psychological safety — an environment in which people feel safe to speak up and are comfortable to be themselves. That’s particularly important in a product context: product people rely on the cooperation and trust of the stakeholders and development team, and innovation requires that people be comfortable with trying out novel ways to do things and the possibility of failing.

InfoQ: How can leaders find out what leadership styles might be effective?

Pichler: My advice is to be attentive to people’s needs and consider the situation you are in. After all, a leader’s job is to guide, help, and support people.

Say you work with a newly formed stakeholder group and dev team, and say that people only have limited knowledge about the market, domain, and product. Then it would probably not be helpful to embrace a purely visionary style, set an inspiring goal, and leave it up to the individuals to figure out how to get there. Instead, a more directive approach would probably be required at first.

But as the group cohesion improves, as people start to trust each other and better collaborate, and as they acquire the relevant knowledge, a more hands-off leadership style is likely to be appropriate.

InfoQ: How can leaders build trust with the people that they work with, like developers, Scrum Masters, and stakeholders?

Pichler: There are six trust-building techniques that I recommend: first, empathise with people. Take a genuine but respectful interest in the individuals, no matter if you like them or not. Second, make an effort to attentively listen to them, and don’t prematurely judge or reject someone’s ideas or concerns. Third, speak and act with integrity: Say what is true and walk your own talk. Fourth, get to know people and allow them to get to know you. Involve the individuals in product decisions and encourage them to share their ideas and concerns. Fifth, be supportive and offer help whenever that’s possible and appropriate. Finally, strengthen your product management expertise. It’s hard to trust and follow someone who isn’t competent in her or his job. This may sound like quite an effort, but earning people’s trust is vital to guide the individuals and to move forward together.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to improve their listening habits?

Pichler: Give your full and undivided attention to the other person, particularly when you are having an important conversation. This makes the person feel appreciated and ensures that you don’t miss anything important. Listen with an open mind and be respectfully curious. Take a sincere interest in the individual and what she or he has to say, no matter if you agree with the individual or not. Pay attention not only to what is being said, but be attentive to the individual's emotions and try to understand her or his underlying interests and needs. Finally, be patient and give the other person enough time to share her or his perspective. Don’t interrupt the individual. This is not only impolite, but can make the person feel insecure, rejected, hurt, or even angry. As a consequence, the individual will be less receptive to what you have to say or even reject your response.

While listening is at the heart of every successful conversation, doing it well, particularly when we don’t like the other person or agree with her or his perspective, is a skill that leaders have to develop. It builds trust, leads to deeper connections, and helps you understand people’s hidden needs and interests.

InfoQ: How can non-violent communication help us to solve conflicts?

Pichler: Disagreements and conflicts naturally occur when people with different perspectives and needs interact. They are hence a common experience for product people. Unfortunately, we are not always skilled in resolving conflicts, in addressing them in a constructive way so that nobody is left feeling frustrated, angry, or hurt.

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a framework created by Marshall Rosenberg that helps people move beyond arguing over who is right. It encourages us to try to understand each other’s perspectives, feelings, and needs in order to resolve the dispute. When correctly applied, NVC can lead to a deeper, more trustful connection between the conflicting parties. It does, however, require the willingness to stop blaming the other person, to take responsibility for our own actions, and be open to what the other person wants and needs.

InfoQ: How does a dedicated facilitator help people to make collaborative decisions?

Pichler: Let me first say that effective collaborative decisions are not the result of achieving a compromise or brokering a deal. Instead, they are achieved by working together as a group, appreciating diverse perspectives, and looking for an inclusive solution.

A skilled facilitator will ensure that everybody involved in the decision-making process is heard, that nobody dominates, and that the HIPPO — the highest paid person’s opinion — does not win. As the person in charge of the product has to actively contribute to the discussion, it is difficult for the individual to facilitate at the same time.

I therefore recommend involving a facilitator, particularly when the individuals haven’t worked together before or are new to collaborative decision-making. Experienced Scrum Masters and agile coaches are often able to facilitate and guide the group through the decision-making process.

InfoQ: What benefits can leaders get from practicing mindfulness?

Pichler: There are four benefits that mindfulness practice can bring to product people: first, greater serenity, being calm and cool-headed even in challenging and stressful situations; second, increased empathy, being kind and accepting towards others and oneself; third, better decision-making by becoming aware of cognitive biases, like confirmation and negativity bias; fourth, improved communication, not speaking on impulse and saying something that we would later regret as well as being better at attentively listening to other people.

But as with many other things, the proof is in the pudding: you have to find out for yourself how beneficial mindfulness is for you. Personally, I have benefitted a lot from mindfulness practice, both at work and at home.

InfoQ: How can leaders hold personal retrospectives? What benefits can they bring?

Pichler: When we hear the term "mindfulness", we often think of meditation. But meditation is only one way to develop a heightened awareness. Another way to become more attentive to how we are and what’s happening is to make time for reflection and hold personal retrospectives. I recommend asking yourself the following questions at the end of each work week:
 

  1. What did I get done this week? Which challenges and difficulties did I encounter? What did I learn?
  2. How am I feeling right now? How did my moods and energy levels develop during the week?
  3. What changes do I want to make next week?

In addition to becoming more aware of what happened and how we are, personal retrospectives encourage us to experiment, to make changes to how we approach our work and what we do in order to be happier and more productive.

About the Book Author

Roman Pichler works as a product management consultant, teacher, and writer. He has a long track record of teaching and mentoring product people, advising product leaders, and helping companies create successful product management organisations. He is the author of three other books, including Agile Product Management with Scrum and Strategize: Product Strategy and Product Roadmap Practices for the Digital Age. Pichler writes a popular product management blog and has created a range of product management tools. You can find out more about his work at romanpichler.com.

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