Quite often it’s a team’s culture that makes the difference between delivering a good product and a great product.
In his excellent book, Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock talks about whole digital product companies that have been bought just for skill of the team. ‘Aqui-hiring’ refers to a small company being bought, their product being dumped and the whole team being made to work on a concept for the acquirer – essentially meaning it can often be the culture of a team that is the valuable asset, not the product they are building. For example, in 2012 Google bought Milk – an app development company – killed all its projects and put the entire team to work on Google+.
Great product teams have a growth mindset
I would go so far as to say in many cases teams with the best cultures make better products than the teams of know-it-all ‘experts’. I notice that teams who view themselves with a sense of vulnerability are more willing to play, explore and learn. They have a growth mindset, whereas many less self-aware product leaders are just trying to re-create a formula that worked at their old company, on their previous product.
Teams that are less sure of the way and more willing to explore are constantly negotiating to find the better way or create an entirely new angle on a problem. Now, if you picture negotiation in your mind as an extreme psychological game, a tête-à-tête between two steely characters in a hostage crisis style of win-it-all or lose-it-all, then you’re mistaken. Every conversation you have is a negotiation: however basic, there is always a power struggle going on, there are always mis-understandings being hammered out, but crucially, there is learning and exploration going on.
Every conversation you have is a negotiation
That is unless… everyone just agrees with each other. Teams that just agree with each other all the time, or fall victim to aligning behind a manager who is only ever prescriptive and directive, will not explore. They will always just end up saying ‘yes’.
One reason it might be common to think reaching agreement is the right thing to do could be due to a book that many of us have read in the past called – ‘Getting to YES”. Actually, it’s a good book – but many people have interpreted the points too literally, such as:
- Creating repeatable conversational workflows that lead you to saying ‘yes’ – like a telephone salesperson who wants to make a deal;
- Asking ridiculous leading questions, like: “if you are dying of thirst in a desert and someone offers you a cold glass of water would you drink it?” .
The premise of this approach is, if you get people saying ‘yes’ all the time they sub-consciously convince themselves they need the thing you are selling. A common reality is, if you know what they are up to, it will just make you defensive as they try to back you in to the corner of saying ‘yes’.
Create an Oasis of Control
In his excellent book “Never Split the Difference”, Chris Voss suggests trying a different method, getting to ‘No’.
If we get people so say ‘no’, Voss says it creates an Oasis of Control, that allows us to adjust, pivot, reframe and re-examine the problem we are trying to solve, which is the entire point of product management anyway. Asking questions such as “have you given up?” or “do you want this to fail?” (amongst many, many others) allows us to pause and re-strategize, explore and enquire. It engages us again, allows for more discussion and analysis, peeling away the synthetic falseness of forced agreement allowing us to get back on the expedition that is product ideation and delivery.
How do you ever make progress, then? Well, if you have robust discussions, explore problems properly and challenge each other effectively, the way forwards seems obvious. Mix that up with effective iterative user test strategies and you’re away.
Challenging each other leads to good decision making
The goal is for the team to make the right product decisions to deliver value for customer and the business, not just to agree with each other and let bad ideas slip through the net.
Here’s three things to try out:
- Negotiate in their world. It’s not about you. Challenging others is good, if done well – if you don’t do this, you just get the predictable and obvious;
- ‘No’ isn’t negative, it often just means ‘wait’. It’s a pause for thought;
- ‘No’ gets problems on the table and lets us move forwards creatively.