How Product Managers Overcome Consensus Building

Product development + perfect consensus = no progress | Photo by Jodi B. Photography

July 28, 2023

How Product Managers Overcome Consensus Building

by Brian de Haaff

You agree. I published a new blog post about the real problem with consensus building in product development. I was aware that many product managers struggle with advocating for taking the bold path forward. It is a common challenge when working with cross-functional groups — you want to make progress so you aim for a decision that everyone can agree to, even if it is not the best option out there. What surprised me was how many of you sent me notes about the topic.

One of the hardest parts about building something new is convincing others to join you. But settling for a comfortable compromise is even harder.

What I learned from your messages is that consensus building is unfortunately common in many product orgs. Many of you said that you feel worn out by the need to get input from everyone before you can cement a decision and act upon it — it slows you down and often waters down promising ideas.

Sounds frustrating. Yet as frustrating as it is, there is usually nothing nefarious behind the urge to come to a group agreement. Your colleagues may feel uncertain about the future, concerned about the resources required, or afraid to take a risk because they assume everyone else must be right.

Product managers under pressure to deliver naturally look for ways to keep things moving forward — but you need to avoid unnecessary concessions.

So what do you do? How can you move forward with big ideas while still maintaining team enthusiasm and support? Groupthink snuffs out innovation. But bulldozing everyone into submission silences dissenting voices. After decades of working on software products I have seen all sides.

Here is the advice I give our product team at Aha! and will now share with you — five steps that will bring focus to discussions and avoid the temptation of consensus:

1. Know the problem

Do your research. Be the expert in your market, customer, and product. Share that knowledge regularly so that everyone else understands the core problem that your product solves. Striving to grow the team’s understanding will lead to meaningful debate and more aligned decisions.

2. Share the strategy

Bring reality to the fore by leading with strategy. Show folks what you need to accomplish — shared achievement is incredibly motivating for a team. This OKR template is a good one for driving clarity. Have it open and ready during product team meetings or discussions where people are wavering or backpedaling towards a “safe” decision.

3. Engage the team

Encourage open communication. Be respectful and honor the expertise of your colleagues. Guide the conversation by asking clarifying questions and referring back to strategy. And do not be afraid to limit the number of voices. You do not need to get input from everyone — focus on core stakeholders and teammates.

4. Organize by priority

Map out the potential directions using strategy as your guide. Gather feedback, concerns, and proposed solutions — you want to visualize the options so that folks can see what is right for themselves. A simple pros and cons tool or a 2x2 matrix template can take you far.

5. Take action

Avoid dwelling. Punt anything that is not urgent or in line with your goals. Explain why, with kindness. If you have followed the first three steps, then folks will likely anticipate the rationale. Immediately document action items and schedule a regroup to move forward. This will give the team confidence and enthusiasm for what is next.

Lead by example. Cultivate an environment where folks feel comfortable speaking up and have the information needed to provide meaningful input.

Conformity is boring. It takes boldness to advocate for big ideas when others would prefer to play it safe. That does not mean you should not get feedback and ask for others’ perspectives. And it does not mean that you should shut down those voices. But just because others are unsure does not mean you must settle for something less than great.

Show integrity in what you choose to build and how you build it. Have the daring to hold true to what you believe will create the most value.

The Aha! template library includes 50+ templates for building breakthrough products.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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