How Tough Product Managers Pick Fights
September 12, 2016

How Tough Product Managers Pick Fights

by Brian de Haaff

How many times do people “ping” you at work each day? For product managers, the answer is probably something like: “Oh, I’ve stopped counting.” Feedback comes in from so many different channels — internally and externally — that those pings can start to feel like a series of jabs.

Of course input from teams across the business is important — even essential — for building a great product that customers love. But ultimately, one person has to own the plan and the direction of the product roadmap.

Visionary product managers build brilliant products because they are adept at cutting through the noise to fight for what they know is right. And how do they know what’s right? Strategy guides them.

Yet it can be tough for product managers to maintain that “true north” perspective when navigating a cacophony of opinions, interests, and needs — from internal teams, partners, and customers.

As a former product manager, I know this well. And as the co-founder and CEO of Aha!, I speak with hundreds of product managers each month who are often struggling to corral the contradictory feedback and requests from different teams.

Many product managers have another contender in the ring. You know, that person who makes sure their voice is the loudest and that their projects move ahead. Often these people are found in sales, but I once knew one who came from operations. They can lurk anywhere.

Strong product managers push back — hard — against voices that derail, no matter where they come from. That’s part of the responsibility that comes with leading a product.

Here are five tactics that can help you fight those product battles — without damaging yourself or the team in the process:

Tie work to strategy

Taking a goal-first approach reduces the likelihood that you will not be able to explain why you are doing something (or not doing something else). When you can demonstrate that decisions are informed by strategy — not a gut feeling or internal politicking — you will find stronger footing in your argument.

Avoid surprises

It’s your job to share information and keep cross-functional teams informed. Schedule consistent status meetings across teams to eradicate back-channeling. Set an example — be open with the team and demand the same level of transparency from everyone you work with.

Maintain objectivity

Everyone has their pet feature or the new idea they think is worth pursuing. Staying objective will help you fight for what truly matters. Create an objective metric, like a feature scorecard, so that you show feature A and feature B are measured by the same standard (that ideally ties back to your strategic initiatives).

Be direct (but respectful)

Innovation does not happen when you toe-step around people’s feelings. But it also does not mean you bulldoze over colleagues. Be firm, direct, and — most important — listen and be kind.

Know when to fight

Before you go out swinging, weigh today’s battle against the long-term vision. Learn to identify the things that are truly worth fighting for and save your time for those. Don’t exhaust yourself quibbling over every suggestion.

There will be days when it feels like the never-ending product battles are beating you down. But do not fret, stand firm on the foundation of your strategy and stand tall — you are fighting for your customers and what is right.

Besides, emotion is a good thing. It means you care about what you are building and will not settle for anything less than the best.

Developing the skills needed to effectively wield a visionary fighting spirit takes time. Make strategy your guiding star, share the “why” behind your decisions, and treat everyone with respect — even if it means picking the occasional fight.

What product decisions have you had to fight for?

Brian de Haaff

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

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