‘Not Seeing the Wood for the Trees’ when managing products

‘What you really want is people to solve problems in diverse ways to have a creative team, you want people to think of different types of ideas.’  Scott Page

In my new book “Managing Product = Managing Tension” I talk about the tensions inherent in managing products. The fact that product management is a joint effort can act as a breeding ground for tension. Below excerpt from “Managing Product = Managing Tension” covers the potential for conflict when collectively managing products and how conflict can actually be a good, product thing.

Product management is a team sport. When I interview product management candidates for a role on a product team, I always explore the products they have worked on. When I hear candidates talk about ‘I built_____’ or ‘acquired ______ new customers’ I probe to find out about both their specific individual contribution and how they collaborated with others.

The main reason why I am always keen to explore collaboration as well as individual contributions is because of my strong belief in the value of ‘cognitive diversity’ which occurs when different perspectives and problem solving approaches come together. Creativity triggers a focus of critical judgement, rather than a suspension of it; as creators master their own creative process, less and less is left to explore alternatives. Instead, creators aim to try and get to their desired final result as quickly and efficiently as possible. Going through such a creative process collectively therefore generates pressure and opposing points of view, starting with reaching agreement about the desired end result, let alone figuring out as a team how best to get there.

Cognitive diversity is closely linked with so-called ‘healthy tension’ or ‘constructive conflict’ which, if exercised wisely, fuels innovation and team success. In both instances, people will respect each other’s different perspectives and opinions, and aim to resolve issues in a productive manner. Achieving a state of productive disagreement sits in the middle of the ’Conflict Continuum’ developed by business author Patrick Lencioni.

In this continuum, productive disagreement is flanked by artificial harmony and destructive conflict. At first glance, the idea of ‘artificial harmony’ might sound appealing but there is often a lot of discontent hiding underneath the group agreement or it risks being based on the lowest common denominator. Equally, a state of deconstructive conflict is not desirable either. Whilst it is impossible ‒ and as I will point out later in the book, not conducive to product innovation ‒ for team members to always agree, we don’t want teams to be in a state of conflict that doesn’t move the team or the product forward.

In reality, I see an additional dimension playing out; ‘noise’ caused by people sharing their viewpoints haphazardly and not listening to each other. We thus get caught up in a cacophony of split perspectives, losing sight of what really matters or what is actually happening. In my experience, cognitive diversity becomes troublesome when people don’t respect or trust different views or approaches, have divergent interests or follow different goals. You might have come across companies or teams where people only pay lip service to the concept of cognitive diversity. Equally, friction rears its head when people fail to shed deeply-held biases. As much as we like to see ourselves as totally rational beings, the reality is that we aren’t.

Throughout our lives we develop so many different learnings and biases, some more ingrained than others. Unlearning these ‘priors’ can be really tough and cause friction between people and teams. As a consequence this often simply creates noise, with people failing to reach agreement on anything. Wayne Greene, a highly experienced product management leader and consultant, has reflected on this noise and compared it to ‘walking into a dysfunctional family’. Greene explained to me how product managers might feel like a ‘mini CEO’, owning the product, but the reality is that ‘you almost need a degree in psychology’ when working with others on products. Cognitive diversity is priceless with respect to developing great products, but we need to recognise that it can also cause a great deal of friction.

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