Product Leadership

How to Offer Constructive Feedback: A Framework for Product People

Listen to the audio version of this article:

“No Matter How it Looks at First, it’s Always a People Problem”

This quote from Gerald Weinberg nicely summarises a core challenge we face as product people: Our profession is called product management, but the product part can be the easy one compared to the people challenges we sometimes face. Here are four examples:

  • Joe, the sales rep, has promised a feature to an important customer without first talking to you—the person in charge of the product.
  • Sue, the Scrum Master, wanted to help the development team get better at sprint planning. But the team still over-commits and under-delivers.
  • Pete, the marketer, agreed to rework the marketing strategy to support the next major release. To your surprise, you discover that he has hardly made any progress even though the release is only a few weeks away.
  • Cindy who helps you manage the product started to come late to meetings. Recently she even missed one without telling you in advance.

It can be tempting to ignore people issues and focus on product-related tasks like reviewing the product strategy, updating the product roadmap, and refining the product backlog. But this is hardly a recipe for success. Problems like the ones mentioned above will hardly go away on their own. Instead, they may even get worse. Consequently, you’ll have to deal with more unsolicited feature requests, poor development team performance, an ineffective marketing strategy, and meetings that are poorly attended—to stay with the examples from above.

It is therefore important that you exercise leadership and address the people issues you are encountering even if this can be challenging and require courage at times. On the positive side, when done correctly, it will not only remove the problems. It will help the individuals involved grow and strengthen your connections with them.

Framework Overview

To help you successfully tackle people issues, structure difficult conversations, and offer constructive feedback, I have developed the framework shown in the picture below. You can download the infographic by clicking on it.

While my framework integrates elements from the CEDAR model, the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) model, and Non-Violent Communication (NVC), I’ve specifically designed it for a product management context where you lead others without necessarily being their boss. The following sections explain how you can apply the framework.

Before You Start

Before you share your feedback, reflect on your intention. Ensure that you want to improve the situation and help the other person rather than acting out of frustration or the desire to retaliate. It would be wrong toor judge the individual, for instance, thinking of Joe—the sales rep introduced earlier—as a selfish and pushy sales guy who needs to be put in his place. Instead, separate the person from the problem, and focus on the latter.

Additionally, choose the right time and place for giving feedback. Allocate enough time—at least 30 minutes as a rule of thumb. If you find that the issue has triggered difficult emotions like frustration or anger in you, then wait for them to reside before offering your feedback. Finally, consider if it is feasible to meet onsite. If you meet online, make sure that the cameras are switched on and that you can clearly see each other.

Step 1: Connection

Prior to discussing the issue, take some time to check in with the other person. Ask them how they are and what’s going on for them. This allows you to empathise and build trust with the individual. This, in turn, will have a positive impact on the conversation, and it will make it easier to share difficult feedback.

You might say, for example: Hi Joe, it’s been a while. How are you doing? Have you been travelling lately?

Step 2: Objective

Describe the desired outcome of the meeting and state the context in which the issue occurred.

You might say: Thanks for making time to meet with me, Joe. I want to talk to you about the feature request you recently raised and the impact it’s had. I also want to discuss with you how we can improve the way we handle feature requests in the future.

Step 3: Issue

Next, address the issue. But rather than telling the other person what’s wrong and what you want them to do differently, ask them to share their perspective. What did they observe? What is their version of what happened? And how are they feeling about the issue? Listen attentively with the intention to understand. This shows the other person that you are interested in what they have to say, and it ensures that you take in all the information.

You might ask Joe: How did the feature request come about Joe? How did you experience the conversation with the customer and the following interaction with me?

Then describe your observations. Stick to the facts. Don’t judge, blame, or accuse. Be kind but frank. Don’t generalise, sugar-coat, or exaggerate. State the impact that the issue has had including the feelings it has triggered in you.

You might say: Thanks for sharing your perspective, Joe. I was very surprised and a bit shocked, to be honest, when I heard that you had told the customer that we would offer the feature in the next release. I can still feel some frustration now when I think about it. It put me in a very difficult situation. As we could not afford to disappoint the customer, I had to change the agreed product goal and consequently deal with complaints from the dev teams and some of the other stakeholders.

Step 4: Causes

Once you’ve shared observations, determine the issue’s underlying causes. Create a shared understanding of why the problem occurred. Find out what caused the other person to act the way they did, and what drove their behaviour. What were their underlying goals and needs?

You might say: Joe, you regularly talk to our major customers. Is there a reason why you weren’t aware that the customer wanted this feature when we met to agree on the outcome of the next release and the functionality it should provide?

Step 5: Actions

Determine the actions required to address the causes and improve the situation. Encourage the other person to come up with suggestions rather than telling them what to do. You might ask questions like “What needs to be done to stop the issue from recurring?” and “What will you do differently in the future?” Additionally, clearly state the actions that you want them to take and share the changes you are willing to make. The latter shows that you are willing to contribute to solving the issue and change your own behaviour if necessary.

You might say: I’d like to ask you to stop mentioning feature ideas to customers and instead, focus on their needs when you talk to them about future product versions. I’d also like to ask you to always talk to me first before you promise something to a customer. I’ll do my best from now on to schedule the product planning meetings so that you can attend them and share your insights from customer meetings, and I’ll explicitly check with you and the other attendees that you agree with the decisions.

Step 6: Closure

Wrap up the conversation and close the meeting. Ask the other person how the conversation went for them, how they are feeling right now, and if the meeting was helpful. This allows you to get better at offering constructive feedback in the future.

You might say: Thanks for the open and constructive conversation, Joe. I am glad that we sorted things out, and I am pleased with the actions we’ve agreed on. How did the meeting go for you? 

If you did not manage to develop a shared understanding of the causes and if you failed to agree on actions, then you are likely to experience conflict—a serious disagreement with an element of adversary. If this is the case, I recommend recognising what’s happening and scheduling a follow-up meeting to resolve the conflict.

You might say to Joe: It seems to me that we can’t agree on what happened and why it happened. It’s important to me that we address the disagreement. But it would be too much to do now. Let’s please schedule a follow-up meeting.

Roman Pichler

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