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How to Overcome 6 Key Product Leadership Challenges

Published on 11th March 2020

Products are developed, provided, and enhanced by people, and effectively leading them is crucial to achieve product success. But leading stakeholders and development teams is hard: It requires product managers and product owners to overcome six leadership challenges that range from lacking transactional power to guiding self-organising teams. This article—which is based on my new book “How to Lead in Product Management”—discusses the six challenges and offers practical tips for overcoming them.

How to Overcome 6 Key Product Leadership Challenges

 
 
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No Transactional Power

Unlike a line manager, you usually don’t manage the development team and stakeholders as the person in charge of the product, and the individuals don’t report to you. You consequently don’t have any transactional power: You cannot tell people what to do; you cannot assign tasks to them; and you are typically not in a position to offer a bonus, pay raise, or other incentives. In other words, you are not their boss.

At the same time, you depend on the individuals. You rely on them to design, implement, market, sell, and support the product. Additionally, some of the people you lead might be more senior than you. They might have worked longer for the company, and they might be very influential and well connected.

In order to overcome this challenge, build trust with the stakeholders and development team members. The following tips will help you with this:

  • Empathise with the individuals and make an effort to understand their perspectives, needs, and interest, for example, by practicing active listening.
  • Speak and act with integrity: Say what is true and make your actions match your words.
  • Show people that you value their ideas and concerns and involve them in product decisions.
  • Get to know people and allow them to get to know you.
  • Strengthen your expertise. The more knowledgeable you are, the more likely it is that people will trust and follow you.

Leading a Large and Heterogeneous Group

The second challenge you face is leading can be comparatively large and heterogeneous group: Together, the development team and stakeholders are often more than nine people—the maximum number of individuals line managers are commonly recommended to lead.

What’s more, the dev team is cross-functional and may include UX and UI designers, developers, and testers, alongside other roles. The stakeholders come from different business units, for example, marketing, sales, support, and service for a commercial product. As people have different backgrounds, they are likely to have different perspectives and needs. While this can be a source of creativity and innovation, it can also give rise to arguments and conflicts.

In order to succeed in leading such a group, I recommend that you keep the stakeholders and development team stable. Why? It takes a while for a group of people to get to know each other, build trust, and be able to effectively collaborate. Additionally, every time a team changes, the team performance tends to dip: The new members have to get up to speed, new connections have to be made, and new friendships have to be built.

Additionally, increase your ability to constructively deal with disagreements and learn to resolve conflicts so that nobody is left feeling frustrated or hurt.

Finally, agree on shared goals or outcomes. Use them to establish a shared purpose, to direct and align people, and to give the individuals the autonomy they need to do their piece of work—be it creating a marketing strategy or designing and building a product increment.


Limited Influence on Group Selection

While you might know who would be best suited to work as a stakeholder or team member, you are typically not in a position to hand-pick people. Instead, line management staffs the development team and selects representatives from the business units as stakeholders—no matter how likeable you find the individuals and how well you get on with them.

To maximise the chances of finding the right people, team up with the Scrum Master and engage with line management and your sponsor. A great technique to acquire the right people is self-selection: Clearly communicate the roles you need to fill and the skills people will require. Then let the individuals decide if they want to be on the team or not.

To effectively lead people who you may find difficult or unlikeable, strengthen your capacity to empathise. Come from a place of curiosity and care, as Oren Jay Sofer recommends, and cultivate an open mind. At the same time, do not accept inappropriate behaviour—clearly tell people in a kind, empathic way when their speech or actions are harmful.


Dual Role

While guiding people can be challenging on its own, you also have to actively contribute to getting the product out of the door. The latter includes carrying out product discovery and strategy work, updating the product roadmap, and prioritising the product backlog.

You therefore play a dual role: You are leader and contributor. This sets you apart from a line manager and project manager who usually enjoys the luxury to focus on managing and leading people.

To be a successful leader and contributor, carefully manage your time and adopt a sustainable pace. Look after yourself and do not overcommit. Do not take on tasks that are not part of your role. Do one thing at a time and avoid multitasking.

What’s more, do not de-prioritise your leadership work even when push comes to shove and you are pressed for time. Look at leadership as an integral part of your job that is at least as important as updating the product roadmap and refining the product backlog.


Leadership at Multiple Levels

Guiding the development team and stakeholders towards product success requires leadership at three levels: vision, strategy, and tactics, as illustrated in following picture.

Leading at three levels: product vision product strategy, product tactics

As the person in charge of the product, you should shape its vision; you should lead the effort to create, validate, and evolve an effective strategy; you should guide the development of an actionable product roadmap; and you should work with the development team on the product backlog to determine, capture, refine, and prioritise its items (assuming that you don’t work in a scaled environment).

While this approach ensures that leadership and decision-making are consistent, it makes the leadership work demanding—it requires a broad skillset and the ability to successfully navigate between the big picture and the product details.

To overcome this challenge, recognise that a shared product vision and validated product strategy are more important to guide and align people than beautifully crafted user stories. Consequently, do not neglect the product discovery and strategy work.

Additionally, share the workload. Involve the stakeholders and dev team members in the discovery and strategy work, empower the development team to make detailed product decisions on their own, and share product ownership with other product people when your product has grown too big for you to manage it on your own.

Finally, improve your skill set. Acquire the skills that you might lack and deepen the existing ones. This will make it easier for you to lead at the three levels.


Agile Process Constraints

Last but not least, most digital products are developed using an agile development framework like Scrum or Kanban. While an agile process offers great benefits for product people—for example, the ability to validate UX design and features at a very early stage—it constraints how you can lead the development team.

As you probably know, an agile dev team is self-organising; the team members decide how to do the work and how to collaborate. As the person in charge of the product, you should therefore not interfere with their work but respect the team’s autonomy and empowerment.

What’s more, the members have the right to determine the appropriate workload, reject work items if they exceed the team’s capacity, and only work on what has been agreed for a sprint or what is within the agreed work in progress (WIP) limits. This means that you can, or at least, should not try to pressurise people to take on more work, even if the progress is slower than expected.

In order to leverage agile practices and effectively guide the development team, I recommend that you partner with the Scrum Master. Let the individual help the team to learn to how to effectively work together and make realistic commitments. (This, of course, assumes that you have a qualified Scrum Master who is sufficiently available. If that’s not the case, then explore what you can do to help find the right individual.)

Furthermore, empower the development team. View the team as an equal partner, involve the members in product decisions, and encourage them to take ownership of the product details. At the same time, hold people accountable for the commitments they make. A team that is empowered to decide how much can be done is also accountable for getting it done.

Finally, participate in sprint retrospectives to help improve the collaboration and the process and receive feedback from the team members on your work.

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