There is nothing worse than a culture that does not allow for questions while following decisions.
A World in Crisis
These days of coronavirus are an amazing opportunity to reflect on our beliefs. Keeping ethics is always harder in crisis times. These times challenge how we all operate to the extreme.
Managing a crisis requires a lot of focus as I wrote in Product Management in Times of Crisis. We need everyone to follow the direction of management (and in the case of the coronavirus, the direction of governments).
However, in such times we see many people going against other people who are questioning the way governments act. These people say it is not right to question and create doubt in such times of crisis.
Personally, I believe it is the other way around. It is not right to go and tell people to ignore the law and government (and in the case of the organization, management). We should all follow the lead. But at the same time, especially in such times, it is very important to let people question whether the decisions are correct.
Questioning decisions and trying to bring opposite data is an act any management and any leadership should encourage. It ensures we don’t make blind mistakes.
We should always have doubts about our decisions while acting fiercely to follow them through. As Charles Bukowski said in one of my favorite quotes: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”.
The Right to Complain
As we become managers we lose our right to complain. A product manager cannot go and vent with her team how awful are their management decisions. She needs to be able to motivate the team and rally them to the cause.
But it doesn’t mean we cannot express our thoughts. We must express ourselves in internal management discussions, but at the front, we need to show support of leadership. We can also share (and sometimes must) the internal conflicts with everybody as long as we do it in a respectful way.
I do believe that if we are transparent and the entire team understands all the different angles of the problem, and are aware of all the hard questions that were raised, it makes it easier to follow any decision taken even if personally you think otherwise.
Many product leaders have a hard time with decisions taken by their CEO. I often find myself telling product leaders I mentor that one of their most important roles is to make sure all the right questions are asked. At the end of the day, it is many times, not the decision that has been taken that is important, but rather that the decision has been taken with all data available and all hard questions were asked.
It is not different for governments. These days it seems that many governments around the world prefer a little mystery around their decisions. In this fast pacing crisis, it is very hard to make the best decision every day, because the data is insufficient. However, if the governments were more transparent about the process they are following to take the decision, I believe it would have been easier for their citizens to follow the lead even when they have a different perspective. It is not different for product organizations.
Decision by Committee
Many organizations are afraid of disagreements. They follow a procedure in which everybody needs to agree before a decision is taken. This leads to stagnation and the inability to get hard decisions. It is a sure way to kill innovation.
Other organizations are not even allowing for any dispute. Everybody has to agree to whatever the leader decides. This is the other side of the equation, and while it does allow for moving fast, many times these organizations follow the wrong direction because people are afraid to ask questions or show their different views.
The best way to make sure we follow a clear path while taking everything into consideration is to encourage disagreement and dispute. As product managers, we should encourage everybody to express their opinion. To ask more questions. To try and find a different angle. We should make sure that we checked every angle and explored any direction.
And once we have all the data and all opinions, we should be able to make a decision fast even if there is no agreement, while being able to reflect the entire organization the hard decisions that were taken and help everybody follow the decision that has been taken.
It is important to mention that in order to make sure different opinions are heard we need diversity in places where decisions are taken.
We need a feminine view as well as a muscular perspective. We need a designer view, a data scientist view, a business perspective, a technical perspective, a finance perspective, a regulatory perspective and many other angles on the problem.
Diversity of opinions and questions is the only way to make sure we are looking at the problems in the right way. It is the best way to win the game.
Diversity is not enough. We need to be constantly looking for more data. This crisis is a very good example. Every day we learn something new about the coronavirus.
On one hand, you don’t want to be hectic. Not every piece of information is supposed to change your course from one direction to another. We should be able to follow our decisions. If you change your direction every day you usually get nowhere.
On the other hand, following blindly without re-checking once in a while is also not the best move. Once new data becomes solid, we must re-validate our direction and change course if needed.
We should question ourselves and others every day. We should allow others to do the same. At the same time, we should follow our own decisions.
As product managers, our job is to make sure the focus is maintained. The only way to maintain focus is to follow and communicate the decisions that were taken.
To get to a meaningful outcome, it is important that we hold strong opinions based on data on which directions our product should go.
To ensure that our direction is the right one, we need to encourage a culture in which hard questions are valued for their merit.
To make sure everybody follows our lead, we need to be able to communicate all the aspects of the decisions (the pros and the cons).