The Power of Freedom

I recently visited the Ai Weiwei exhibit in Alcatraz in San Francisco. The setting in Alcatraz brought a unique atmosphere to the statements trying to be conveyed. I was really impressed and recommend you to try to catch the exhibit before it ends end of April this year, if you haven’t already.

The exhibit moved me a lot. Especially seeing the full floor made out of Lego bricks, which together created images of imprisoned freedom fighters. It was so real. Most of the presented ones represented countries where democracy is not fully implemented. People got very quiet walking around and for me it brought a lot of thought and conflicting feelings at the same time. So many lives wasted! So brave champions! Would I be brave enough to do the same? So hopeless – how will this ever get right? How could a person like me ever help…

So much anger and disappointment in humanity due to our inability to gracefully see different point of views. The failure in us all of not having adult and diplomatic conversations and debates without religious or personal political agendas. When will we ever be able as a mature, responsible, and unified human beings to have peaceful and curious conversations with each, filled with respect for life and diversity? Instead of forcing our opinions down each other’s throats by violence?

We are all guilty of this mess. As humans. We fail to resolve even our own backyard conflicts gracefully. We continuously fail to step into the other persons’ shoes. So often I see people being non-respectful. And I truly believe it starts in respect towards each other. Instead we lash out on impulse and without respect which leave us with bitterness, sour tastes, or other unsettled feelings. There are just so many opinion-fundamentalists (be it a hyper-religious anti-abortion fighter, or an anti-women game engineer, or a brain washed suicide bomber) that it makes it hard to stay openhearted and drive a fruitful conversation forward. I get so disappointed in us all that we over and over again fail to take the higher road and fail to be our very best selves.

The exhibit left me speechless and yet mindful. And very sad. But yet it moved me and it meant something. This (freedom to express yourself) is so important to speak about and to bring awareness to. To fight for!

To be honest I still haven’t finished processing all the thoughts and feelings that came out of the experience. So here is what I will leave you with today: a reminder of the importance of creating space for all and everyone to exist and express themselves. A reminder of the importance of the freedom to discuss openly diverse opinions. And a reminder that if you need violence to get your opinion adopted, it is probably an awful opinion in the first place.

I’d like to dedicate this post to Ai Weiwei.

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Leadership is not a title

I saw this summary slide yesterday and really liked it. I think these points – of which my interpretation is: stop winning, stop forcing your plan, and stop cutting other people’s ideas down – are very important if you want to be a good leader in any position in a company.

I often wonder why new managers often make the mistake of believing people will follow them just by their new title and their power over their employees’ salaries? Leadership does not come that way. Being a leader is different than being a manager. A manager is a title you have either rightfully earned or acquired by other tactical means. Leadership is a skill you either have naturally or work hard on every day. You can be a leader in an individual contributor role, and you can be a follower (or confused on the matter) in a manager role.

You lead by action and initiative and respect towards others. You constantly keep the cross-organization well being and goals in mind in everything that you do. Within or outside your immediate team. You lead by example. Leaders inspire people around them to do better, go further, to work together, to accomplish more that first believed. They do so by believing in you and that you can do it! Leaders don’t cut you down to prove they are better than you, nor do they let their own management insecurities (probably rooting in power and responsibilities they have acquired and not earned) get in the way of you flourishing. Leadership does not come to you through a title. Leaders show respect by letting your ideas flourish too, by listening and asking guiding questions, by envisioning the impossible yet outstanding together with you. 

As a leader you don’t overrun the team with your own agenda, you enable the team to create and fulfill an agenda they can relate to and feel excited about, that aligns with the overall goals of the company. You facilitate every individual of your team to become valuable. You let everyone be a part of the brilliance that can only happen if you work aligned and together. And you give credit where credit is due! Meaning, you sincerely recognize that everyone matters and every step towards the right direction is worth reward, as in the end that is what will take you all there.

Nothing is as rewarding as being recognized for what you do and how it helps the larger goal of the team, the company, or the greater good. Leaders know this, and are generous with encouragement.

The Importance of Questioning

Question everything! Well perhaps not everything, but a pretty good assumption at any point in time is that your assumptions could be wrong. To give some examples:

Customer: “This is really important to us!”

Product Manager: “So please help me understand _why_ this is important to you?”
Product Manager: “Is it to solve it this particular way or to solve it at all that is important to you?”
Product Manager: “If we could do X now, and Y later, would that mitigate the urgency of full resolution of this issue?”

Question any and all assumptions you could think of. It will help give you a better perspective on what is actually important to the client and help you prioritize more accurately.

Also, always keep a creative mind going. Ask questions in your head. Is there someone on the phone they are trying to impress? Is there power play going on? Are they stressed on this matter by their organization because of other issues that are also open and stressing? Is the person having a bad day?

Try to keep an open mind, and keep asking questions (out loud or in your head) to help clarify and help bring in perspective. Do not decide to be right on any specific part, you will be much more successful in your final design or resolution if you question your assumptions. The product manager role should strive to be competitive, to win the market. Obviously. But you will fail as a product manager if you are stuck on the winning-juice in every context. If you find yourself always wanting to win the argument or always striving to be right or come up with the best solution themselves you should know that you are probably not a very good product manager at that point in time. Try to question yourself at that moment and bring back the openness to other approaches and alternatives. Perhaps there is an even better idea in the room or a better design around the corner?

One possible negative side effect of stretching or practicing this skill set is that you might become annoying with your questioning at first. Be aware. Especially if it does not come naturally to you, make sure to stay aware and balance when to speak out loud and when to ask the questions just in your head. People might get a bit irritated with too many questions. Especially personality types that are a bit insecure about themselves or their accomplishments. Being questioned can come across as you are questioning their capabilities, while all you are trying to do is to understand if the solution meets the needs of the customers. Something to consider if you see people get defensive around you when you question is to pay more attention on how you actually phrase your questions. Seek the helpful-seeking tone. Question the use of a proxy, a listener, or whatever component X, not the capabilities of the person presenting the solution. Example:

Scene: A solution to a customer need has been presented to you by an engineer.
Problem: You think there is a scale issue in the design.

Direct question: “Why did you pick just one server here, wouldn’t that become a scale bottleneck?” (by pointing out “you” it indirectly put a spotlight on the person that might or might not be mature enough to handle it well)

Indirect question: “Would the solution perform better if we added a way to run multiple servers and distribute the load between them, or would the additional complexity be too costly? Help me understand the pros and cons in this context”. (by focusing on the solution and putting yourself in a help-seeking position, you will offload the tension of who is right or wrong and instead set a foundation for an open discussion around the solution)

There is a time for questioning, but also a time to let other people ask their questions. Listening might be hard, but is key to be a good product manager. It is sometimes also hard to be approachable if you aren’t by nature. There are however ways to mitigate this, for instance by the “or did I miss something” ending to assertive conversations. Whenever you have presented a big piece of information or some new direction and you’d like to encourage interactive feedback in a group, it is sometimes challenging to facilitate the open discussion you desire – especially when you have multiple teams or organizations on the phone, with different company cultures, and where you can’t read their body language. Here are a few tips that have worked for me on creating a safer space for feedback giving and questioning:

  1. Make sure the groups are small
  2. If larger are necessary, make sure you have had 1-1s with most, if not all, attendees ahead of time, to collect feedback in private – creates much more interaction if people are prepared.
  3. Make pauses after each key delivery and ask any welcoming question, such as:
    1. Does this make sense? (helping them to question what you just said)
    2. Did any important aspect got missed? (opening up for other opinions and views being _important_, and everybody likes being important so it might encourage them to speak up…)
    3. What other options are there to achieve this goal? (reinforcing the goal, but opens up for other options to get there)
    4. Now time for feedback – and it doesn’t have to be fully baked, in this session I’d just like to hear initial reactions (this might help take away pressure on the audience to try to sound smart…)
  4. If it is a web meeting, you could encourage people to post ideas and questions in the chat privately to you.
  5. If nothing is said still, you might like to propose follow up afterwards: please email me once you’ve had time to brew all this new material…

This is what I had in my mind today on asking questions. Might pop up more tips at another point in time.

Enjoy!

Finally a Blog about Product Management!

I have often been asked about product management. How I got here, what makes a good product manager, what makes people you work with want to go the extra mile… I don’t claim to have all the answers, as I’m sure there are many possible paths to successful product management. But I choose to share my path. My tips and tricks, in a simple way. And perhaps it will help a handful of individuals out there with some ideas. So, here it goes. A blog about product management. And probably a lot of other related topics down the road.

Enjoy!