If your product team is revolting…

I like troubleshooting, so a product team that is staging a revolt is my jam. But fixing a team requires everyone’s cooperation. If the product team you work with is “broken” – maybe it’s within your gift to fix it.

I’ll share a few gripes I’ve encountered over the years and be deliberately simplistic in the fixes for them in the hope of inspiring some discussion around a topic that’s close to my heart.

“My stakeholders are constantly asking for things so I don’t have any room in the sprints to do what I want to do!”  

What a product manager wants and what the stakeholders want should be the same thing – a high performing, great quality product with tons of evangelist customers. This gripe is symptomatic of poor product hygiene, unclear product vision and poor communication.

Are the stakeholders asking for customer facing features? The product vision and purpose isn’t clear, or isn’t big enough. A product vision should be created in a way that makes stakeholders feel excited, engaged and accountable for the product’s success (or failure). This doesn’t mean design by committee, it means agreeing the core purpose of a product as a working group so you can go forward together with a common goal. Whether creating the vision and agreeing the purpose is done together or lead by the product manager and the detail collaborated on later, core agreement should always be sought.  There should be agreement on the role of the product within the business, the target customer base you want your product to delight, and the measures you will use to track your product’s success. If the stakeholders tasked with making the product a success have not reached agreement, then success will never be achieved. There is little point proceeding until this is done.

Are the stakeholders asking for bug fixes? Complaining they can’t do their work properly? Is there a huge backlog of issues? This is a hygiene issue and should be relatively easy to diagnose and you should plan to fix it as a priority. If it’s a ton of bugs then hold a bug sprint or 3. Depending on the spirit of the team, you can make bug sprints really fun, make it a competition between teams, or if the vibe isn’t right for fun then you can just get on with it. If the hygiene issue is more serious, for example, a back end or platform that’s not fit for purpose, then you should budget time and money to fix this in the next cycle. Make an issue like this your absolute priority to fix. Hygiene is the most basic of needs – ignore this and expect trouble.

If the product manager is already ploughing through bugs at a rate of knots or fixing hygiene issues, and there is a clear agreed strategy, then stakeholder meddling probably a case of poor communication. Hold a roadshow, present the plan, update stakeholders on the state of the nation or just do a jolly thorough update to stakeholders far and wide, and then keep on communicating regularly to show progress.

“I haven’t finished my strategy because I’ve been too busy!”

A Product Manager who is too busy to create a strategy is not a Product Manager. They are doing someone else’s job, find out whose job they are doing and get someone else to do it.

It is likely that the Product Manager is getting sucked into the detail too much and too often; from writing user stories to managing releases or administering the system. On occasion, to fill an emergency gap, it’s great for a Product Manager to get their hands dirty, but if it’s every day then you have a wasted resource.

If you can’t get to the bottom of what is stopping the Product Manager from doing their role, then they are probably stopping themselves. If this is the case it is likely they are either not clear on what their role is, or not confident they can fulfil it. Re-set them as the CEO of their product and support them as they start to get into it. If they have been reverting back to doing a delivery role, make sure they stay out of their comfort zone and don’t scurry back to the safety of what they know. If they are an uber detail control person then make sure they have someone they trust in the supporting delivery role so they can delegate it safely. If they aren’t natural visionaries, start them off bottom up, with the task of agreeing the core purpose of their product (the product’s purpose within the business, its target customer base and its measures of success) and help them to go upwards towards a vision from there.

“I want to be in control of my product but the C-level keep issuing directives – so I can’t even begin!”

“Directives coming from above” and swiping everything else off the roadmap to make way for them, is probably as much the c-level’s problem as it is the Product Manager’s. This is a symptom of not having a clear overarching business strategy or not communicating it well enough. With an unclear business strategy to work to, any product manager is facing a power struggle and the risk of exec interference. Even with an unclear business strategy, a strong product strategy can be achieved and act as an umbrella to protect against unwelcome interference. Make sure the product strategy is big and bright but clear, solid, measurable and achievable. Communicate it thoroughly to the C-level, let them pull it apart and put it back together again. Get them to feel like it was all their idea in the first place. Either way, your objective is to get them to agree it to the point that they feel like they own it. Once that is done, they will evangelise about your product strategy as much as you do. Once you have the green light, make sure you communicate thoroughly and regularly back to them, and expect to sacrifice some kudos in return for a clear path.

“None of my stakeholders turn up for anything anymore (so I can do what I like)”

Disinterested / disengaged stakeholders is symptomatic of one of two things, either they think the Product Manager has everything completely under control and they are not needed, or worse, they feel like no matter what they input, no one will ever act on it, so why bother. Neither of these are particularly great situations but both can be fixed with a little collaboration and an accountability re-set. No matter how strong the Product Manager and how much they might actually have the product completely under control, for the good of the product, stakeholder collaboration is still needed. Unless the business is really tiny, the product will depend on different areas making it a success. All it takes is for something to go wrong, or for someone to miss a decision that impacts their area of the business, and the freedom bubble bursts. Accountability extends from success to failure and everything in between, and for a product to flourish, this accountability needs to be shared.

Re-setting accountability for these guys can be as simple as a workshop or a design sprint to breathe new life into the product team and get stakeholders taking an interest once again.  

For stakeholders who feel like there is nothing they can say in a weekly catch up that will make any difference, there’s a little more work to do. This is the stage stakeholders get to after the “continually asking for things” phase, so you need to go back to basics and assess whether it is a hygiene issue or a vision issue. If it’s hygiene, fix it, but don’t expect a radical fix to the relationship – if they have completely lost confidence then they will take some time to come back into the fold. You may have to persevere with them for quite a while to show that this change is for good and not just lip service. If it’s a vision issue then get them back to basics, collaborating on the product purpose within the business, the target customer base and measures of success – then build a list of features together, to hit the agreed targets.

“My stakeholders want to know every detail about everything, it’s like they want me to do waterfall!”

Micromanaging stakeholders is a symptom of low trust, which is probably due to low visibility and/or few results. Whatever this is due to, fix it fast, because the next stage is “directives coming from above” and a resulting loss of product control.

Fixing this is all about communication. It’s possible that the stakeholders don’t understand the process you are working to. Do they get it? Do they understand why you can’t commit to a year of deliverables? Explain it to them – get them involved in it. Joint scrum or Lean training is brilliant for getting stakeholders immersed in the process and bringing it to life for them. No matter how busy the stakeholders are, it’s worth forcing this and it doesn’t have to be a week out of the office. Success can be seen from something as simple as a a 1 hour workshop where stakeholders find their “MVP of leaving the house in the morning”, to a Lean workshop with facilitation, real live customers and a dragons den style crescendo at the end. Whatever you decide to do, it’s worth pushing for it, because it’s time well invested. If you can’t get the time of the stakeholder you want to convince, ask them to send a delegate who you can then turn into an evangelist of the process, and engage them in the day to day so they can act as a communication envoy. Communication-wise, whilst you might not be able to (and should not!) commit to a year’s deliverables up front, you can still communicate. Add the caveats and explain them (until they are sick of hearing them) then make a high level roadmap, at least for the quarter. Communicate after every sprint planning and before and after every release. Peg all features to targets and report on them regularly.

“That team over there are doing all the cool stuff and we’re forgotten about”

Lack of excitement. It’s gone into BAU. Or their targets are unachievable and they feel like hamsters on a never ending wheel.

Unrealistic expectations aren’t motivating for anyone – it’s time for a re-set. If targets were decided before a launch or ramped up unwisely, and are never going to be hit, no matter what, then re-set them down to a more motivating level. Reignite the team’s belief that their hard work can pay off and show the business some real results to be proud of.

If the product has gone into “BAU mode” then fire things up a bit with a mid-year design sprint, invite some customers in, get some stakeholders together and inject some excitement back into the product team.

“The scrum master is calling the shots, stores I’ve never heard of are getting planned into the sprints!”

Is the product manager going to sprint planning? And getting involved, not checking emails? Is the product manager going to the daily standups? Retrospectives? I bet they’re not. If you were a scrum master and you saw your Product Manager once a week in passing or when there’s an issue I’m sure you’d overstep the bounds of your remit after a while too – especially if you cared passionately about the product.

Scrum master “interference” is often a symptom of a negligent product manager. Go to all the ceremonies and be present, involve the dev team in your thinking and planning. Fill the Product Manager role so the scrum master doesn’t feel like they have to.

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