Tensions Inherent In Managing Products

By Chijioke Michael Egbulefu

Tension is real in Product Management. Tension about your new role. Tension Within the team. Tension with customers/clients. With bosses and stakeholders. All the tension that plays a role in the building process of all the products we love and despise.

Healthy and Unhealthy Tension

They can be healthy or unhealthy. They can be good or bad depending on how it is received and managed. Healthy tension is good for product innovation and for delivering top value to your customers and business/stakeholders. Unhealthy tension is just tension and gives no valuable outcome.

Like in most relationships, friction wrought by tension shows that one or both parties still care. Indifference is the antithesis of care and goes to indicate surrender or inability to care about the development process or what happens next.

In the product development process, tension could mean that people or parties involved in the process have an opinion that they are willing to share. They want to influence certain things, want things done a certain way, they want to be in a position to make certain decisions in order to solve some problems or take the product in a certain direction.

So tension will be present and from a development perspective, it is needed. The first step will be to acknowledge it as an intricate part of the process. When healthy tension is acknowledged, it can serve as a springboard to allow  more diversified thinking in developing solutions for the problem statement.

Internal and External Tension

We have internal and external tensions. Regulation can be a form of external inconvenience that brings tension and friction. Take the crypto space in Nigeria for example, The recent reiteration by the Central Bank of its ban on cryptocurrency activities in the country’s financial space has been a massive cause of conflict. Imagine yourself in the shoes of all the product people working within that space and what they’ve had to grapple with in the past week. This a tension that will also be exacerbated by the boomerang effect this memo would have on customer and investor behaviour within said space. Customers will be very concerned about the safety of their funds and investors  will wonder about the future of their investments.

Internal tension can come from the people you work with esp if you work with cross functional teams, like you must as a PM. Collaboration won’t always be smooth sailing. Everyone wants to solve the problem but they might want to solve it their way. Diverse people. Diverse teams. Diverse backgrounds. Diverse opinions. This breeds conflict and seasoned PMs know to keep the disagreement strictly on the idea or action point itself, never making it about the person(s). This way, the conflict is better resolved and ultimately, the product development process is more rewarding.

Primary Stakeholder vs the Rest

So the next question will be how does a PM balance the needs of the primary stakeholder (the customer) with that of the other stakeholders such as investors and Executives? It’s advisable to view such challenges from different angles, or more appropriately, from everyone’s angle. What will be the impact on the customer? Will this affect the meeting of business goals? How, when and by how much? How will a decision affect available engineering resources? When all concerns are taken into consideration and the decision making process is transparent, it makes trade-offs easier to make to reach a desired consensus.

Speed-To-Market vs The Perfect Product

Another classic conflict situation is that between Speed-to-Market and building the perfect product. Speed-to-Market is how long it takes a business to take a product idea, develop it and have it in the consumers’ hands. The definition of the perfect product differs, depending on who is talking. The PM, the internal stakeholders and the end-user all have different versions of the perfect product. All of these people see the perfect product differently and this is where the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as a concept becomes even more relevant. A way to balance the speed-to-market and perfect product challenge is to build quickly something that delivers VALUE. All the value proposition probably can’t be built in one fell swoop or we risk defeating speed to market. So how do we prioritise what comes first? Whose needs are more important?

In Conclusion, Tell A Good Story

In solving any kind of conflict and de-escalating tension, a PM must be able to tell a good story. To put minds at ease and reduce uncertainty. By simply laying down the facts and making options and all the risks clear for everyone to see.

– This is what we want to do.

– This is why

– This is what we intend to achieve

– These are our options and fail-safes

– This is the data to back all these up

When this is properly done, it de-escalates conflicts, reduces friction and makes it easier to prioritise, build and iterate as many times as possible with everyone potentially on board.

Speaking of prioritisation, choosing the problem to tackle at a particular point in time is one of the core functions of product people and can be a hotbed of tension but like we just said above, laying the facts on the table gives stakeholders a level of confidence, being aware of the risks and safety nets, they will be willing to intentionally follow through when a consensus has been reached. 

For further reading, check out Marc Abraham’s book Managing Product = Managing Tension which inspired this write-up.

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