How product managers can become change leaders
Today we are talking about change. The very nature of our work as product managers and leaders creates change—we change existing products to make them more valuable to customers and our organization, and we create completely new products, which causes change to occur at many levels. Your work demands that you are competent leading change.
To help us learn how to better manage the change our product projects create, Brendon Baker is with us. He has helped organizations across several industries navigate change created by large transformation projects. He is also the managing director of the firm Valuable Change Co and author of the book Valuable Change: What You Need to Know to Ensure Your Change Pays Off. I appreciate his personal mission statement, which is “Help Change Leaders Drive Real Value.”
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:58] How did you become the guy who helps organizations with change?
As a child, I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I didn’t want to do Business as Usual—doing the same thing every day scared me. I got into project management then consulting. Throughout my career, I saw a pattern: Change leadership made the difference in whether change was successful or not, yet those change leaders were essentially abandoned by the industry. There are not textbooks or certifications for change leadership. It’s assumed everyone can do it. I’ve found people can’t always do it—not from a lack of skills or capability but from a lack of support and knowledge. Change leaders default to running change based on time and cost, which doesn’t ultimately achieve the value they’re looking for.
I founded Valuable Change Co to provide support without adding unnecessary complexity. My mission is to help change leaders drive real value, and my secondary mission is to fight unnecessary complexity. I’m providing knowledge about the key essence of change leadership and simple metrics or questions to maximize the value of what change can achieve.
[9:51] Talk us through applying your framework to a real problem product managers encounter—when we develop a new product that disrupts an existing part of the organization’s business, causing many people to try to kill the new product. How do we deal with this change and help the people in our organization become our supporters?
Resistance comes from self-protective fear and is an indication the value equation is imbalanced for these people. As leaders catalyzing change, we tend to underestimate the impact and pain caused by the change for everyone else. As humans, we avoid pain unless there’s a good reason to endure it. As change leaders, we’re inflicting pain on others. The value equation is reward – pain = decision. We need to think about how to rebalance the value equation by increasing the reward and minimizing the pain. As a mental metric, list the pain and rewards the change will create, then double the pain and halve the rewards. Then ask yourself, would I still be on board with this? If not, keep increasing the reward and decreasing the pain.
You’re asking a group of people to take on personal pain so the organization won’t collapse. We need to balance that by creating opportunities for personal reward, reducing personal pain, involving employees earlier in the discussion, or having a value equation discussion with them upfront.
As a change leader, you know that if we don’t change, the organization will be gone in five years and everyone will lose their jobs. However, pain in five years is less impactful than pain in six months. When you ask for change, you’re asking employees to invest in pain now so they don’t have pain later. You may need to make the pain in five years seem scarier and more evident. Decrease the immediate pain. Pain is coming from a place of fear, which you need to address directly. You can do this through peer support, openness, transparency, involving employees in the successes and failures, and building empathy.
[21:52] What are tactics for addressing fear?
Avoid building a black box—making all the decisions without the employees then dumping the change on them. On the flip side, don’t overburden people who have existing jobs by asking them to attend 400 workshops in 6 months. The biggest risk is people will believe you should just wait it out. They may have heard talks about change over and over and seen it blow over every time.
There are several factors and risks related to addressing fear and getting people onboard with change, and there’s no silver bullet. Don’t aim for perfection. Instead, keep several key principles in mind:
First, keep the value equation in front of you. You are inflicting pain, so how can you help others through that? Be empathetic.
Second, be clear on your change core. A change works through three ripples, and the first is the core. Three questions form your core: Why are we doing this? How will we prove success? What exactly are we doing? Answer the questions in that order. Building this core clearly is how you start to communicate with everyone across your organization. Involve others in discussions about these elements. Explain what you’re anticipating and how it will impact them. Get cohesion on why you’re doing it and how you’ll measure success. Write the answers to the questions on a whiteboard. When you bring people into the discussion early, you minimize some of the resistance because they understand the why and the rewards and they have more hope. Then it’s easy to motivate them, because hope precedes energy, and you can’t motivate someone who doesn’t have internal hope for where they’ll be in the future.
[26:33] What are the other ripples?
The second ripple is insider change, related to the people involved in delivering the change. Change is hard on them too, not just on the people impacted by it. Monitor the momentum and resistance within the change as well as outside it. When you push through resistance, you create friction, which erodes energy and hope, so you need to be actively stimulating momentum.
The third ripple is outsider change, related to the people impacted by the change. This is where you talk about the value equation, connection, peer support networks, etc.
As a change leader, prioritize the first ripple, then the second, then the third. Keep all three plates spinning in the air. That’s how you drive value from your change.
[29:08] How have you seen change leaders experience personal change as they’re leading change in the organization?
You must lead with empathy. Change is a very human process. Successful change isn’t about the mechanics or project management. It’s about the people and bringing them on the journey with you as you drive value and create change. Driving with empathy necessitates a need for personal reflection and growth. You’re asking, how is this valuable? How do I minimize the pain and maximize the reward? The way forward is discussions, empathy, involvement, storytelling, and creating hope before you create energy.
Action Guide: Put the information Brendon shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Learn more about Valuable Change and sign up for Brendon’s weekly newsletter
- Check out Brendon’s website
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- Connect with Brendon on LinkedIn
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anaïs Nin
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.