How product managers can navigate leadership challenges
Today we are talking about four leadership motions that enable increased organizational effectiveness and productivity and alleviate organizational friction, waste, and indecision. The motions reflect a need for leadership change as organizations struggle for higher performance while supporting employees.
Sharing the four leadership motions with us is Janice Fraser. Janice built her career in Silicon Valley as a startup founder, product manager, and confidante for entrepreneurs and enterprise executives alike. She currently supports very large organizations including P&G in becoming more innovative and agile. She also guides several venture-funded startup companies, federal government entities, and non-profit organizations.
She is the coauthor of Farther, Faster, and Far Less Drama: How to Reduce Stress and Make Extraordinary Progress Wherever You Lead.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:32] Why take on the topic of leadership from a product background?
The product piece has always been with me. In my first job out of college, I was already creating new products. The instinct to make something out of nothing that helps people have a better life or solves their problems was an innate instinct in me. I started working at Netscape right after its IPO. It was the hottest startup in history. That was the time of the advent of a commercial public worldwide web and the first .com boom. Suddenly all these people were now startup founder and were creating something new, not just new products but whole new businesses and business models. There were a lot of really inexperienced, terrible leaders who were doing what I call flaily squanderness—startup founders just trying a bunch of things.
Previously I had been working at some of the best managed, best run companies on the planet. The CEO of Netscape, Jim Barksdale, was influential to my thinking about what it is to be an effective leader during a time of hyper growth. My two journeys fused for me—helping people through new products and helping brand new leaders be effective in the heroic things they’re trying to do. For twenty years I was equally interested in both practices—how can you make great products and how can amateur leaders become effective and competent? Observing leadership and what is repeatable and effective became my hobby. My book, Farther, Faster, and Far Less Drama, is the result of a user-centered design challenge and answers a product-centric question, which is “How can regular people be extraordinary leaders on purpose?”
[6:11] What are the four leadership motions?
We call them motions because they’re simply things you can do to be a leader that are reliable and effective.
- Orient honestly
- Value outcomes
- Leverage the brains
- Make durable decisions
I treat these like a spinner on a board game. If I’m stuck as a leader, I can spin the spinner, and wherever it lands will give me a new direction to start thinking in. These are things great leaders already do. We just wanted to name and describe them so we can do them on purpose whenever we need to.
[7:25] Orient honestly
Ask the questions “Where are we now? What makes this moment complicated? And are we all in the same place?” Before we can set goals and hope to achieve them, we have to know where we are. We have to know what makes this moment complicated before we can begin to untangle it and get everybody into the right place.
[9:03] What’s an example of orienting honestly?
I was facilitating an offsite for a small company, their first in-person event in a few years since COVID. There were some market conditions at the time that were making it hard for them to be profitable. To orient honestly, we did a sailboat retro. We drew a sailboat on a whiteboard and had team members name what’s holding the company back, represented by the anchor, what is the wind in our sails, what are the rocks up ahead, who is standing on the crow’s nest looking out ahead, where is each team member on the boat, etc. That allowed us to take a snapshot of where we were and learn what the team thought might be preventing us from being more profitable. As a result, we identified some actions to take.
[11:45] Value outcomes
In a traditional planning process, you write down a list of all the things you’re going to do to reach a goal with dates. Unfortunately, real-life conditions often disrupt your plans. As leaders we exist in this world where externalities are making our plans obsolete very quickly. We need to enable flexibility without losing sight of where we want to go. Value outcomes more than you value deliverables or activities in your plan. This releases the pressure to anticipate the path with perfect clarity.
[14:51] How can we impact the culture to make changing the roadmap acceptable?
It has to start at the leadership level. It’s a mindset as much as a behavior, and this mindset has to take root. “Execute according to plan” is so ingrained in all of us. Measure outcomes. Most organizations aren’t actually measuring the outcome. They’re using activities and deliverables as a proxy that assumes if they do those things, the outcome happens. As leaders, we have to start measuring and valuing results.
[16:32] What’s an example of valuing outcomes?
This is my product failure story. I had a startup company at the beginning of the boom in online learning. Our population was innovators and startup founders. We had a couple thousand customers around the world. We were offered some venture capital funding, and we were excited because we would be able to scale and have a much bigger impact. We were executing exactly according to plan—we were recording videos, putting them online, putting the supplies for our workshops into boxes, and shipping them around the world. We forgot to measure the impact of the activities we were doing. One of our employees was out in the field, and he came back and said, “People don’t want videos. They want you in person.” We had valued our roadmap, which said we would have an online presence, but our business failed to grow because we weren’t listening to customer feedback. I failed to notice we were not getting to the outcome of repeatable growth even though we were achieving our roadmap. We ended up having to sell the company before its time.
[20:11] Leverage the brains
Cross-functional, cross-level, or cross-generational collaboration makes us move more quickly and more effectively with better thinking. We wanted to find the patterns that allow people to be effective in collaboration. One pattern we found is there are three kinds of people who need to be invited to any meeting or decision: people with subject matter expertise, people with the authority to say yes, and people who have to live with the outcome. If you find a way to include each of those three people in your conversation, you’ll have a much richer problem-solving conversation. You’ll need some good facilitation skills to balance out power inequalities when you have that kind of cross-level collaboration. A small number of well-chosen collaborators will provide you with much more horsepower than you would have on your own.
[24:35] Make durable decisions
Durable decisions are like Carhartt’s pants, not the prettiest fashion but they really get the job done and stand the test of time. Decision-making can create inefficiencies if decisions are decided too quickly or too slowly. When decisions are made too quickly, trust can be broken. For example, you’re on a Zoom call and somebody makes a decision and you can see on the faces that nobody believes for a second that is the right thing to do. The decision is made but everyone goes off and does whatever they want anyway. That isn’t discovered for a week or two, and then trust and respect are eroded. People no longer believe the decision-making apparatus is effective, so there is chaos and misalignment.
Decisions are made too slowly when we try to get consensus, asking, “Do we all agree this is the best decision?” This creates an artificially high standard of quality and agreement. It is better to disagree and commit. Rather than consensus we want to look for consent. To create durable decisions, I ask two questions: “If we went this direction, would it move us toward our outcome? And can we all live with it?”
Action Guide: Put the information Janice shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Connect with Janice on LinkedIn
- Visit Janice’s website
- Check out Farther, Faster, and Far Less Drama: How to Reduce Stress and Make Extraordinary Progress Wherever You Lead
“How do you go about having good ideas? You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” – Linus Pauling
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.