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How product managers should work with their bosses and colleagues

Everyone in your organization plays some key role in making your products great. The product manager is there to guide, facilitate, and advocate — but not to do it alone.

The participants at our summit had a lot of good advice about how to work with senior managers and colleagues in the process of making decisions and creating products.

Top bosses need to force action. An organization needs a leader at the very top to say “we have to do something on this issue” — to force action. And they have to be clearly committed to seeing it through over time, said Cecelia Dobbs, who manages the international products for the Guardian. Clear decisions and edicts from the top manager can empower the process to really begin — removing debate and resistance about whether we should even do this or not. Make it a question of how to proceed and how to reach the goal.

For example, said Jeff Anderson, digital media director at Virginian Pilot newspaper’s owner Pilot Media, when the top boss makes it clear that despite some tough choices, this must happen.

Clear decisions and edicts from the top manager can empower the process to really begin — removing debate and resistance about whether we should even do this or not.

“[The publisher said] we have to move to a responsive design, over some objection from advertising who said you’re going to crater our revenue by switching a desktop page with five ads to a mobile one with one ad, and we’re not going to make our goals with that,” Anderson said. “The publisher said, ‘I don’t care, we have to meet our audience demands. This is a long-term play.’ … [Without that], we would have been on a back-and-forth debate for months over what to do, whether to do it.”

Do your homework before pitching a new idea. One person in a “boss” role, Jeff Carney, the corporate director of digital content for BH Media Group, says it’s important that people present new ideas that have been validated with what the audience and revenue would be.

“I’m on the editorial side, so most of the ideas [for new products] have a news and audience reason first, but if they have connected with an influencer in advertising and have champions in other divisions in the building … it immediately gets fast-tracked because there’s been a lot of homework done,” Carney said. “We love passion and encourage passion, but if that’s three-quarters of the argument or justification for doing something, it’s going to be a really hard sell.”

Breana Jones from Fox News added that product managers should show the boss numbers that back up why your approach will get results. Do a small proving experiment, or find data that suggest what would happen if your idea proceeds. Kelly Alfieri of the New York Times suggested doing some small tests that will give a sense of whether this will resonate. Make some prototypes and put it in front of users, come back with evidence and learning about how to build the real thing.

Product managers need to consult executors, not just bosses. Of course a product manager must get buy-in from the bosses in charge, but to be successful they also need support and guidance from those who will have to carry out the product every day.

“Buy-in at the top is important if you think the top is going to stand in the way of something going forward,” said Cecelia Dobbs of the Guardian. “But otherwise, if you’re talking about actually getting something done, I think the buy-in at the level of the ‘doer’ is just absolutely essential.”

If you’re talking about actually getting something done, I think the buy-in at the level of the ‘doer’ is just absolutely essential.

That means, for example, if you want to design and launch a news product, you need to be sure the news team can and will produce the right content for it and understands the product strategy.

On any given product change or development, it’s wise to involve all the stakeholders defined up front, so no back-seat drivers jump in at the end. Make sure they stay involved — for example, by having stakeholder checkins or demos every two weeks. It at least keeps them informed and bought-in, and may even improve the product with iterative feedback, said Kelly Alfieri of The New York Times.

If you’re developing an internal product (a CMS feature, an analytics dashboard, etc.), then this principle is even more essential — the executors in the organization are also the primary intended users, and you must design for their needs and workflows.

Build trust through small successes that help colleagues. To get buy-in for your product decisions, ideas and requests from colleagues in the organization, start by building trust over time through simple successes make things better for them. Execute on one of their good ideas. Fix an internal system that was a pain point in their workflow. Do these little things to get colleagues to trust and understand your product management process, so they will give you some slack to try other things they aren’t sure about, said Cecelia Dobbs of the Guardian. John Hashimoto, senior director of product management at CNN, echoed that in his experience when a product manager can give people quick wins that fulfill their requests, it builds trust and earns some favors over time.

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