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Embracing Conflict is Product Management

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A great cross-functional team thrives on managing conflict and achieving the impossible together.

At the heart of an organization that creates product magic is a product leader who is an expert at leadership and coalition building. These leaders understand that bringing effective products, solutions, and services to market requires consensus building and engaging cross-functional teams in the journey. After all, the partner teams build products, not the product manager alone. 

Many attributes contribute to a polished product leader, but one of the key traits is conflict resolution. They lean into conflict with their multi-functional team members, recognizing the basic truth that functional conflict is beneficial, as one person's weakness is another's strength.

Product management is inherently awe-inspiring. Product leaders must influence and engage all stakeholders, from sales and technical support to client success, design, research, marketing, and engineering. It is crucial to persuade these individuals to embody the product's concept through their coding, testing, branding, research, and design. Additionally, providing a safe space for them to share viewpoints and concerns, even in disagreement, is the essence of product management. The diversity of ideas, experiences, and perceptions enables the creation of best-in-class and valuable market offerings.

Learning to Embrace Conflict

These product leaders will tell you that conflict within multi-purpose teams often stems from a lack of communication and understanding of the product or feature's purpose. Leaders must ensure their teams understand how their work impacts customers and the organization. Although conflicts are inevitable, proactive measures can mitigate them. 

The first thing to remember is that no one wakes up in the morning and says I will make all the wrong decisions today, sabotage my teammates, and harm the organization. We all have the best intentions. We just execute differently, and sometimes we have a bad day or week.  

Here are my eight rules regarding negating and managing conflict within multidisciplinary teams: 

Rule 1: Core Value Matters

Product leaders must continuously evangelize their organizations' core values to bring multi-functional teams and leadership along on the journey. Ensuring everyone aligns with the values and what they mean is integral because our organization's core values are the connective tissue that brings everyone together; they are the foundation for the concerted love of our products, solutions, and services. 

Rule 2: Communicate Product Strategy and Roadmap

Every organization and product leader handles the communication of product strategy and roadmap differently. What has always worked for me is collaboration and storytelling. At the beginning of the year, when our product teams defined our vision and strategy, I put together a working group that consisted of our 3iab or squad (product manager, the design lead, and the tech lead)  and cross-functional product team leaders. We walked them through our vision, product roadmap, customer value, business value, and KPIs. Aligning early allows us to influence their roadmap and avoid surprises.  

This approach enables our partner teams to integrate our projects into their planning. We maintain engagement by reviewing the initial iteration of our product or feature experience with them, and we include them in the research readouts. We do this to solicit their feedback and to determine if there is a dependency team they need to coordinate with and if they foresee any problems that might hinder development.

Rule 3: Build a Coalition

Effective product leadership necessitates cultivating allies and forming alliances with interdisciplinary partner teams that support your roadmap aspirations and can help you influence others to help in execution. Product leaders with these ingenuities are adept at creating connections with a vast network of individuals and can adjust their conduct and approach toward diverse people and circumstances. If your cross-functional partners trust you, they will follow you. 

Rule 4: Storytelling and Collaboration 

As product leaders, we have the ability to tell our cross-functional teams what they need to do; we can do that or bring them along on the journey, offering transparency along the way.  Evangelizing storytelling and collaboration creates a safe space for partner team members to voice their assessments and concerns, which is appreciated. Even if the decision is not to implement their suggestions or recommendations, explaining the reasoning behind that choice is crucial.

Engaging cross-functional teams in discussions about our product's narrative, its significance, and its connection to our organization’s strategic objectives ensures that they feel valued, included, and heard.

Rule 5: Influence Without Authority

Part of great product leadership is getting to know your scrum teams, teammates, cross-functional teams, and stakeholders. I have been known to send out invitations for in-person virtual coffee. I do this to form greater relationships and connections. This enables me to understand what to look forward to. Anticipate outcomes and reactions and get ready for questions and concerns instead of getting caught by surprise. Friendship will also go a long way in urging multipurpose team members to join a customer call and work with me to solve customer pain points or fix an urgent bug.

Rule 6: Healthy Conflict

There will be conflict, and that is great. We need healthy conflicts; it means we are invested. Not only do disagreements help us develop essential critical thinking skills, but they also expose us to diverse viewpoints and concepts that we may not have considered otherwise. Additionally, particularly as product leaders, they teach us to listen to and understand our colleagues and teammates better.

Rule 7: Constructive feedback

Sometimes, product leaders may take criticism personally or feel like our hard work isn't appreciated. Remembering we might be biased because we're too close to our product is crucial. Being malleable and open to feedback is essential. We should always aim to create a safe space where our multi-functional teams can express their opinions and ideas and point out any issues with our experience or project, even if the feedback is not positive. Our partner teams express concerns because they care and are invested. Being open allows us to identify early on what kind of experience or technical challenges we might face during and after developing our product or feature, which will benefit our customers in the long run.

Rule 8: Humility and Humbleness

Humility in leadership involves valuing team members' opinions, leading with self-awareness and benevolence, encouraging a similar practice among the team, and resonating throughout the organization.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, embracing conflict in product management is crucial. The friction within partner teams polishes and refines our collective efforts. Functional tension, shared responsibility, aspirations, outcomes, and leadership drive teams toward a common purpose, creating valuable and impactful products, solutions, and services for our customers and organization. Successful product leaders understand that leadership is built on connections and relationships, creating a significant impact through these bonds.

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