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Strategic management

Cross-Functional Diplomacy aka Product Management

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-...
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So with all the UN hub bub in NY a couple of weeks ago and Obama and Michelle’s plea for the Olympics in Chicago, it got me to thinking about the role of diplomats and in general diplomacy on the world stage.  Then after a couple of beers I thought that on a much smaller scale that product managers are effectively corporate diplomats.

Ultimately, Product Managers are given some mission to drive forward, with little or no authority or ownership of the resources to accomplish a task which is kinda like a diplomat.    PM need to do things like increase profit, revenue or “on time delivery” from bar napkin estimates and executive talking points.   Kinda like taxation and political promises.

PM’s try to push agendas, negotiate the scope of product releases and define what is important for our stakeholders through release planning activities, roadmap development and corporate strategy sessions.

Granted not every meeting for a product manager is a positioning initiative or platform for moving the agenda of the business forward, but many are and the negotiation/tact required to deliver on the strategic needs of the product and/or business is often a negotiation.  A negotiation where all you may have is the promise for a future feature or prioritized defect for the next sprint.

There are other ways to look at this negotiation, a friend of mine, Tim Davis over at Techlinks, used to refer to it as “horse trading”.    A negotiation which if we aren’t careful ends up with poorly prioritized activities and features which may serve one stakeholder, but doesn’t deliver on the overall needs of the product – that’s the horse trading part.  I’d probably use the horse trading concept, but as a political science undergrad I have a little more comfort in the diplomat comparison.

As corporate diplomats, when you get the opportunity to move a product, project or team right way it is often done with indirect authority and without direct ability to influence actions outside of the of negotiation/deal making.  So when we get an opportunity to turn the dial a little we do, since those opportunities are not frequent and require some patience, not unlike diplomats.

I’m not saying all product managers are opportunist who take the opportunity to speak for 96 minutes at a general assembly, but we do try and take our 3-4 minutes where we can to try and impact change/drive the agenda forward and at times take a little liberty with the “All Employee” email lists.

Hold on a second, let’s baseline what a diplomat is since I’m bouncing around a little:

diplomat (plural diplomats)

  1. A person who is accredited, such as an ambassador, to officially represents a government in its relations with other governments or international organisms
  2. (figuratively) Someone who uses skill and tact in dealing with other people

So under both items 1 and 2 it may be easy to associate a product manager to a diplomat. So the translation is fairly easy – government = company.  So what diplomatic missions do Product Managers go on?

Accreditation Drives Influence

Product Managers should be by their very existence in a company accredited to carry if not the corporate strategy, at least the product strategy throughout the organization.  The nations in which they travel are the internal cross-functional groups which are required to be successful in the marketplace – sales, marketing, support, development and the leadership.  Product Managers are taking issues in the marketplace and relating them tactfully to the key stakeholders.  The I realized, not all product managers carry the same charter or accreditation, I was reminded of this the other morning when I was a Starbucks with a friend that happens to be a CEO and the conversation went something like this:

ME: Blah… How was that last round of golf… blah

CEO GUY: Blah… Blah… We really need to get out on the course… blah… How’s the new gig?

ME: New gig is great, every place has a different view of product, so it makes it fun.  Doing some real PM work again and strategy too.

CEO GUY: How many product managers do you think can actually drive strategy? What 1 out of 10 – if that.

ME:  I think the better question is how many product managers have the charter? Do they drive strategy, P&L or even market requirements.  In your company what titles do you have in product management”

CEO GUY: Technical Product managers, business analyst types or what they are now calling product owners.  In fact we are going so far as considering product owner the new official job title.  Then we have general product managers and the director of product management.  The director is the only one who has the closest thing to P&L accountability, we don’t really have that skill in the organization, so we don’t really require it in earnest.

ME: OK so you haven’t given them the charter to manage that way, I understand. Do you have Product Marketing?

CEO GUY: No, there is a enough complexity with managing the organization to understand product management, so we don’t need another not well defined or understood role.  I Think only 3 people actually know what we expect from the director of product management.

So just as diplomats can execute on a topic or theme, they don’t have the charter to negotiate anything out of scope, so you sometimes just need to keep track of the chits.  So not only are you the dimplomat your are responsible for remembering what favors you have out and which could be called in for the next real.  So you ask yourself questions like – Are you up or down with support right now?

What you can do is as much predicated on the charter, as it is on the influence, credibility and trust you have with the other nations/cross-functional groups.   For diplomats, there is a zone of acceptable execution and negotiation by the nature of your rank/title, the geography they cover and perhaps a functional/departmental definition – such as being associated with agriculture or energy if you were a diplomat.  The same is true for product managers – if you are the product manager of old crusty shit, then you probably have less influence than the product manager of cool hope for the business shit.  Multiply that by title or rank and you have some math result which means something like you have more pull on cool strategic stuff, than old declining revenue streams.

While I don’t have a pithy little close on this piece, I think the metaphor of diplomat has helped me understand that directional successes in product management are just as important as explicit success with metrics, revenue and general market execution.  Thinking about it, without a focus on moving the organization directionally towards a goal the ability to have repeatable and scalable success is a challenge, so try a little diplomacy and chit management.