How to Overcome 6 Key Product Leadership Challenges | Roman Pichler - Deepstash
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The Challenges Of Product Leadership

The Challenges Of Product Leadership

Products are developed, provided, and enhanced by people, and effectively leading them is crucial to achieving product success. But leading stakeholders and development teams is hard: It requires product managers and product owners to overcome six leadership challenges that range from lacking transactional power to guiding self-organising teams.

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No Transactional Power

Unlike a line manager, you usually don’t manage the development team and stakeholders as the person in charge of the product, and the individuals don’t report to you. You consequently don’t have any transactional power: You cannot tell people what to do; you cannot assign tasks to them; and you are typically not in a position to offer a bonus, pay raise, or other incentives. 

The way to overcome this challenge is to build trust among your team members, as detailed below.

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Building Trust

In order to build trust with the stakeholders and development team members, follow these tips:

  • Empathise with the individuals and make an effort to understand their perspectives, needs, and interests, for example, by practising active listening. 
  • Speak and act with integrity: Say what is true and make your actions match your words. 
  • Show people that you value their ideas and concerns and involve them in product decisions. 
  • Get to know people and allow them to get to know you. 
  • Strengthen your expertise. The more knowledgeable you are, the more likely it is that people will trust and follow you.

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A Large and Heterogeneous Group

The development team and stakeholders are often more than nine people—the maximum number of individuals line managers are commonly recommended to lead. What’s more, the dev team is cross-functional and may include UX and UI designers, developers, and testers, alongside other roles. The stakeholders come from different business units, for example, marketing, sales, support, and service for a commercial product.

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Handling A Large Team

To succeed in handling a large set of people, one must try to keep the stakeholders and the dev team stable. Also, one can increase the ability to deal with disagreements and learn to resolve conflicts.

One must agree on shared goals and outcomes and a sense of shared purpose.

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Limit Influence On Group Selection

To maximise the chances of finding the right people, team up with the Scrum Master and engage with line management and your sponsor.

A great technique to acquire the right people is self-selection: Clearly communicate the roles you need to fill and the skills people will require. Then let the individuals decide if they want to be on the team or not. 

To effectively lead people who you may find difficult or unlikeable, strengthen your capacity to empathise.

Do not accept inappropriate behaviour—clearly tell people in a kind, empathic way when their speech or actions are harmful.

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Dual Role

While guiding people can be challenging on its own, you also have to actively contribute to getting the product out of the door. The latter includes carrying out product discovery and strategy work, updating the product roadmap, and prioritising the product backlog. You therefore play a dual role: You are leader and contributor. This sets you apart from a line manager and project manager who usually enjoys the luxury to focus on managing and leading people.

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Adopting A Sustainable Pace

To be a successful leader and contributor, carefully manage your time and adopt a sustainable pace. Look after yourself and do not overcommit. Do not take on tasks that are not part of your role. Do one thing at a time and avoid multitasking. What’s more, do not de-prioritise your leadership work even when push comes to shove and you are pressed for time. Look at leadership as an integral part of your job that is at least as important as updating the product roadmap and refining the product backlog.

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Leadership At Multiple Levels

Leadership At Multiple Levels

As the person in charge of the product, you should shape its vision; you should lead the effort to create, validate, and evolve an effective strategy; you should guide the development of an actionable product roadmap; and you should work with the development team on the product backlog to determine, capture, refine, and prioritise its items.

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The Ability To Navigate

While this approach ensures that leadership and decision-making are consistent, it makes the leadership work demanding—it requires a broad skillset and the ability to successfully navigate between the big picture and the product details. To overcome this challenge, recognise that a shared product vision and validated product strategy are more important to guide and align people than beautifully crafted user stories. Consequently, do not neglect the product discovery and strategy work.

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Agile Process Constraints

Most digital products are developed using an agile development framework like Scrum or Kanban. While an agile process offers great benefits for product people—for example, the ability to validate UX design and features at a very early stage—it constraints how you can lead the development team. 

An agile dev team is self-organising; the team members decide how to do the work and how to collaborate. As the person in charge of the product, you should therefore not interfere with their work but respect the team’s autonomy and empowerment.

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The Bottomline

One must empower the development team. View the team as an equal partner, involve the members in product decisions, and encourage them to take ownership of the product details. At the same time, hold people accountable for the commitments they make. A team that is empowered to decide how much can be done is also accountable for getting it done. 

Lastly, participate in sprint retrospectives to help improve the collaboration and the process and receive feedback from the team members on your work.

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