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Staff work

It's an emergent corporate culture, especially in software product management, of "this is my area and no one can tell me what I can do because I'm empowered."

Empowerment is a touchy topic. It's the best thought ever and one that is enshrined in the bible of software the agile manifesto. Dare not criticize the manifesto, I'm not here to criticize it.

Empowerment is a good concept, but it has a downside. The downside brand of empowerment is "compartmentalized empowerment" and maybe "selfish empowerment" and is born of a reaction to the old model of governance by fiat.

Technology businesses but software especially has the nasty reputation of the mini-dictator. The little dictator interprets his mandate to be "you are empowered to do what it is that I tell you to do" and oh by the way, would be nice if you shined your shoes and wore a sportcoat to work. Big boomer energy. It still exists, you see it out there, but its diminishing, thankfully.

The pathos of angry boss and sulking employee diminishes the most important aspect of empowerment. The team.

PMs that are not part of living org and don't need to work with others? If it exists I've never seen it.

The modern software org is collaboration across, down, and up - all the directions. PMs provide leadership and also are led… it's the ultimate empowerment.

The great PM actively cultivates a positive, living agenda, and communicates it all over all the time. I think of this as staff work, in the classic sense. If you simply show up and throw up with your ideas ("mine!"), then your ideas won’t be taken seriously and YOU won’t be taken seriously. Because you aren't part of the team, and it shows.

The great PM does active, painstaking staff work to synthesize ideas across teams. They cultivate relationships as a way to stress test ideas. And in doing so, not only improve them, but also fireproof them.

What does this look like? For example if you are all working on presentations for your user conference. You can't just drop your deck into the folder and be done. This time as an opportunity - a forcing function - to mesh your ideas together with other people at the company and to get to better decisions, better answers, better insights, better alignment.

  • Are we positioning this product correctly? What do you think?

  • Do we have the right pricing? Too high? Too low? Packaged with these extra modules, or should they included? Why? Why not?

  • Does our the sequencing of our roadmap make sense with what you know about the market and our customers? How do you think our customers will react? What is missing?

With each of these questions that there are 2-3 equally viable directions ... (of which you have a strong preference obviously…) But as a PM you need to do the staff work to get the TEAM to an answer, not just declare the answer yourself. How do you do it? You map out and drive:

  • Who is involved? Who has something to say? Who is critical to get feedback from, versus nice to have?

  • If there are core conflicts how will the team make the decision? Who breaks ties?

  • What data or frameworks or background can you anticipate and collate, that your extended team will need in order to make the decision in the time frame required to make the decision?

  • How will you help get the team get through the discussion in the time allotted?

And then show your deck to e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e you can, but especially sales, dev and leadership. Take notes. Capture words that matter. Gather up alternative views, hear them out. Steelman where you need to.

Practice your explanations and sharpen them up. It's a statement of followership and humility to get input and feedback from your team, openly, in good faith.

Not with the intent that "everyone gets a lollipop" (that is, everyone gets their way... because that can never happen). But rather that everyone gets input, everyone gets a hearing, and good ideas bubble to the top because you, the PM, are not the only one with good ideas.

You are part of a team and teams work together. Good staff work makes for good ideas makes for good leaders makes for great products.


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