Escaping the Whirlpool

Here’s a product management pattern that crystallized for me in a conversation with my colleague Nick Bailey.

Anyway, so… one of the challenges that many product managers face is the tension between “go fast” and “keep all your stakeholders aligned, while soliciting maximum input.” It’s a classic for a reason, and it’s especially thorny in larger organizations and/or ones that have, ahem, “complex stakeholder environments.”

At its worst, if you fully give into your desire for maximum alignment, you wind up with waterfall: things move slowly through a highly constructed process with lots of “gates” and “signoffs” and you build something that everyone agrees with but is years behind reality and probably irrelevant before it ships.

At the other end of the spectrum is the myth of the lone genius. Good decisions are rarely made in a vacuum and even if you miraculously extract the right answer from your navel, what’s the point of having the right answer if nobody understands or agrees with you?

Amp up the difficulty with pressure to ship the right thing — fast! — and you’ve got a pickle. How do you make good decisions, quickly, and with enough buy-in to be durable? Here’s an approach we’ve used while building Philanthropy Cloud.

Lots of features in Philanthropy Cloud start with the committee of “me, myself and I” — that is, with a single product manager writing a rough draft of an Epic Narrative or doing a quick mockup to capture an idea. But the “lone genius” phase doesn’t usually last long — if it even happens at all. Before long, that lone product manager often brings in another PM to bounce ideas off of and or flesh out the concept. Then maybe we’ll rope in some folks from the UX team. Maybe we’ll test a concept out on a customer, partner or end-user — especially if we’re trying to solve a problem that originally came to us from outside.

If a feature is particularly ambitious, risky or complex, we will probably have more iterative conversations — with engineering, with executives, with customers, and with other relevant stakeholders — to further refine the idea.

The key idea is that we try to rapidly move through an iterative set of conversations that slowly rope in more and more stakeholders until we’ve done just enough to feel reasonably confident we can build the right thing. With each trip around the spiral, we gain more information, we reduce ambiguity, we increase alignment — but we also lose flexibility as the idea becomes reified and stakeholders get bought in.

Which conversations? In what order? And how do you know when you’ve done enough? Ah, there’s the art.