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You work for an organization
Be pragmatic when joining a new company
For years, I embraced the "working right" approach, diligently gathering user feedback, analyzing data, conducting thorough research, and refining our business model and strategy. I utilized storytelling techniques to shape our product, constantly improving processes based on user value, and nurturing early-stage ideas through careful design and visualization. Prioritizing tasks using a well-defined framework and showcasing our accomplishments through regular demos became second nature.
I devoted significant time and effort to these practices, often finding myself frustrated when others failed to grasp the value of my work. It seemed that some individuals believed they held the best ideas and were determined to push them forward, oblivious to the insights I had gathered. Looking back, I recognize that not every endeavor I pursued was fruitful, but overall, my approach inspired and motivated teams, yielding positive outcomes despite the challenges posed by difficult stakeholders. This track record eventually led me to a leadership position where I aimed to build a team that shared the same principles—a new challenge in itself.
However, as I advanced in my career, I observed a recurring pattern: many people around me acted on intuition or authority, making hasty decisions without adequately sharing the context behind them. When their choices turned out favorably, they were hailed as wise; yet, when outcomes proved them wrong, they swiftly rationalized their decisions and shifted blame elsewhere. It would be understandable if these individuals were seasoned experts, but even those lacking experience seemed to exhibit similar behavior. While I acknowledge that luck plays a role in success, this cannot be a carte blanche justification. Curiously, these individuals often dismissed my work as "academic," "theoretical," or accused it of "over-analysis" , and most impressively, they were keen on finding the weaknesses of my work.
Eventually, I came to the realization that the lack of appreciation for my work may stem from a broader issue—an unfavorable organizational culture and uninspiring leadership. Changing such deeply ingrained elements within a large organization proved to be an insurmountable task. However, I also recognized that there were still actions I could take, regardless of the prevailing culture or leadership quality. Whether I chose to continue working within a culture I had not anticipated upon joining was a decision I could make, armed with the knowledge that there were ways to make an impact regardless of the circumstances.
So, what can you do when you land on tough cultures or situations?
1. Be an owner
Being an owner is a fundamental aspect of a healthy organizational culture. In a good culture, individuals willingly take on responsibilities, proactively offer solutions instead of dwelling on problems, and demonstrate the capacity to make decisions while respecting managerial authority. Conversely, in a poor culture, you may encounter individuals who shy away from accountability, only highlight issues without proposing remedies, and complain about managers who fail to grant them decision-making autonomy.
To navigate these dynamics, it is crucial to invest time in comprehending the priorities and goals established by the organization's leadership. Engage in discussions to gain clarity, refine objectives, and align perspectives. Rather than attempting to espouse grandiose notions of strategy and vision, focus on understanding the concrete goals, where the company aspires to be in the next 3-5 years, and how success is measured. Rather than imposing your own vision, collaborate with others to shape and build upon existing ideas and pathways.
Subsequently, develop a plan to address these goals, taking into account the input gathered during the process. Refine the objectives, prioritize your actions, seek feedback from stakeholders, and propose improvements or alternative approaches. Shreya's LNO framework or Eisenhower's matrix can serve as useful tools to guide your energy allocation. Along the way, you may find like-minded individuals who are willing to join you and contribute their efforts towards this shared direction. By fostering a sense of ownership among colleagues, you can collectively work towards achieving the desired outcomes.
2. Timing matters
Timing plays a crucial role when it comes to implementing changes within an organization. Often, the most opportune moments for change arise during times of crisis. Whether it's losing a valuable client, experiencing financial constraints, or facing talent shortages, these situations can serve as catalysts for improvement. It is remarkable that many individuals only feel compelled to seek improvements under the pressure of imminent deadlines and challenging circumstances. However, this urgency also makes implementing change more challenging.
In the absence of an impending crisis, you may find it necessary to create a sense of urgency or find alternative approaches. One option is to "make up an enemy" or identify potential threats that could negatively impact the organization. This simulated adversity can serve as a motivating force to drive change. Alternatively, exercising patience becomes essential. Work alongside others within the organization, collaborating to shape a shared vision and approach. Observe the impact of your efforts, appreciate the results, and effectively communicate them to other teams. Over time, the change you initiate can spread organically, like a virus.
Whether you choose to address change from a top-down perspective during a crisis or patiently and quietly at the team level bottom-up, it is essential to recognize your own limitations and boundaries. Understand what actions you can take within the scope of your role and what is permitted by the organization. By navigating within these parameters, you gain valuable insights into what is achievable and how you can contribute to the transformation of the organization.
3. Don’t ask for a job description
When it comes to the role of a Product Manager (PdM), there is no one-size-fits-all definition. As you may recall from my past post on the subject, the responsibilities of a PdM can vary depending on factors such as the organization, the product's stage, and the overall environment. For instance, if you have a CEO who possesses a strong Product Sense and a clear vision, your role won't involve challenging that vision but rather creating your domain within which you can define your own solutions and roadmap while aligning with the overarching product goals. Conversely, if you are in a sales-driven company, you may need to educate others on how a Product-Led Growth (PLG) strategy can benefit the organization or focus on creating a platform to fulfill specific requests.
Instead of fixating on a job description, it's crucial to keep in mind that, regardless of the organizational structure or the specifics of your role, you should collaborate with other departments such as business, marketing, and customer support/excellence on a regular basis. Don't wait for someone to tell you to engage with different stakeholders, have frequent sync-ups, or facilitate workshops. However, the trickiest part of this process is effectively communicating your message and adapting your expectations based on your audience. You may encounter difficulties and find yourself needing to explain or reiterate certain points, but effective communication is a fundamental aspect of your job.
As the Product Manager, you serve as the glue that ensures customer value remains intact throughout the entire customer experience journey. If other departments are open and cooperative, consider yourself fortunate, as they have likely worked with Product professionals before and understand what is expected. However, it's essential not to take over their responsibilities on a daily basis. Instead, establish a proper interface with them, set expectations and goals, and allow them to manage their own processes. Conduct regular follow-ups, and if they fail to deliver, you may need to assume certain parts of the process and communicate the resulting overhead to the organization and your manager. This could lead to discussions about the need for defining a new role or hiring additional personnel.
If you encounter protective behavior or internal politics within other departments, engage in conversations with them to emphasize that your aim is to prioritize the best interests of the customers. If you encounter resistance or walls, it may be necessary to involve higher-level management, such as Directors, VPs, or the CEO, to drive change within your organization. The best way to foster collaboration with other departments is by working together on the Go-To-Market plan, once you have agreed upon a clear and shared deliverable using techniques like the Press Release document (PR/FAQ).
4. Get out of your comfort zone
It's natural to rely on the learnings, playbooks, and frameworks that have proven effective for you throughout your career, regardless of the organization. Staying within the same industry can also provide a sense of ease and empowerment, as you don't have to continually learn about new markets, competitors, trends, and business dynamics. Moreover, these criteria often form the basis for initial screening during the hiring process, as companies seek candidates who can hit the ground running, understanding the industry's nuances. This preference for safe bets in hiring is particularly prevalent due to the shorter tenures people tend to have with organizations. If you have a family and prioritize stability and free time, smoother career transitions can be highly valuable.
I wholeheartedly understand and appreciate these factors, especially as I grow older. However, I also recognize that the most crucial aspects of one's career lie in the principles and practices that work well with teams, the evolution of communication skills, and the realization that luck, timing, and uncontrollable factors also play significant roles in personal and product success. As one gains seniority, managing uncertainty becomes a significant achievement.
For these reasons, I make a conscious effort to step out of my comfort zone from time to time. I made the decision to pause academia early in favor of venturing into social media startups. I juggled two projects while completing my Ph.D. in software engineering. I attempted to secure pre-seed funding for a healthcare startup, even contemplating leaving my home country for an HR startup that eventually closed its UK offices. I chose to forego lucrative job offers in London's banking sector to go all-in for a music startup, which turned out to be a successful bet. However, after four years, I decided to take a sabbatical to explore new technologies before joining a highly promising tech startup.
During these transitions, I encountered skepticism during the screening process and faced steeper learning curves. However, I also gained valuable cross-industry insights, developed diverse playbooks, and stayed updated on emerging technologies and operational systems. This allowed me to differentiate myself from those who solely focused on one industry and defended the status quo. I recognized that nothing remains static, and competition can arise from various dimensions, necessitating innovation on multiple levels.
Therefore, I firmly believe that as a Product Manager, you bring value to your organization by embracing diversity and venturing beyond the confines of a single industry. Embracing new industries offers the excitement of exploring different business models, encountering unmet markets, and solving problems you couldn't have imagined otherwise. By fostering a diverse perspective, you contribute to the innovative potential of your organization and continuously expand your own knowledge and skill set.
Try, do your best, but set a red line
If you've been following my posts, you'll notice that the topic of leaving an organization at the right time and in a healthy manner is a recurring theme. Your physical and mental health, as well as your work-life balance, are among the most important aspects of your life. As you gain experience and grow older, you come to appreciate these factors even more. In the early stages of your career, you may tolerate certain behaviors, work overtime, and clean up after others to help the organization succeed. This mindset may even help you climb the career ladder initially. However, you will soon realize that simply working hard is not the path to happiness, good health, or increased appreciation.
It is crucial to make a conscious decision about what matters most to you. Will you prioritize working for a company or holding a job position that looks impressive on your CV, or will you focus on enjoying your work, personal growth, and living a fulfilling life? Especially in today's world, where remote work is increasingly possible even post-Covid, you have more flexibility to find a balance between your work and personal life. You can explore opportunities in countries with a lower cost of living, enabling you to maintain financial stability while enjoying a better quality of life.
Seek out organizations that empower you, bring you happiness, and offer opportunities to pursue meaningful work. It's important to find a workplace that aligns with your values and provides a conducive environment for personal and professional growth. By prioritizing your well-being and seeking out fulfilling opportunities, you can create a harmonious balance between work and life, leading to a more satisfying and rewarding journey. Remember, it's essential to establish boundaries and set a "red line" when it comes to compromising your health and overall happiness for the sake of a job or organization.
PS: This post is part of the “pragmatic product manager” series.