Product Management Marty Cagan

Coaching – Integrity

Returning to our series on coaching, this article and the next are tackling two of the toughest yet most crucial aspects of successful product management.

In this article I will address integrity, and in the next we’ll discuss decision-making.  These two topics are distinct, but interrelated.  I’m tackling integrity first because it is the foundation for good decision-making in an empowered product team.

For product managers of empowered product teams, integrity is not some sort of lofty aspirational goal. As I’ve explained earlier, empowered product teams are predicated on trust, with executives, with stakeholders, with customers, and with your own product team.  In the same article I explain how this trust is based on both competence and character.  And integrity is at the heart of the necessary character.

Now the first thing I want to acknowledge is that developing, demonstrating and preserving your integrity is in no way easy.

Forces are constantly conspiring to challenge your integrity.

Just imagine you’ve just come out of a meeting with the CEO in which she has impressed upon you just how critically important it is to be able to deliver something urgently.  Yet your team has explained to you how they absolutely need more time.

Or, you are sitting with a customer that is frustrated and angry because the product your team provided is not what they were led to believe they would receive.

Or, one of your stakeholders has confided in you that she’s looking at leaving the company because she feels unable to do her job with the level of support she receives from the technology organization.

Or, one of your business development partners is investing heavily in their side of your relationship, and you know that the product is unlikely to provide the value they are depending on.

I could go on, but I’m guessing you can relate.  Most product managers have experienced these situations, and have struggled to determine a course of action that addresses the immediate issue, yet doesn’t derail your longer-term efforts, and also manages to keep your integrity intact.

Having an experienced manager that can coach you through these many types of situations can make all the difference to the career of a new product manager: identifying and avoiding the landmines; understanding the priorities and the larger context; and navigating the personalities.

As with so many topics, your role in tackling these challenges is different when you’re a product manager for an empowered product team versus a product manager for a feature team, which as I’ve discussed before, is much more of a project manager role.

The feature team product/project manager role is still difficult and integrity is still important, but in this case the product manager is fundamentally a messenger.  She passes along requirements, constraints and dates to the product team, and passes back concerns, status or bad news up to management.

However, if you’re a product manager of an empowered product team, the expectations are much higher:  you’re expected to try and figure out a solution that works for the customer and works for your business. While that’s not always possible, you are expected to have the necessary knowledge and understanding of the business, and the ability to come up with creative solutions to tough problems.

I want to emphasize that what I’m about to share here is what I’ve found has worked for me, and for many of the people that I have coached.  I am not arguing that this is the only path to integrity.  In fact, I suspect there are differences based on the values of your company’s culture.  But if my list causes you to seriously consider what is important to demonstrating ongoing integrity in your company, I would call that a useful outcome.

When I coach product managers on integrity, there are three essential behaviors I focus on:

1. Dependability

Integrity begins with impressing upon the product manager how her word and her commitments need to be taken very seriously.  You need to explain that if you end up misleading the executives, or customers, or stakeholders, even with the best of intentions, you may permanently damage your reputation in the company, and prevent that trust that is so essential to effective product teams.

At the heart of demonstrating and preserving integrity is the concept of a high-integrity commitment.

If you give your word on something – to a customer, a stakeholder, an executive, a partner, or to your own team, you need to first be sure you are basing your commitment on informed judgement; and second, you absolutely need to do everything possible to then deliver on what you or your team has promised.

This means not making a commitment unless and until your product team has had the opportunity to do sufficient product discovery to reasonably consider the risks of value, usability, feasibility and viability.  And just to be explicit, that means leaning on the expertise and experience of your designer and engineers.

Moreover, with an empowered product team, it’s not sufficient just to ship something when promised.  What you ship must actually work – solve the problem for the customer and/or the business.  This is much tougher.

So, getting good at managing these high-integrity commitments is key to building a dependable reputation for you and your team.

2. Company’s Best Interests

The product manager needs to be perceived as always acting in the best interests of the company – not of herself, and not of protecting the interests of only her team.

In larger companies, especially those perceived as highly political, people are often suspected of having personal agendas or “fiefdoms.”  But for a product team to be entrusted and empowered, it’s essential that the product team, and especially the product manager, be perceived as not only understanding the overall objective of the company, but is sincerely committed to doing everything in her power to help the company succeed.

(As an important side-note, this is a major reason why equity-based incentive and compensation plans are so effective – none of us wins unless the company wins).

It’s not unusual for a new product manager to wonder how she can demonstrate this understanding of the company’s best interests when she’s the product manager of just a single team. But there are many opportunities:  helping out another product team on one of their critical objectives; going above and beyond for a customer or a stakeholder; or publicly giving credit to others.  And most common of all, making or supporting a decision that is not necessarily optimal for her product team, but is clearly better for the customer or the business.

Another difference between a feature team and an empowered product team is how engaged and committed the team is.  It’s not hard for leadership to tell if a team is engaged and passionate about the mission of the company and their part in making that happen.  While project managers often resort to imposing deadlines, if you hope to have an empowered team of missionaries, the product manager needs to instead share the overall purpose of the work.

3. Accountability

An empowered product team signs up to achieve results.  But with that empowerment necessarily comes the responsibility of accountability for those results.

But what does accountability really mean in practice?  Thankfully it doesn’t usually mean that people get fired when results don’t materialize.

Accountability for a product manager of an empowered product team means a willingness to take responsibility for mistakes.  Even when fault may lie with others, always asking what you could have done on your part to have better managed the risk, or achieved a better outcome.

You may have heard the old saying that “if a product team succeeds, it’s because everyone on the team did what they needed to do; but if a product team fails, it’s the product manager.”

Some people think this saying is facetious, but not really.

Consider the case where the engineers take much longer to deliver something than expected.  Well, did the product manager fully appreciate the feasibility risk here?  Did she elicit and then listen to the engineer’s concerns?  A quick feasibility prototype very likely would have uncovered the true cost during product discovery.

Or, suppose there turned out to be serious legal obstacles putting the product in jeopardy.  Legal considerations are a core component of business viability, and is normally something the product manager would have explored and addressed during discovery.

Yet it’s also important to explain that integrity does not mean perfection.  Mistakes will happen.  But your career will survive these mistakes if you are on the whole dependable in your commitments, always work towards the company’s best interests, and take responsibility for your mistakes.

Finally, there is an excellent new book by Ben Horowitz, What You Do Is Who You Are that dives deep into the topic of culture, and the role that ethics and integrity plays.  It is aimed at CEO’s but much of the lessons apply to coaching.