Engaging in Product Debates

As product managers we engage in product debates every day with our design and engineering partners, fellow product managers, cross-functional partners, managers, executive stakeholders, and more. The best product debates help refine our solution, make us better as product managers, and are intellectually stimulating. Yet so often they don't feel anything like that. It turns out expressing a dissenting opinion and constructively coalescing on a better solution requires the skillful practice of the art of discourse by all participants. So I wanted to share some of the best practices I've learned to make product debates constructive and valuable.

First, seek to understand
When you walk into a product discussion and realize that someone is voicing a dissenting opinion from yours, the first thing you always need to do is seek to genuinely understand in depth their perspective. When I suggest this to people, I usually get one of two immediate reactions: 1) I'm already doing this or 2) it's a waste of time because they are clearly wrong.

When I dig into the first camp, it's not uncommon to discover that the part they are missing is seeking genuine understanding. While they are listening to the other side's perspective, they are already preparing their rebuttal in their head and waiting for a gap to voice it. It's easy for the other participant to see right through this and become immediately defensive when they realize your seeking to understand is far from genuine.

For the second camp, I'd say making people feel heard, acknowledging their perspective, and replying with your own perspective is the best way to get their buy-in, build your own credibility and garner respect, as well as to hopefully up-level the quality of the team's product debates going forward.

And overall, your mentality as a great product manager should always to be a truth seeker, certainly not for your own ideas to always win. So probably the most important reason to first seek to understand is to see if you might in-fact change your own perspective!

Find the fundamental difference
After you've understood the dissenting perspective and shared your own perspective, the goal should be to find the fundamental difference between the two perspectives. While often the differing opinion is suggesting a different product direction or a different product trade-off, what is more important is getting to the root cause of the difference of opinion.

There are a ton of potential fundamental differences, but let me illustrate a few so you get the idea. When comparing your perspective to theirs, you might realize that they are in-fact optimizing for a different goal than you are. And their perspective may make sense if that was the ultimate goal of this product decision. But your perspective is optimizing for a very different goal. Acknowledging this allows you to then have the true debate: what should be the fundamental goal we are optimizing for at this stage?

Another common fundamental difference that often occurs is the different perspectives are optimizing for different target audiences. One solution might be great for one audience, but the other solution is perfect for a different audience. Once you realize this, you can then appropriately redirect the debate to the merits of solving for one audience versus the other.

Oftentimes you also find that the core of an opposing argument comes down to a fundamental assumption they have about the product, about the target audience, about how user's will react to a user experience, etc. And it turns out you just have a different perspective on that assumption. That becomes an opportunity to clarify whether that assumption is in-fact driving their perspective. And then to discuss that assumption in depth. Do you have evidence to share on why that assumption may be false? Is their research you could do or alternative perspectives you could gather to validate or disprove that assumption?

By striving to find the fundamental difference in your views, you both make the other party feel heard, but also shift the debate to the most valuable core of the argument. Finding the fundamental difference is non-trivial and learning to do so also improves your ability to "debug" problems, which is incredibly valuable overall for a product manager.

Choose your words wisely
As you have these product debates, it's important to choose your words wisely. Too often I find product managers that share their perspective bluntly and without much empathy for the other participants. While the mentality of a product manager doing this is often just to be truth seeking, Google's research has found that the highest predictor of team performance is not the individual skills of the team members, but instead psychological safety, a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't voice your opinion. On the contrary, you always should. You just need to pick your words to do to it in an empathetic way.

I find the following phrases far from helpful in product debates. While they all may be true, they quickly make the other participants defensive, reducing any value from the discussion.
  • I disagree
  • You are wrong
  • You don't understand
  • You're missing the point
  • I'm the expert here
Alternatively I employ phrases like the following in product debates:
  • I'm not so sure. My perspective is
  • I see where you are coming from if our goal was X, but I think that goal Y is the more pressing one
  • I think a key assumption you are making is X, but I think that's actually not the case
  • What I've been hearing is actually quite different from that
I hope this gives you some tactics you can employ in your next product debate to ensure it leads to better product decisions, makes you better as a product manager, and maybe even becomes enjoyable.
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