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A fair fight


By Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting


Mike had worked for me a long time but his products were missing the mark.  Mike was smart, wanted to deliver the best products, willing to admit he was wrong, and willing to defend his position with solid arguments.  As the head of Product Management he and I spent hours discussing (arguing?) product strategies.   We were in the right markets but our products were not right. We were losing to the competition.  Something was not working well.


I knew Mike loved brainstorming with his people and felt those sessions really helped the group make better decisions.  But I recently learned that his people thought he was intimidating, so these brainstorming sessions were not as productive as I thought.  Mike agreed to let me talk to his people about it.  But he was surprised to hear that he was intimidating, “I am willing to change my mind on a dime. They just need to give me the right arguments.  I have to admit, though, they rarely have the right reasons. Help me understand what I am doing wrong. “


I set off on my quest to find out why people thought he was intimidating.  It took a while to get the people open up; after all I was the boss’s boss.  But I persisted and finally got some of the folks to open up. It turns out they felt I was also intimidating. In fact, they had given up arguing with either one of us.  They did not think it was a fair fight.  I was blown away.


From their point of view the process worked as follows: Mike or I would take a position and ask for input.  They would give some reasonable objection. We would listen to that argument, and counter with a reason that negated their objection.  After enough of these back and forth arguments they backed off. I thought I had convinced them, they felt the boss might get pissed and they might get fired if they persisted. They did not want to risk their job on this particular fight.  “You had to pick your spots with the boss” and when he felt strongly, it was not good use of political capital to fight.  They took our passion for anger and as a precursor to getting ready to do something more drastic.


My first instinct was “What the %&*#?” I said this was a silly idea and one person said “You’re doing it.” They were right. I owned 80-90% of the problem. It was not a fair fight and I was pretending it was. I had to rethink the whole way I engaged people.  Should I have been in those discussions in the first place? Was I keeping decisions I was pretending to give to the product managers?  Did the level of justification mean that I was making the decisions and they were just foils for my decision process?  It really came down to my not trusting them and not having good processes for review of their decisions. Mike and I had sapped the passion out of them.


While I did own most of it they had some responsibility here as well. There is right and wrong and pretending to agree is wrong.  We not only owed it to the company we owed to our own integrity to find a way to force that communication to occur. If we set up a fairer environment, they had the obligation to participate.


Once Mike and I understood the impact we had on the group we started to behave very differently.  Clearly, more delegation of decision making was needed and we each carved off the decisions we were comfortable handing off.   We all began to recognize dysfunctional “debates” and replaced them with offline discussions.  We adopted formal brainstorming techniques, one of whose major goals is to eliminate knowledge of who said what. We used the “yellow post-its” on the wall technique of getting ideas out and organizing those ideas anonymously, so that power was not part of the equation.  There are many other techniques.


The main point is to recognize the situation.  The powerful person will get their way if they push, even a little.  Backing off is not always easy to do (people like their power) but it is essential if good product decisions are going to be made.