Suzanne Abate

CEO of The Development Factory
Host of The 100 Product Managers Podcast

Stakeholder Management for B2B PMs: Managing Upwards, Downwards, and Sideways

Suzanne Abate: Hey, thanks for hanging out. My name's Suzanne and, uh, I'm here to talk to you about communication and why I believe it's the most important quality of great product managers and of successful people. So I want to tell you a little bit about my relevant experience and why I'm sharing these ideas with you here today. So I do a number of different things. Uh, I've been serving the PM community for a little over 10 years as a consultant to dozens of startups. I work with General Assembly and other organizations, coaching enterprise teams like American Express, a t and t Marriott target and more. And, uh, I'm the host of the 100 product managers podcast. Anybody here familiar with the 100 pm podcast? Cool. Yeah, get to talk to cool people like my friend Dan and Blair Reeves who's coming up next. Uh, I've interviewed over 70 product leaders and counting.

Suzanne Abate: So share this with you to say that what's interesting about my experience is, uh, all of these rules while they're unique actually kind of create, um, and reinforce each other. So as an example, when you're in the classroom and you're facilitating, you have different individuals with different levels of experience and you have to find ways to sort of integrate all of that experience in. And what I've found is that the better I become at facilitating in the classroom, the more effective I am at facilitating within client meetings and even within my own internal meetings at the development factory. Similarly, as an interviewer for the podcast, learning to ask evocative questions to stimulate great conversations with guests has actually reinforced that product manager muscle of learning how to ask great questions of our customers and users, which is something that a lot of us have been talking about here today.

Suzanne Abate: So just to be a little squishy here with all of you for a minute, there's a retreat center that I was very near and dear to my heart and upstate New York and I've learned a lot about intentional loving in this place. And one of their big ideas, right, is more than anything we want to love and be loved. And that's just like true of the human condition. And so how we do that, one of the ways in which we're able to love people and love ourselves is through seeing. So there's this question, right of how can we see and be seen. What I want to invite each of you to consider is how can we do a better job of seeing and being seen within our work environments. And I think a lot of that lies in how we communicate with our teams. So a bunch of you are probably familiar with ray his book and you hear this term a lot principles.

Suzanne Abate: Um, the name of this talk by the way, is actually just four principles of effective communication. But I know they printed like a wage as your title on the brochure. I was supposed to lure you all in here. So I apologize for the bait and switch and I hope you'll stick around anyway. Four principles of effective communication. So why principles? Principles are simply rule sets, which we follow. And I find by framing these ideas as principles, it actually allows me to remember them and act on them more readily. And that's actually my hope for all of you here today is that you'll be able to do the same.

Suzanne Abate: So I don't know how well you can see this screen. Um, can you all see this pretty well? No. Says why haven't we updated the roadmap to reflect the new priorities? I communicated this to you last week. A quick show of hands. Has anyone ever received a message like this in, in written or verbal form? Anyone ever sent a message like this? Same. See, so, uh, I was working with a, an enterprise organization that was doing a bit of a transformation, trying to move their teams to become more product centric in their thinking. And they really wanted to, uh, get a product playbook and get everybody on the same page. And so we were developing a training wasn't coming together very well and the sponsor and her frustration, she couldn't understand why we weren't getting it, how many times we have to do this high level design.

Suzanne Abate: I've communicated the objectives to you clearly multiple times over, she said, and that experience has stayed with me and it's really at the heart of principle number one, which is, you know, at the root of all of this. So communication is a transaction. It's not something that happens to us. It's actually something that happens between us. So just like value is a transaction that we measure between our customers and our users. Usually three, retention, revenue and referral. So two is communication. A transaction that actually has to be measured. Now I want you to take a moment and think about all of the ways and all of the forums in which we typically exchange information in the work environment. Show of hands, if you're using email to communicate with your colleagues right now, probably most of you right now, in fact, in this moment. Uh, what about texts?

Suzanne Abate: Anybody turned to text to just sort of jam a quick, anything in no less so. Okay. Slack, 9 million users. Some of you might be some of those users. Yeah. So on their website, slack says we bring all your communication together, but a, it's actually not entirely true. What slack does is it functionally allows people to send and respond to messages. Uh, but more appropriately what it does is it allows us to dump information onto other people asynchronously at our convenience, right? So this idea that communication is an exchange of information is fundamentally rooted in the fact that communication doesn't actually take place unless all parties agree that it has. It's a little bit like consent that way. So the problem of course for my women in the room. Thank you. So the problem of course with the um, alignment and understanding is that most of the time it doesn't actually take place.

Suzanne Abate: So you might recognize, this is a diagram that I borrowed from Jeff Patton's book on story mapping, big fan of Jeff's work. And I think that it perfectly depicts a principle number two, which is to anticipate misalignment. So misalignment is actually very, very subtle, but it's deeply pervasive. And I'll give you an example of how it can play out. A just most recently in my experience as a less technical pm, I had set a goal for myself to have no more blind spots in projects that I was running. And so I went to my tech lead and I said, I would like to get more connected to all of these things that you do all day and in the course of our projects, uh, so that I can be more aware. And he was like, great. And then we kicked off a new client engagement and about two weeks in, like, things were not working.

Suzanne Abate: It was like, why is this friction? Right? Why are we in a storming phase? And I sat down with them and I said, you know, I just, I feel like a lot of the technical stuff isn't being looked after. And he said, yeah, well, I thought that you wanted to look after more of those things. What I thought that I wanted was for him to just make me more aware of those things when they were happening and being looked after by him. So, um, eh, to say anticipate misalignment could sound a little bit pessimistic. I actually don't think that it is. I think the idea here is to create a hook in the brain that says if we expect that the probability of misalignment is high, then we will actually be more oriented toward trying to investigate discord. Right. So on this topic of discord, anyone read this book by the way?

Suzanne Abate: Prayer for Owen Meany. Yeah. Okay, great book. So one of my favorite narrative devices from this book, the character John Wheelwright, he's best friends with Owen Mes. This brilliant little firecracker of a kid. John would listen to Owens speak and he would say to us, the audience, I see, I said, but I didn't. Right. And this is actually happening all the time. People don't want to speak up. They just sort of want to move on from the situation. Nobody wants to seem stupid. People say they see, but they don't all the time. Now with user interviews, right? Most of us as pms, we go out, we love talking to users and with user interviews we know that the best practices to seek understanding, and yet most of the time we forget to bring the same practice back inside to our own internal teams. So principle number three, insist on understanding and being understood.

Suzanne Abate: I was working recently with a junior designer and my team, great young guys, super excited and I like to move fast and I do a lot of different things and so I try to communicate succinctly and move on to the next thing. And I noticed when we sat down to do our design review, he kept turning around ideas that for me didn't feel sort of reflective of what I thought I had communicated. And as we started to deconstruct why they were or weren't working, it became clear that things I specifically asked for, he didn't know what I meant, but he didn't want to speak up about it. So he just sort of took the notes and then went away and invested his time, which ended up being waste. Right? We talked about lean principles, so reducing ways he invested his time in turning around ideas that weren't actually rooted in understanding.

Suzanne Abate: And so after some conversations, I did a little bit of work to make more sure when we met that he did in fact understand what I meant when I said certain things. And he for his part, did more work in pushing himself to make sure that he asked questions in meetings, which was also sort of a big stretch for him being a shy guy as he is. So all of these are actually moments, right? So I say like pay attention to agreements that happened too quickly. If somebody agrees with you right away, probably it's a problem, right? If somebody is nodding their head in the meeting, probably they're not really following you. If people are averting their eyes, uh, probably not insisting on understanding. And so, uh, I've seen these things happen all the time when people say they're energetically shutting down, but they're also telling it's fine.

Suzanne Abate: It's fine. We can just continue. So, uh, staying with these moments and recognizing that they're actually opportunities we're understanding is moving further away from us. So lastly, this idea, um, leads me to the fourth and final principle, which is all about words. We use them so often. Make it simple. Anyone ever seen that or heard that in a product meeting? We just need to make it simple for our users. Yeah, probably said it or intuitive. That's one of my, one of my band words, let's make it intuitive. So all of these words actually have sort of deep subjective meaning, but when we throw them around in rooms, we rarely do a quick check to make sure that we're all operating from the same understanding of like what simple means and how I see the show up all the time as in one of my experiences in the classroom.

Suzanne Abate: So I teach roadmapping. Sometimes we use the now next later framework for roadmapping. And so I say, okay everyone, let's get into some teams and we're going to prioritize the initiatives that we've identified for our roadmap using. Now. Next later is simple prioritization framework. And then I'll come around the room just to see how things are going and people are stuck. And I'll say, what's happening over here where they're like, well, we're not really sure what constitutes next. So nobody takes a few minutes at the outset working in a new team just to say, before we dive fully into this exercise, what will now mean? What will next mean? What will later mean? Right? So these are all examples. Make definitions shared in scrum, you know this term definition of done, right? It's used so that we can actually create consistent acceptance criteria for user stories. It's a way of alerting the quality assurance team that what done by one developer means will be the same in theory as another one. Will we as product people can also leverage these same rituals in our team meetings to start to establish shared definitions of common words that are otherwise imbued with subjective meaning.

Suzanne Abate: So I want to take a few minutes and talk about the action part, right? So I said, principles help us to act on these ideas and that's actually far more important than the list. But there are only four. So principle number one, communication is a transaction. So in teaching a, there's a technique called checking for understanding and that's just a way of making sure that the room is mostly following you along instead of mostly left behind. In couples therapy there's a technique we use called reflective listening, right? Both of these are rooted in the idea that a, you can measure the transaction by saying to somebody, this is what I think I heard you say and this is the key part before you launch into your opinions and objections, right? So first let me tell you what I think you said and then that way if I'm wrong, you can help me get corrected and then we can talk more. And this is the same for other people as well, right? Asking people to reflect back what you shared is just a really powerful way of making sure that you are heard, especially if you're not feeling super heard in that moment.

Suzanne Abate: So anticipate misalignment. So those thought bubbles. The reason I chose that image is I think it's a very powerful sort of visual reference. But the idea here is that when ideas are internalized, it's very difficult to know just how aligned or not aligned we are. And if you couple that with the fact that we all learn differently, we process information differently than sometimes there's no other way to know other than making ideas explicit. So for this reason, sometimes getting people to sketch ideas out or act ideas out, bringing ideas outside of somebody's head in, into the physical space for everybody to see can be a very powerful way of combating misalignment. So investigate the discord. Shine a light on difference.

Speaker 3: Okay,

Suzanne Abate: so insisting on understanding, right? Nobody likes to feel stupid. That's why we all say we see when we don't. And this often results, especially over time and people just simply not seeking the clarity that they need, right? So how we create safe space for our team members and even for ourselves is actually to become like genuinely in pursuit of understandings. Like making that known as part of your persona. I want to understand you and I actually really want to be understood and I want that so much. In fact that I'm willing to slow down the meeting. And this is the hard part, right? Because when one person isn't getting it, you have to iterate on the information a few times. And what can be coming up in the background is a few impatient people who have busy schedules and or who already got it several minutes ago or don't understand why we're still here.

Suzanne Abate: Perhaps if you're not comfortable controlling the pace of time, then you also are starting to feel aware of yourself moving off agenda, running the meeting over, right? My advice is to stay with it, right? So if you become genuine, your pursuit of understanding and you invest up front in these kinds of conversations in the longterm, the ROI, the results are going to be far better. Lastly, make those definitions shared. So before you dive too deeply into any exercise. So I e before at the beginning of a conversation or the first time a word comes up that we're not sure, please try and agree together on what we mean when we say right. What do we mean when we say simple, intuitive, monthly active users? What do we mean when we say done? And then consider documenting those agreements as well, right? So that could show up in the form of posters that you put around in common meeting spaces.

Suzanne Abate: Or if you're using a team Wiki, you could actually create a glossary of common terms. And this is a way to shift toward shared understanding. So the power I believe of adopting and acting on these just for principals is that they can actually address and dissolve infinite variations of miscommunication, right? So all the things that come up in the form of friction oftentimes ladder up to some of these ideas. When you adopt these principles, your communication begins to transact more regularly. And when you communicate effectively, everyone in your organization, everyone in your orbit, yourself included, is a direct beneficiary. That's it, folks. Thank you so much.

Keep me posted on Empower 2019.