The Marc Abraham Hypothesis: Skilled Product Managers Leverage Tension to Make the Product Stronger

Marc Abraham is an experienced product management practitioner and a Head of Product – Engagement at London-based ASOS. He’s worked for a large number of successful digital organizations, from startups to more established businesses. He’s the author of My Product Management Toolkit, which came out in 2018, and the recent Managing Product = Managing Tension.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about what tension is and how you can use it to create stronger work in your organization.

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Resources

Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Marc Abraham Hypothesis: Skilled Product Managers Leverage Tension to Make the Product Stronger How did Marc go from corporate law to a career in product management? How did he start doing product management before he even knew what that was? How did he transition from project management to a role in product? How did Marc use pro bono work help himself get into the digital space? What advantages do you get from pro bono work as opposed to going back to school?

What led Marc to write his first book, My Product Management Toolkit? Why did he start blogging about his experience learning how to do product? What are some highlights from the book? What’s the risk of becoming a product janitor? How did Marc develop the ideas in his book while working at WorldFirst? How did teaching others help him fine-tune his methodology? How do you help people make changes to how they work?

How did getting fired suddenly from a VP of Product role inspire Marc’s second book, Managing Product = Managing Tension? How do you manage expectations as a product manager? How do you identify what expectations people have for you, and what your role is in an organization? Why is it important to ask for feedback early?

How do you take into account different stakeholders’ perspectives on uncertainty? How do we communicate uncertainty to others in our organizations? What is a pre-mortem and why does Marc find it so useful? What are the three main sources of tension that Marc has identified? How can you use tension for good? How do you present risky ideas while allowing space for tension?

What is “influencing without authority,” and why is building relationships the key? What stories does Marc tell to highlight this observation? What is “ritual dissent” and how do you make space for it? What advice does Marc have for product managers who are mid-career?

Quotes From This Episode

In certain situations I was too much of a bulldozer. “Listen to me, I know how this works.” Maybe it works on a short term basis, but it's definitely not sustainable. I've learned that the hard way. Click To Tweet When you're in the moment and you feel everything is getting too much,, my advice is to pause and ask, “Where's the other person coming from? How can I influence this? How can I manage myself first before I manage what's happening around me?” Click To Tweet Am I doing the right thing? Are we focusing on the right things? Is there anything I'm missing?...having that ongoing conversation goes a long way, particularly for a product person that in most companies is still quite fluid and undefined. Click To Tweet

Transcription

Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to The Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams, and companies, through real conversations with people who’ve tried it, and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science
This week on The Product Science Podcast I’m excited to share a conversation with Marc Abraham. Marc is an experienced product management practitioner and is currently head of product and engagement at London-based company, ASOS. Marc has worked for a large number of successful digital organizations from startups to more established businesses and has written about his learnings in the book My Product Management Toolkit, which came out in 2018 and in the recent book Managing Product Equals Managing Tension. So thank you, Marc for joining us.
Marc Abraham: Thank you for having me.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So excited. So why don’t we get started with a little bit about you and how you got into product. So how did you get down this crazy career path?
Marc Abraham: Yeah, as you say, it’s definitely been a crazy career path getting into product if you take into account that I started my professional life as a corporate lawyer in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which is where I’m from. So it’s been quite a journey. I won’t give you the whole spiel, but basically I went from corporate law to doing an MBA because I thought law is lovely, but there must be more than this. And doing an MBA for a year here in the UK really opened my mind, my eyes, and ears to everything else out there. I decided that I couldn’t go back into law. And that’s where the journey really got crazy because I started working in marketing and business development, initially still in professional services I worked for a huge accounting firm here in London.
But that’s where I had my first experience of working on a software development project without even knowing it or thinking about it. So defacto I was already doing product management and project management in that first role. But I really wanted to get out of professional services, move into digital which after a lot of hustling and pro bono work I managed to do. My first couple of roles in digital were as a project manager, so more traditional prince kind of project planning and managing of projects in agencies, mostly working with large clients. And then I discovered back in 2010 about product management. That’s interesting because project management can feel a bit limiting at times and with product management, there’s so much more that you can get involved in. And that’s how my journey in product management started. I can say I can feel as exciting and as hard as it sometimes is, and we’ll come to that, I’m sure. Yeah, I’ve really found my calling if you like, I really enjoy being a product person.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Well, I’m sure our listeners can empathize with that as many of us have had that joyful discovery at some point where we realized that this was the right fit for us.
Marc Abraham: Correct, yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I think one of my favorite things that I just heard you say is actually that part of how you sort of got into digital was doing some pro bono work. What kind of work did you do and how did you use that to get into digital?
Marc Abraham: Yeah, so the first thing, the benefit for me was that it helped me to build up my network in the digital space. I worked a lot with startups where you can imagine it bite your hand off if you’re offering free help in terms of, I did things like marketing, planning, and go-to market strategies and helping the business cases, and doing some user testing, those kinds of things. If you offer that kind of service for free, and the catch for me was obviously A, it helped me to build up my network in the digital space, but it also gave me stories to talk about when I started interviewing for these digital roles that I’d never done any of that formally, obviously, but to still have the stories to say, well, yes, it doesn’t say on my CV digital person, but actually I’ve been working with these startups. This is what they did, and this is what I did, and bring up the evidence that way.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, it’s similar to how I got into tech work as well, so that’s one of the reasons I was so curious about it but back in the late 2000s, just doing free work for startups, just to be a part of it and just get experience was how I made my maneuver. I think sometimes people feel they have to go back to school when they really don’t have to.
Marc Abraham: Yeah, absolutely. It’s more of hustle and I don’t know about you Holly, but there were times where people saying, oh, so you offered me this help, and it’s all for free. Surely there must be some ulterior motive or but then again especially if you look at startups and in London it’s quite a strong community where people know each other and can refer you which helps. But even today, I get lot of people getting in touch with me saying, “Marc, how do I break into product? Because it’s not as straightforward as some other roles.” And I do refer to that pro bono work is one route. I’m not saying it’s the route or the only route, but it’s definitely valuable route in my opinion.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I agree. So you had a lot of different experiences in product management itself. Tell me more about the different types of companies that you’ve worked for.
Marc Abraham: So I worked B2B, I worked B2C, I worked ASOS has got a couple of thousand people in the organization, but prior to that, I worked at an early stage startup where we had 12 people, and everything in between, right. I’ve worked at companies that have been around for seven years, we’re already a few rounds of funding in, more global companies, more local companies. I worked on hardware products. I worked on pure software products. I worked on more the content side of things, as well as the more e-commerce side of things. So quite a broad range of experiences there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. So what are some of the things that you noticed that led to your first book?
Marc Abraham: Yeah, that’s quite a funny one because one of the other things I did when I wanted to actually get out of project management and get into product is I started blogging because I thought if I’m just going to learn about product management with the little I know, but if I capture that again, I always build a repository of all the things I learned than when I have conversations about me wanting to get into product. Even though I don’t have that product manager tittle on my resume, I have some stories and examples and thoughts to back it up. And I literally called my blog and I still write for it today. I called it as I learn the idea that whenever I’d go, call friends, or I’d learned something about product management thinking or technique or read a product book, I’d put it there.
And over time after doing that for a few years, people start coming to me saying, “Marc, I read your blog and it was really helpful because it taught me how to speak to customers.” Or I learned a lot more about coming up with hypotheses and testing those. Why don’t you bundle that all in a book? Because I think that’d be really valuable.” And the first couple of times said, “No, me writing a book, that’s not going to happen.” And then as more people said it to me, I started thinking about it, yes, let’s see if I can get that into a book and that’s what I did.
The book is called My Product Management Toolkit. And it by no means claims to be the kind of holy grail or the product management methods and tools out there. But what I do think, or what I tried to get across in that book is what does it mean to be a product person? How does it differ from other roles? And what are some key tools I think that you can use when you’re getting started as a product person, or you want to upscale as a product person? So that’s how that first book came about.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I think that’s a really good way for a book to come about, right. When people are saying you’ve been helpful to me and can capture this. What are some of the areas from that book that you’ve had the most sort of people come back and say, this was really helpful to me. Maybe you can share with our listeners a little bit about things in there?
Marc Abraham: I think particularly from people who are quite new to product management, people who are working with product people and just wants to know what to expect from them is they found it really useful. The first part of the book where I talk a lot about what does it mean to be a product person and how is it different, for instance, from being a business analyst or a project manager like I used to be? What’s the risk of becoming a product janitor? And lots of people have come to me said that’s really useful because I never really understood where my role fitted or how I could maybe adjust it to go in the right way and people said that really gave me a lot of most solid starting point.
So that’s definitely something that resonated. And I think also the tools aspect, where lots of people have come back to me and said, “Marc I keep your book on my desk.” Which is a big compliment for me and then refer back to it on a regular basis, if I want to know how to best do a roadmap or to write a user story. Particularly those things I’d say that people don’t necessarily do on a daily basis. Things like thinking about their product strategy, or thinking about the product roadmap, or thinking about speaking to customers. So I think those two elements seemed to really resonated with people, both the kind of what does it mean to be a product person and the more practical kind of tooling side of things.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that makes sense. So where did you work at the time that you wrote the first book?
Marc Abraham: I worked at a fintech in London called WorldFirst, about 700 people, global company. I had lots of learnings there that some of them made it into the book. But that in itself working there was a really good environment because I had a really great product team there with a good mix of experience in that team. But some of the tools and techniques that I was covering in the book at the time and writing about I was actually going to say teaching, but working with the guys in my team to see whether they need help or upskilling. I had a few people who used to be business analysts made the transition into that first product role. So again, a lot of the tools and techniques just to get people started were helpful. So it was a great symbiosis there because I was writing about it, but also applying some of the stuff that I was writing about on a day-to-day basis.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That makes sense. How many years were you there?
Marc Abraham: I was there for about nearly two years.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And what was the journey like? Did it grow during that time? Where did you see much change in how the product organization functioned?
Marc Abraham: Yeah, I think the business in itself grew a lot, particularly in Southeast Asia, which was a big part for us and one of the key things from a product perspective and technology perspective that we did was have a dedicated product person in our Hong Kong office to really get that kind of product drive. From a product organization point of view, when I came there there were no product people, there were two business analysts out of a larger team, we actively said, yes, we want to become a product people.
So I started working with those two and grew the team to, I think about eight people in the end, product managers. But what was also interesting that when I arrived there was that more classic or we’ve got big business analysis and project management function and a really good team doing really good stuff.
And we’ve got our engineering function over there. Right? Your listeners unfortunately can’t see the hand movements that are making, but the point I want to get across to that classic kind of virtual kind of imaginary fence between the two. And one of the things that I think we did quite successfully is introduced that more cross-functional way of working, where you have small teams working with very specific products or product features, mobile app for instance, or the API which really needed some focus, but working in that way where you’ve got a product person embedded in a team of engineers, designer, which again was a way of working which is completely new to that business at the time.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So did you encounter any resistance as you were working to coach them into working that way?
Marc Abraham: Yes, I wouldn’t call it resistance, I think resistance has a bit of a negative kind of undertone, but it was more people and change. Right. It’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes.
Marc Abraham: I know it’s part psychology, but we like familiarity, we’re used to it, working in a certain way. And then someone comes in like me and says, no, why are you doing it this way? And let’s look at working more collaboratively and people obviously worried about, especially if you have a strong project management team. How do I work with these product people, right. Are they not going to step on my toes? And where do I prove my value? And where does a product person prove his or her value? And you work through that. I’ve learned things and I write about that in my second book where a change process if you like, how to best take people on a journey. And there’s definitely things I look back on, I think I would have done that whole lot differently to do it now, which you might be interested in, but yeah, it’s a journey, right. You go through that process of that classic kind of storming and forming and norming kind of journey.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Mm-hmm (affirmative), Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So I think that you just mentioned that you learned more things that led to the second book, and I know learn some of them the hard way. I know you right at the beginning of the books that the idea came for the book after your time as the head of product at the startups. So maybe you could tell us a little more about that, and then we can go into some of the things from the book.
Marc Abraham: Yeah. So this was the startup that I was at a property startup here in London, and I’d been there for a year exactly. Small business, but we’ve already grown. And I was there kind of VP of product and small management team that was part of. And I sat down with my boss also co-founder business a year in, on the day I’d been at that company for a year. So I thought we’re going to reflect and just have a moment to celebrate that I’ve been here for a year. And she asked me quite honestly, how I felt, what went well, what didn’t go so well. So I was very honest. I think I mentioned things like, well, we could have been maybe a bit more stronger on the delivery side of things and looked at that cadencing, get things out to market foster in certain cases.
And maybe I should have in certain cases have had a more hands-on kind of delivery project manager type of role. And so I was quite honestly when we were having this conversation. And she turned around and said, Marc, I think that’s exactly what you’re looking for. You haven’t done it. So out you go effectively, or this is not what I was looking for. Right. So that really triggered and I’d already been thinking about this topic of how do we deal with tension. And the reason why I think this particular event as upset I was about it at the time, I think it was honest to say it really triggered me because one of the things they brought to life to me was this kind of expectation management that I often see with not just myself in that very situation, but also with other product managers, right. Where people have an expectation or that product role, or the things that we’re going to deliver, the value that we’re going to add, which might not be aligned with what we can do or how we’re set up and how do you work through that?
And that’s only one of the tensions that I cover in the book. There’s plenty others, but that’s really what it triggered and really brought to life to me.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Let’s dive into that one a little bit more because I think it’s really a key element of product management is just managing this tension between expectations and reality or between what’s going to come and where it does come. Tell us more about what are your experiences around that?
Marc Abraham: Yeah, again, what I’ve learned the hard way is particularly on that point of expectations is first of all, is understanding where the other person comes from? Right. I noticed that may sound super obvious, but going back to the World First role, one of the mistakes I think I made there in hindsight was that in certain situations I was too much of a bulldozer. It was like, no, this is how you do it. You’ve been doing all wrong. Listen to me, I know how this works. Let’s do it that way. Right. That doesn’t work. We know that and I’ve learned that the hard way, or maybe works on a short term basis, but it’s definitely not sustainable.
But if I look back on that startup experience and that broader question around how do you manage expectations it’s a lot about checking in with the other person or people that you work with and that doesn’t need to every day I go in and say, “Holly, how am I doing? Or am I meeting your expectations?” But it’s more about where’s the other person coming from? What are they trying to achieve? What is important to them?
That doesn’t mean that as a product person I’m going to completely flip the other way and be something that I’m not. Or completely flip my way working per se, but it might give us an opportunity to maybe end up in the middle somewhere. So for instance, if I go back to this example with the startup, if I maybe checked in more regular, more explicitly, and I’d felt the need was really for delivery manager, someone who just takes an idea from someone else and implements. I would have thought about that maybe I would have changed some things in what I focus my attention on, how I manage my time.
So I think the expectation management is really hard. But key things for me are really checking in with the other person. And again, that doesn’t mean exclusively asking, but also taking the time, whether you do an empathy map, for instance, you see where the other person is coming from. And also looking at ways of how do ask for that feedback, if you do. Again, I said just now that you don’t have to do it every day, but if you do it every month, particularly in your first couple of months, or every quarter outside of formal reviews, or what have you, but just to say, am I doing the right thing? Are we focusing on the right things? Is there anything I’m missing, again, very open questions, but having that ongoing conversation goes a long way, particularly for a role as a product person that in most companies is still quite fluid and undefined, and you do need that check-in from time to time.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. I love that you mentioned an empathy map because that’s one of my favorite techniques for understanding stakeholders is using that empathy map to say what are they experiencing on their side? What pressures are they facing?
Marc Abraham: Yeah, exactly that, but it’s easy when you’re in the thick of things and you’re thinking, oh, that stakeholder’s just being difficult or where did that constraint come from to be in that mindset? But again, one of the things I talk about in the book is almost taking a balcony view or stepping into a helicopter to use another analogy where you look at, okay, right, what’s happening here? Where’s that stakeholder coming from? What would be a wise person with a neutral perspective do here? And again, I’m not saying I always get it right, but I’ve learned a lot from thinking that way and taking that test to creating that distance.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. It really stands out to me that you clearly have a growth mindset that you’re definitely focused on learning and growing and the fact that you’re willing to be open and share along the way, those things is really valuable.
Marc Abraham: Yeah, I do my best, but I think the reality is like I said, I’m sure you noticed this as well and the listeners too, there’s no silver bullet, but I think that as you say, that awareness that in itself in my experience at least goes a long way.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, exactly. It’s so true. There’s so many areas where there’s really no silver bullet, but it’s giving it the focus attention and saying, this is a thing I’m going to work on that makes progress even if it’s not overnight.
Marc Abraham: Exactly that. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So what are some of the other examples of tension that you’d like to talk about?
Marc Abraham: I think the classic one for me is what I call in the book you can’t have it all tension. Although let’s be honest with each other, we all work with a lot of people who like to think, and we sometimes like to think ourselves so we can have it all right. So how do you go about identifying trade offs communicating trade offs decisions, making those thought decisions, getting people on board with those is it’s really hard and it’s tension, right? Another tension that I’m increasingly aware of, particularly now with COVID and everything that’s happening in the world is operating in the face of uncertainty. So I say that I feel that as a product person, we do that anyway, the best of times when there’s lots of unknowns and things that would just have to figure out by experimenting and trying.
But at the same time, working with lots of people who don’t have that same amount of certainty or uncertainty in their day jobs, right. If I talk to accountants, their view of uncertainty is very different than how they go about it. Right. And I can say seriously, who to be an accountant, but that’s not how it works. Right. You have to understand that whilst I’m operating very much at the face of uncertainty, they are looking for that certainty. And how do you manage that? Right. Because I need that content if I want to deliver successful product, or if I want to get budget to hire more people to work on a particular problem. So that’s another tension that I look at.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I think I like that that ties together with what you were just saying as well, in terms of understanding that stakeholder and that their world is so different from ours, right. That as product people, we spend a lot of time living in the uncertainty and becoming comfortable with it. Is that something that you’ve found has changed for you over your career in product? How comfortable you are with uncertainty?
Marc Abraham: I have to be honest, I like certainty. So you could say Marc, you’re in the wrong job then. But I have learned, I like a good plan, but I’ve learned to embrace it. But more importantly to find ways to embrace that uncertainty, because it’s one thing, because at the beginning of my career, yes, I’ll be honest with you. I think anything that was uncertain I was overwhelmed by it and maybe that’s also partly because I used to be a project manager and every time I did a lovely Gantt charts in Microsoft Project, I felt on top of the world and I thoughts everything is going to go to plan. And my job is to make sure everything does go to plan because we mapped it all out.
And then suddenly you realize that that’s never the case. But I’ve learned even got creative around how do I do workshops with people where we collectively embrace that uncertainty, but also then flip it to come up with some really constructive things that at least deal with uncertainty. So just a simple tool that I really love. And I’ve done for a few years now, which is called the pre-mortem. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but we always do…
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, we do it too.
Marc Abraham: So it’s easy to do post-mortem, you’ve done a piece of work, or you’ve done a project, or you’ve released a product or a feature. And then you reflect back on the process and what worked well, which is great. Don’t get me wrong. The downside is that it’s happened, right? You’ve got your lessons learned and hopefully you get an opportunity to apply them. Whereas, a pre-mortem is you just haven’t done anything yet, but you’re just in a safe space with a group of relevant stakeholders, people working on something saying what can go wrong for this project or this product to fail? Right.
And suddenly people I don’t know about you, but whenever I do these sessions, you can see that people are, it’s a bit of do mongering almost, thinking about things that go wrong, surely everything is going to go right. But it’s a nice way of embracing uncertain thing we don’t know, we think this is a risk, we’ve identified it. We don’t know how we’re going to solve it, but at least we’ve talked about it and we’ve identified as one of the key things that we’re going to tackle as part of us working together. And that’s just an example of a way where you identify the uncertainty, you embrace it, but you also do something constructive with it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if you’ve also seen this, but in addition to the people being, wow, we’re talking so much about doom. I thought I was supposed to expect this to go well. I’ve also been in situations where there were some people in the room who hadn’t felt heard about the doom that they saw coming. And there’s a great release of tension, but they’re not given this space to talk about it and say, here’s where I’m scared of.
Marc Abraham: Totally. Yeah, I’ve seen that as well. Absolutely. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It’s really empowering for the people to be able to do that. And it’s really valuable for a project.
Marc Abraham: Yeah, totally.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I totally agree. I know you have detentions broken into mind matter and moves, tell us more about that. What do those mean to you?
Marc Abraham: Yeah. It’s really talking about where do those tensions come from? Right. So tension can come from the mind and that’s our minds and the people that we work with. And that can create a lot of tension, whether it’s disagreements, feedback they give each other the way we behave with each other, how we collaborate. So that comes a lot from the minds of the people that we work with. And people is such a critical part of product management. The tension that’s coming from the matter. So whether you’re working on a physical product and let’s say it’s made of plastic, and there’s only so much you can do with plastic and you can’t really force your will on it as much as you would like to always sometimes. Or you’re working on a digital product where you’ve got code, and I’m not an engineer myself, but it can be quite binary, right?
It’s black or white, but as soon as you throw a human or a creative minds into the mix, they went, “No, I want a gray, or can we have a bit of a touch of orange in the code.” And that causes tension and then finally moves where it’s much more about tension created by certain decisions, how much we plan or don’t plan, going back to what we said earlier. So these kind of three categories each in their own right can cause a lot of tension, and how do we deal with that tension.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that strikes me as I talk with you and hear about this as the concept of anti-fragile. The idea that you can use the friction or the tension to make something stronger, instead of having it be a thing that makes something weaker. Is that sort of one of the things that you’re getting at?
Marc Abraham: Yeah, absolutely. So I refer to that in the book and I’ve learned a lot from thinkers like Nassim Taleb We wrote the Antifragile book for instance, and that’s exactly it. The point I’m trying to make in the book is as much as it feels counter-intuitive to embrace tension and to lean into it, because I can tell you for nothing, my primary response to tension used to be run away from it or hide somewhere because we don’t want entry.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Common response.
Marc Abraham: It’s a common response.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes.
Marc Abraham: But actually to your point, and to that point about being anti-fragile you can use tension for good, right? Where for instance, think about liberating conversations where you actively ask difficult questions, not to get one over the other person that you’re talking to, but just look for the weaknesses in your thinking or the assumptions that you’re making.
Again, to be able to do those things, you need a level of kind of trust and a safe space a bit like pre-mortem example that we looked at earlier. If you do that regularly and you do it kind of seriously, you can turn that tension of giving difficult feedback or trying to see weak spots in an idea actually turn it into something which is really good for the product, for the customer, for the business.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So tell us more about how you turned it into something really good.
Marc Abraham: So a simple example is I do simple things like I said, deliberating conversations that I have with people. But I do for instance, a bit of role play where I deliberately take the position of a difficult stakeholder and in a safe space with my products managers, we go through some of the difficult questions that he or she is likely to ask. And most of the time I get it right, sometimes there’s some unexpected questions, but just going through the exercise as a simple example really helps the product manager who for instance, has to really tell a story about why we should invest more in this particular product or solving this problem helps to sharpen a story and really tell a compelling story to get that end result which is the buying for solving that problem or investing more into the product, is just a simple example.
I do brainstorm sessions for instance where the person who’s explaining the idea is not facing your group, right? So the way that works is that he or she will present a product idea. Let’s say you’ve gotten a great idea wholly for a feature and you want to do a brainstorm session, but you’re a bit nervous because you’re fragile at that point. You’ve got great idea, but you’re not sure whether the people that you work with are going to buy into it and you don’t know how they’re going to respond. Very simple way of doing that is you present it, feels a bit antisocial with us being remote. Everything has changed anyway, but your back is facing your audience. So you might be on a whiteboard and talking through it or you’re looking at your laptop, but you’re not facing the people in your audience.
And what that does is they can start taking notes and thinking about critique and critiquing your idea without you seeing them. Right. So two benefits of that simple approach is that A, I’m not worried as the presenter of the idea, what the audience is going to think, because I can’t see them as I’m talking through it. And also I feel quite liberated in the audience if I can just venture my honest thoughts on the idea and my constructive feedback without having to worry about the emotional response, seeing the emotional response of the person presenting. But what you get out of that simple exercise is some really good feedback that you can use to really improve on the idea or to think of another idea. So again, that’s just a simple example of the how of deliberately looking for those difficult conversations, but doing it in such a way that you can use it for good to actually improve an idea or to come up with something new.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s a really interesting one. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of having somebody not looking and how that affects the kind of feedback that you get and the way it feels. So I know you also do a lot of pointing out to examples in the book. Do you have a favorite example that you’d like to share when you’re talking about how to use tension effectively?
Marc Abraham: I was going to say, ask me for an example where you don’t use effectively, those are my favorites. No, I think my example, and I’m trying to think of a good one that I cover in the book. But I talk a lot about kind of influencing without authority where by default you’ve got those tensions because you’re dealing, again, we talked about mind matter moves. You’ve got all those tensions in the mix and you’re dealing with people who embody those tensions.
So for instance I talk about how I work with engineers and how I really upset them. Because I started yelling at them because we were trying to throw each other on your bus, didn’t work. But then when I started learning and applying that idea of how do I build a relationship with people who don’t do the same thing as I do, I have maybe very different interests and different ways of working different views of the world.
I don’t have any authority over them because those engineers, for instance, they don’t report into me, but how can I build a relationship with them? And what I’ve learned there and what I’ve seen working well, is that with those engineers we didn’t get better relationship because I was just trying to be their best friend all the time and made them cups of tea and stuff. That’s not what I’m saying when I talk about influencing without authority or building relationships, but much more understanding what makes them tick.
And what I like about that influencing without authority model that I cover in the book is that there are certain elements that make people tick. Some people really care about a vision and being inspired by bigger purpose, right? We all notice people, but equally, I’m sure we all work with people who don’t really care about that stuff, but they’re very task oriented and that gives them energy if they can just complete a particular project or get an outcome after two week sprint. So understanding that and spending the time, again, it comes back to what I said earlier about the empathy side of things and listening and building relationships that way has really helped me, again, particularly in that case where first of all had fallen out with the engineers big time and then obviously had spent some time to repair that relationship.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So I think it’s interesting coming from different backgrounds. Some of us have the the experience of the falling out with the engineers or the tension between them and some of us have the experience of maybe emphasizing too much and being not pushing back or providing tension where there should be tension. I think both of those things happen. One of the things that I’m also curious about and that… This’ll be sort of my last question and then we can move on to any final thoughts from you. But I think that one of the topics that I saw later on in the book was about ritual dissent. And I’m curious to hear more about that, what does that mean?
Marc Abraham: In principle ritual dissent is that approach to dissent is just something that you do on a regular basis, almost deliberately seeking a position position where you challenge, or we take the position of a critic or a competitor.
Again, the exercise that I described before, where you stand with your back to the audience is an example of that, right? But what it is for me is that the idea that descent becomes a ritual, is something that you go through regularly and sometimes maybe somewhat artificially even create. Because again, I’ve seen a bit you were alluding to just now, I’ve worked in teams or organization where it was dissent all the time, but not very useful and that’s the very unhealthy tension I would argue. Or it was all fantastic one happy family and it was all great until something went wrong and then it was all doom and gloom.
And what I like about the idea of racial dissent, and again, you’ve got lots of different ways of doing this. I gave the example of that workshop where you don’t face your audience. There are things they’re called red teaming exercises where I don’t know if you’ve heard of those, but the other person or group is the red team. So they’re competitors and they’re going to make the competitor moves, that they think the competitor will make. And you have a bit of a, not a bad tool, but you start countering that. Right. But what you’re doing is you’re playing out that dissent, but in a slightly safer and more normal kind of way. Right?
Because like I said, I think it’s easy. Some people love the dissent and they don’t need any of these exercises and they feel also, and maybe not only that they love it, but they feel that it’s got a relationship and the trust that whenever they dissent or the challenge or they push back, they know that the other person or the people are not going to have a problem with that. Because they know each other, they trust each other, but it’s much harder to do that if you don’t have that kind of environment where it’s much more consensual or people a bit more fragile or a bit nervous about challenging, especially when hierarchies involved.
So what kind of things can we do to make that become more of a ritual? So it’s not even a thing to challenge your boss when he or she has an idea and you think, that’s no great from a competitive point of view or from a feasibility point of view and that’s all it is really.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Awesome. I think I really like sort of there’s a balancing of different tensions in the exercises and toolkit that you share as well, that you’ve got some for people who need help with dissenting and others, for people who need help with empathizing and so many more things as well.
So what is your favorite advice for people who are maybe mid career in product management who are maybe I don’t know about you, but I certainly talk to people who are mid-career, who are not sure if they want to stay, if they want to stay in this discipline. And often it comes from discomfort with tension. Is that something that you have favorite advice for.
Marc Abraham: The the advice I would give there is to really investigate why that is because it is very easy and you don’t have to be mid career to feel that, that tension is just overwhelming, you’re thinking, is it really worth it? I had yet another difficult stakeholder meeting or my product flopped, or we didn’t get it over the line. Whatever is, I don’t think that goes away. And I think that’s a key point in my book, that tension is always going to be there, whether you’re mid career or junior career, or a bit further down in your career.
It manifests itself differently. So the advice I would give is to really take a step back. That’s my favorite advice. That’s not only from a career perspective, but also when you’re in the moment and you feel everything is getting too much or the other person is not being very nice or it’s a little difficult is to pause, to literally just take a moment.
And again, especially if you want to look at it from a career perspective do every want to be a product person, appreciate your pause might be a bit longer, because you might want to look at pros and cons. Is this really worth it? Are these tensions, can I manage them through that way? The fun and the exciting aspect of being a product person, that’s a longer pause, but even in a moment when and again, we all have those moments when you feel it’s getting too much, take that step back. Don’t do anything drastic. Just take a moment, what’s happening here. Where’s the other person coming from? How can I influence this? Can I influence this? How can I manage myself first before I manage what’s happening around me? But that’s, again, the poses is key for me there. So the pause and the moments of reflection that it brings.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So it has been really great to talk to you today. How can people find you if they want to learn more?
Marc Abraham: Couple of places, I guess the usual places I’m on LinkedIn. You can find me Marc Abraham, Marc with a C that’s quite critical, same from our website, which is Marcabraham.com, and I’m on Twitter as MAA1.
Holly Hester-Reilly: All right. Great. Well, thank you so much. It was fantastic to have this conversation with you and I’m sure our listeners will gain a lot from it.
Marc Abraham: Thank you for having me. It was a blast. Really enjoyed it.
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