Do not be afraid to argue

If you want to be a bad product manager, avoid confrontation with colleagues. You need to get along with your colleagues, and when a disagreement comes up, try to find a way around it as quickly as possible. Sometimes it’s just better to give in than to try and do what you think is right. Find the easy way out and if things start to get heated, immediately take a break or remove yourself from the situation. You’re not going to be able to design good products if you have team members always disagreeing with each other.

If you want to be a good product manager, encourage healthy discussion, disagreement, and even arguments that can help make the product better. Confrontation is inevitable, and trying to avoid it is unhealthy and unproductive. A product development team without differing opinions is not exploring the full range of possibilities. Pretend that differences of opinion do not exist and not letting people express them will lead to frustration, alienation, and eventually even more conflict.

The key to productive and “healthy” arguments is to keep them focused on the specific problem or issue. Gopal Shenoy writes that one of the 11 things he has learned in the last 11 years is to “Have technical and business arguments with colleagues as long as none of it turns personal”:

Make sure that all perspectives are considered when devising the best possible solution for a customer’s problem. Have heated technical/business debates if you want, but never ever make any of these arguments/disagreements personal. When you have these disagreements and then make a decision, you at least know that you have considered all possible solutions and picked the one that is the best. After all, the customer does not care whose idea it was … Either all of us are going to look like heroes or a bunch of idiots. Which would you rather be?

If arguments start straying down a personal or other unrelated path, stop the discussion and frame the issue. What is the problem that we are trying to solve? Is the problem caused by other underlying issues? What are the different alternatives? What are the pros and cons to each of the alternatives? Is there any information that you do not currently have which could inform one of the perspectives?

Keep everyone — including yourself — focused on the main issue and what would be best for the customer and in turn what would be best for the business, and you will find that you will encourage discussion that is more worthwhile and productive for everyone involved.

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10 thoughts on “Do not be afraid to argue

  1. A good topic Jeff – a question every product manager needs to ask themselves is – “do I want to be liked or do I want to be respected”.

  2. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. If arguments remain professional and informed, there’s no reason that it must lead to dislike. There’s a number of colleagues I can think of whom I like and respect, yet whom I disagree with on a regular basis. I respect their viewpoints, and I’m glad they express them, I just have different ones.

    Good product managers I think can walk that fine line and be both liked and respected, but it is a challenging role to fill.

  3. I’ve found that approaching these situations as debates rather than arguments (loaded word) works well. If you are a PM and you can’t have a healthy open debate with your team you are doomed to fail.

    A few other thoughts:

    – Make sure you use excellent data to back up your arguments wherever possible.

    – Don’t try to win by pushing bogus non-credible arguments. You’ll find that next time no one will even be willing to debate you.

    – If someone else tries to use a personal attack to win the argument call them on it publicly. 🙂

    Brian Lawley
    Product Management 2.0

  4. I am a new Product Manager and just discovered this site. I want to thank all the contributors to this site because I am learning a lot by your comments. I will continue to visit this site as a new resource.

  5. Hi Kieth,

    If your a new PM then this will be a great site for you to pick up lots of tips – it contain the type of stuff that you cann’t pick up by doing an MBA. It’s codified tacit product manager knowledge – in other words only the stuff you pick up by doing the job on a daily basis.

  6. I am a relatively new Product Manager for a healthcare company. I didn’t have a proper handover from the previous PM nor a training for the new products I am looking after. Since I am looking after myself, I really appreciate the information on this website. Hopefully in the near future I shall offer some of my expertise.

  7. Jeff, great article. I’m new to scrum, but used agile principals for some time.

    “Sometimes it’s just better to give in than to try and do what you think is right” is something I’m going to adopt a little more.

    I love what I do, but sometimes that passion gets in the way of relationships with other team members and their suggestions – right or wrong.

    I’m very open for trying new ideas, as long as they can be backed up with a good business benefit.

    As the “team” is in control, what methods do you use to divert the collective from (what you perceive) making a bad decision?

  8. Thanks for the comments, Matt. Even in Agile/SCRUM or other areas where you have a self-managed team, the “team” isn’t in control of everything. Certain members of the team have more say in some areas than others, and that’s to be expected. (I just wrote about this in my post, Product development is not a democracy.) You as product manager are responsible for decisions around what the product should do, and other people are responsible for how the product should do that.

    If/when you think the team is heading towards making a bad decision, ask yourself why it’s a bad decision. Is it just because you think something else would work better, or because the decision will produce a result that goes against requirements, goals, or objectives? For example, if engineering prefers to use one technology over another, I don’t really care as long as the technology they choose meets the agreed-upon objectives (e.g. response time, capacity, forward compatibility, etc.).

    As I wrote above, framing the issue and the discussion around the objectives and what is best for the market/customer/business usually can help get the discussion on track and focused on coming up with the right solution.

  9. I am not sure where you have worked, but it is clear that you haven’t worked at any of the companies that I worked at – which include everything from high tech industry leaders in to small startups and everything in between.

    As someone who recently left a product management role because of exactly what you advocate, unless everyone from the organization you work with from the C-level down acknowledges that discussion of ideas is valid (confrontation as you call it), then the only thing you will be given is a one-way ticket out the door.

    I was the third in a string of product managers who was hired due to domain expertise, but once I joined the firm, it was clear that they did not want subject matter expertise but a yes man who listened in horror as the only sales rep beamed with pride that he could only make two sales of this so called product when others in the same space were selling easily 50 times that with less need for customization, support and maintenance, marketing spouting gibberish masqueraded as product knowledge and consultants who gleefully watched the product die a slow painful death.

    When I had my exit interview, I was berated by both the CEO and VP of Sales, wondering what gave me the right to question their prized application – the one that they can’t sell double digits of and those who do buy it dump it unceremoniously after discovering that they can build something themselves for a lot less money.

    After all, they were around a lot longer than me and they knew more — but they seemed to forget the products I defined, managed and marketed in one QUARTER easily eclipsed their annual income for the past 8 years.

    It was a sight to be seen — watching a bunch of self-righteous fools tell me that I had to ‘prove myself’ but they did to me like they did to my predecessors — they pushed them off the cliff laughing their merry way while their competition continues to eat away at their livelihood.

    It would not surprise me in the coming year or two that this company goes under – and it’s unfortunate because in general they are good people — but they don’t allow confrontation or dissent… much like many of the companies out there…

    Show me a place where you can do what you said above and I’ll submit my resume.

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