I Have an Idea I’d Like to Discuss

Someone explaining an idea to a people around a table

You know that I often preach about the need to have a well established north star and a product strategy in order to combat chaos. It’s even better if you have the full pyramid established (as described here) – because things will become much easier for you managing the day-2-day.

Most PMs that I mentor find this framework very useful in helping them achieve their goals. In fact – with a little help from my side – finding a proper north star for their company (following the guidelines here) and defining a product strategy that makes sense (following the outline here) – seems to be a relatively fair challenge. Not too easy, but not too challenging either.

What most of them are struggling with, however, is getting the buy-in of the executive team for the north star and the strategy.

 

What does it mean to get the buy-in of the executive team for those?

When the executive team (and mainly the CEO) are sold on the north star you suggested and the strategy which supports it, it means that they agree that this KPI is the best indication of whether the company is going in the right direction and that your strategic plan is probably the best way to lift it up as fast as possible.

 

Why is it important to get their buy-in for that?

When the executive team is truly sold on your north star and strategy – then an alignment is formed between all departments (business, product and engineering) as for what’s important to promote and what’s not. This is the type of alignment you’d like to seek in any organization because it’s very powerful and it will make the overall decision process much smoother.

When they are not sold on this, however, your plans are not very effective and you should expect a little change, as making a strategic change across the board requires their support.

I already covered it in depth here.

 

What’s so challenging in getting their buy-in?

Well – it’s not always a challenge. It depends mainly on the personas involved, and their internal beliefs as for how a business needs to operate. Your seniority within the company is also a decision factor when the executives consider your suggestions.

For example – a senior product manager will probably have to take a longer route for getting the buy-in of the senior management than a product director or the VP of product.

Seniority is just one thing. It could be that the people in your company are open and less formal than usual and yet you may still find it challenging to convince them. Why this KPI and not another one? Why is working according to this framework better than what we’re doing now? Why commit to one main KPI when we can follow 3 or 4?

Those are great questions and need to be prepared to answer them.

 

Even if they do get it and agree to the thesis – sometimes the amount of energy required from the executive team to formally adopt such a north star and create a discipline around it is simply too much. They prefer to put their energy somewhere else, even if it means that the company is working in a less effective manner than it could be. Don’t underestimate the preference of people to stay within their comfort zone.

 

Lastly – many managers, as I found out, are simply scared to commit to one main KPI. They prefer to be flexible and opportunistic. Such managers may decide to chase a deal just because it may bring a lot of revenue, even though it’s not necessarily aligned with the company’s vision or strategy.

I find this fear of commitment to be one of the main obstacles for adopting this framework.

 

Ok. So how do I get the buy-in of the company’s leadership?

For the sake of this discussion I assume you did the necessary work to come up with a north star that meets all criteria and your product strategy is solid.

You are probably highly motivated and you want to inform the world that you’ve figured it out. I understand. But wait – you’ll need to play it slow and smart.

You see – if, after all your efforts, the CEO/GM decides that he/she doesn’t ‘bite’ and they don’t wish to adopt your north star, or the whole framework – then it’d be much more challenging to make them change their minds later on. Therefore, you need to assume you have only one attempt at this (this is not necessarily true, but you’ll need to work under this working assumption).

 

The key to success is… politics.

Wait… if you are like me and detest office politics (or politics in general) – you need to understand that there is ‘good politics’ and ‘bad politics’. They work the exact same way – by convincing people to do what you want in various means. However, when your political stunts are aimed purely to make the company better, and not to promote your personal interests – then it’s ‘good politics’. If you’re doing it mainly to build yourself a name, to hurt the status of a specific person, or where the end result is not necessarily for the benefit of the company – then it’s bad politics.

In our case – you are trying to convince the decision makers that they should adopt a specific KPI (or the whole framework) – because you’re truly convinced that the company will be in a much better place if they adopt your plan.

Your heart is in the right place – so listen carefully – this is what you need to do:

Climb the ladder

If you’re not the most senior product person in your company – then you’ll need to climb the ladder, one step at a time.

Go to your boss, explain to your manager the big scheme and why it should help in eliminating the chaos and make prioritization of features much easier. Explain to them how each layer of the pyramid frames and aligns the layer below it and why everything will start making more sense.

Explain to them why the north star was chosen the way it is, how it serves as a good indication for future revenues, how it correlates to growing your market share and how it proves that you are delivering true value to your users/customers (if it goes up, of course).

If your boss still hesitates – ask him/her to give it a chance. What is there to lose? Currently things are not working very effectively, and you believe it will make things far more effective.

Now – it’d be best if you make your boss a true believer, but even if they just agree to allow you to present your plan to the next level in hierarchy – then you can consider it a win.

Learn from the feedback you received during this session and adapt accordingly. If your boss is a true believer, ask them to join you when you’re presenting to their manager. They can really help you. However, if they are hesitant – try to take it on your own (of course, if your boss wants to be there – there is nothing you can do to prevent them from joining).

 

Repeat this until you went through the whole chain. Recall – all you need is for your managers to give it a real chance. Let’s say – one quarter – and see how it goes.

 

Meeting the top executives

After you have convinced all relevant product people in your company (or business unit, depending on the size) – it’s time to identify the other people that whisper in the ears of the CEO/GM. Try to identify the top 2 people. Set a meeting with them, and present them with your plan.

Again, it could be that the head of product (CPO, VP product or whatever) would want to join you to such a meeting. You can’t resist if they ask, but you don’t need to ask their permission if you got their blessing and still you don’t believe their presence will be helpful.

Needless to say that by this stage you already practiced enough and perfected your pitch. For each of those personas, though, you need to be prepared for the question in the form of ‘what does it mean to me and my group?

This is a very important question and you need to know the answer for it prior to the meeting.

For sales, for example, adopting the north star means they should align the incentives for the sales people according to the deals that will push the north star the fastest way up.

For example – if your north star is ‘weekly active users’ – then the salesperson need to understand that it’s nice that they sold 40 licenses to a single company – but if only 20 of them will actually be using the system eventually – then the deal is less valuable than a deal which includes only 30 licenses, but where all the users are engaged with your system. Thus, when evaluating two potential deals – they need to favor the one where the target crowd fits better to the product.

Of course – sales people are working according to incentives, so the incentives need to be aligned accordingly by the head of sales.

If you’ll be talking with the head of engineering – then aligning with the north star means they need to prioritize tech debt items, for example, that will help promote it. Getting the head of engineering buy-in for your north star will also help significantly with explaining the rationale behind your decisions. You’ll be much less challenged.

 

Meeting the CEO/GM

Once they agree to your plan, or, again – agree to give it a chance – set a meeting with the CEO or the general manager. Most likely, that your boss, his/her manager or both of them would like to attend as well. They don’t want you to embarrass yourself or them. If they are doing their job properly – they will rehearse with you or at least make sure you’re prepared. It’s their name on the line now as well.

Meet the CEO/GM. Provide an overview of what you’re trying to do, and as soon as it makes sense in your presentation – tell her/him that the top executives have already agreed to the plan. This will provide you with the credibility needed to complete your presentation with the minimum resistance.

Explain to the CEO that the plan is useless with a lack of discipline and commitment from their side. The north star and the product strategy need to cascade to all departments.

Like any of your other meetings – you may be challenged, and the CEO or general manager will definitely want to understand what it means on the day-2-day, how it affects the roadmap and the quarterly planning. Most likely you will also be asked about the impact on the ARR. By now you should have ready-made answers to that and the bottom line of these answers is that things will work much more smoothly, and the ARR is guaranteed to be on the rise if the north star is on the rise as well.

You see – politics is about knowing the results of a vote before it has taken place. If you met the right people, in the right order and got everyone’s buy-in – then the meeting with the CEO/GM should be much easier with high probability to end the way you want it – with their commitment to at least give your plan a fair chance for the minimum of one quarter.

 

The dangers of not working according to the plan

If you rush to meet the decision makers before you are fully prepared and/or didn’t work in the right order – things can go very quickly the wrong way:

  1. People may get offended that they weren’t consulted before.
  2. People may object because it sounds too risky for them to be the first ones to make a decision
  3. People may object because they don’t know you and there is no one vouching for you.

 

And once people object – it’d be much harder to make them change their mind. With one or more key people objecting – the chances of the CEO/GM agreeing to your plan are much lower. Even if the CEO/GM is willing to bet on you despite the objections of their peers – it may not be good for you, because you might make some enemies.

Yes.. politics sucks. So you need to be super smart and do it right.

 

Wrapping up

By now you understand the real challenges of setting up a north star and a product strategy for your company. Coming up with the right KPI and the right plan is only about 30% of the work. The rest is a combination of politics & proper communication.

If you are near the top of the hierarchy in your company – then things should be much easier, assuming you did proper preparations and your plan is solid.

However, if you are ‘just’ a senior PM, or a junior product leader – the challenges are real and risks exist. It might make you wonder whether it’s the right thing to do for someone in your position.

In that case – I’d like to encourage you.

If you are experiencing chaos in your day-2-day, if you are feeling that your company is working with no clear plan or goals, or if it seems like the business decisions are inconsistent or arbitrary – you have the power to change it.

Never underestimate your power to make a positive change.

All you need to make this change is:

  1. A solid plan that can be defended when challenged
  2. Proper preparations in terms of presenting your plan
  3. To walk with your eyes open. Don’t be naive and never underestimate the power of ego.

 

I can’t guarantee that you will be successful. I have seen companies which are a lost cause (but in that case – would you like to keep working in such a place?). If you sense that things aren’t going the right way – take immediately a step back. Remember – don’t rush it and it’s ok to abort it or put it on hold until the general vibe will become more positive.

If you believe your boss can be an ally in your journey – even just as an advisor – use them.

However, if you do manage to pull it off – the benefits are great. Here are some of them:

  1. Your company will be much more efficient now, with alignment across the board
  2. Your company will work towards the proper business goals that will take it in the right direction
  3. Your personal day-2-day will be much easier, with less struggles and overall will make much more sense
  4. You made some powerful allies and you built yourself a name (even though this shouldn’t be your motivation for embarking on this journey)

 

I’ve mentored enough PMs who managed to pull this off and they are much happier now. I also mentored PMs who faced too many objections and we decided the right decision is to step back. Eventually they left the companies they were in. Not because they made enemies or were disrespected. On the contrary – even though they weren’t successful in their attempt – they were highly appreciated for this by their peers and managers. They eventually left because working in a chaos that doesn’t make sense….. doesn’t make sense (they are much happier where they are now).

 

That’s it for today!

If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

 

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