As I wrote recently, a lot of what Product Managers do is make decisions that impact the business. Given the nature of these decisions, it’s important to define a method that helps facilitate these decisions and get buy-in from all parties as clearly and effectively as possible.
At my current company, we have a simple, but very useful means of facilitating discussions and moving them forward to closure. The mechanism revolves around the use of 5 terms:
As we all know, decisions can be made and reached in many ways. One of the key requirements of most decisions is to ensure that the parties impacted by those decisions buy-in to them. For example, pricing and licensing changes will impact the sales team and they need to know about them well before they are implemented. Product changes are another obvious place where decisions have significant cross-team impact.
While it is possible for a Product Manager to make these kinds of decisions in isolation and then communicate those decisions out to the affected parties, it’s not likely that those parties will always agree with the decisions nor will they view you — the Product Manager — as someone who they particularly want to work with.
The best approach is to solicit input from whomever you need, involve those internal teams who are most impacted in the process and then when decisions are made, ensure those parties buy-in to those decisions.
This is where the terms above come in. First let me define “proposal” and “declaration”.
A proposal is any plan or idea that is the topic of discussion and that needs a decision made on it by a group. Note that for Product Managers, this would usually be in the context of a cross functional team, that would include representatives of other teams such as sales, marketing, engineering etc.
A proposal can be a formal detailed idea presented via a document or slide deck, or it could be simply a topic of discussion raised at a meeting. By using the word “proposal” and language such as “I propose …“, the message to the audience is clear: this is a topic that is meant for discussion and on which a common decision needs to be reached. i.e. need to get buy-in from other teams or individuals.
A declaration is essentially a statement or defacto decision made by someone with the authority to do so. While it is good to get consensus or a mutually derived decision, that is not always possible. In some cases, when a decision cannot be reached by the team, or to put some boundaries on a proposal, someone with positional authority can declare what the decision is, or that certain limits are in place for the context of the discussion or decision.
For example, a CEO or a business unit manager could say something like:
I’m declaring that any pricing changes must be made at least 45 days before the end of a quarter.
While it may sound a bit formal to say it that way, it sends a very clear message as to the importance of what is being conveyed.
Declarations are not used that often — managing by positional authority has it’s limits — but when they are used, people take note. There is usually little debate around declarations, unless the person making the declaration has exceeded their bounds of authority.
Now, let’s get into agreement and alignment.
Agreement is a binary action. Either one fully agrees with a proposal or they don’t. In most cases, it is very difficult to get 100% agreement on all aspects of a proposal. What happens often when people try to reach full agreement on a proposal is that the discussion devolves into very specific issues of objections and efforts to change the proposal to address those issues. A lot of time is spent arguing points back and forth and forward progress is hindered.
To work around this problem, the concept of Alignment is very useful. Alignment can be viewed as a form of general agreement or agreement in principal. One can be aligned with a proposal or not, but unlike agreement, being aligned does not mean full agreement to all aspects of the proposal.
For example, if the topic of discussion is an upcoming pricing and licensing change for a product, being aligned means agreement on the many assumptions or aspects of the change, but not every one of the details.
For example, one could say:
I’m in alignment with the timing of the changes, but not with the proposed percentages of the price increase.
Now at this point, how do you proceed? In this model, it’s not sufficient to simply disagree with a proposal or not be aligned. You need to make a counter proposal to continue to move the process forward. e.g. in the example above, the speaker would need to propose alternative percentages for the price increase, and ideally support their reasoning for those specific percentages.
Scale is used to make a discussion more general or more specific. When trying to reach alignment, it can be easier to scale up — make the context more general — reach alignment there, and then scale down — move to more specific issues — and then try to reach alignment on those.
Some people will explicitly use the word “scale” in their statements. For example:
On the scale of the entire company, I can see why this proposal makes sense, but on the scale of our team, it has problems.
Other people will imply a change in scale in their statements but not use the word explicitly. Think of the term “scale” as a tool that can be used to help facilitate the discussion.
One of the nice things about this type of dialog is that is requires specificity on the part of the speaker, and it encourages a positive discussion where the intent is to reach alignment. As discussions progress, the scope of the misalignment amongst the group will shrink until at some point, everyone is in alignment. At that point a decision is reached.
The objective is not the reach full agreement — that is not always possible — but to quickly zero in on the points causing misalignment amongst the group and work to resolve them. If the meeting leader asks if everyone is in alignment with a proposal, and no one explicitly states they are not, then the decision becomes final and they cannot pipe up later that they are not aligned with the decision. Yes, there may be some small areas of disagreement, but unless someone can propose an acceptable alternative, those areas are left as is.
As you read this, you might wonder what I’m smoking. The terms may sound artificial or overly formal. I thought that at first as well when I was introduced to this approach. But as we’ve used it at work, I’ve come to like it. These five terms not only define a simple, common vocabulary that we use, but the process, of repeatedly narrowing down the areas of misalignment really works.
Given how much time we spend in meetings, discussing topics and trying to reach common ground, using a common set of terms gives us a common frame of reference and thus a common toolset to move forward together.
Try it at your office and let me know what results you get.