The unavoidable essence of a Product Manager job and how to succeed as a Change Manager through the power of Narratives
As a Product Manager, there are many things that are expected of you. Being in charge of your product, developing a strategy and a roadmap for it, delivering incremental value, it is all part of your daily duty and it is well advertised.
However, one of the (many) things I haven’t realized when becoming a product manager, and that Product Management job description don’t tell you about, is that taking care of your product is not your only core responsibility. There is one additional element that is far less advertised:
Product Management is Change Management. It’s not a part of the job, it’s “The Job”. In other words, you cannot be a Product Manager if you are not a Change Manager as well.
In job descriptions, you might find this element often referred to as “stakeholder management” however this term falls incredibly short and fails to describe the disruptive nature of product management, in which we constantly redefine our product to meet a freckle and changing demand.
Customers today are sophisticated and get easily bored. Whether the average attention span is 8 or 12 seconds, we can all agree that it is increasingly difficult to keep customers engaged and happy for long. Our only chance to do that as a Product Manager is to generate continuous innovation by disrupting our own product. This is not only to generate incremental value, it is a matter of survival for both the product and the company.
There is only one problem with that: organizations are much less prone to wanting to change than your customers are.
I recently read an article on sustainable growth and a sentence really resonated with me, stating “ the essence of a successful growth strategy is that it does not leave any part of the organization behind. The resulting growth lasts and isn’t just a flash in the pan. ”
So to succeed as a Product Manager, you have to succeed as a Change Manager. It’s not an “either/or-type-of-thing”, a “nice to have”. It’s the core, the precondition of the job.
The product manager is the driver of the transformation because he/she is the link between the customers and the company, and needs to take the entire organization along the journey.
This is much more complex in large organizations than it is in start-ups, as startups operate in small, almost familiar-like teams. By contrast in large organizations, it is difficult to assess the impact that one change can have on other departments, sometimes to the extent that you are unable to asses the ramification of the impact of your actions and tracking down which teams to inform.
So how does the Product Manager become a successful Change Manager?
Change inside an organization is the result of three elements: processes, platforms, and people. As processes and platforms can nicely fall into place when addressing people’s perspectives about change, in this article we are going to start by isolating and addressing this element.
In my work as a Product Manager, I have been lucky to be involved in a large scale organizational change, one that is revolutionizing a core process to redefine the way we do business.
The first and most important lesson I learned is that change is first and foremost about Narratives. It’s all about telling stories, and the way you decide to tell those stories will ultimately end up making or breaking your product.
Putting this into perspective, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. To quote Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:
“The truly unique trait of Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities.”
Change is all about creating new realities and our ability to communicate this new, imagined reality is arguably one of the most important skills to master as Product Managers.
In order to evangelize the product vision inside an organization and induce the change needed to keep the customers happy and the product alive, I have created for myself the following step-by-step guide:
Chapter 1: Visualize (and write it down)
To envision the change you want to bring about and its ramification, you start by asking yourself the fundamental questions, in this order:
- Why is the change needed?
- What are the alternatives to the change you are proposing?
- What is the cost of not changing (a.k.a. maintain the status quo)?
- Who is it going to be impacted (both customers and inside the organization)?
- How are they going to be impacted (both customers and inside the organization)?
Write down a Communication Plan for yourself which contains the answers to all of these questions. This document can remain private or can be shared within your team, as you see fit.
The bottom line to this first point is: if you are not crystal clear on why the change is needed and how to bring it about in the first place, you are going to have a hard time selling it.
Chapter 2: Craft a new Narrative
Once you have a strategy for your product that thoroughly motivate the need for changing the current processes and/or ways of working inside an organization, as well as having mapped out the stakeholders involved, it is time to craft the story around the change. The key is in presenting new narratives that tell stories of a different, more desirable, brighter future. Humans have used their ability to tell stories to form shared beliefs upon which entire civilizations were born. Here are a few ingredients that I found out help crafting exciting stories:
- Have a Mission: Make sure your story is aligned to the higher mission and vision of the company, something that is inspiring, slightly out of reach and daring. Even better if you can further break it down and fit it in the OKR.
- Pick a “Hero”: A key element of every good story, you need to have a designated hero who champions the change. The hero in our case should be the product, the “savior” that will bring about all the benefits.
- Pick a “Villain”: The greatest motivation to change sometimes comes from having a shared enemy to fight against, which gives a reason to team up and fight. The villain in our case is the reason behind the change (e.g. change in demand and the market, increasing competition and so forth). Highlight how the hero (a.k.a. the product) can “defeat” the villain.
- Create the need by addressing fears: We are naturally wired against changes and to operate according to shortcuts to save precious energies for our brain. Change requires effort and willpower, as it puts us in an uncomfortable position to explore the unknown and form new pathways. To bring about a change, you must, therefore, create a burning need. To win resistance and generate the need for change, address directly the fears of the person/department/area you are talking with, instead of speaking in general terms, or worse, avoiding the topic out of concern for the outcome. If you are unsure regarding what is holding back your stakeholders, consider running a Triz. When fears are exposed, they often lose their momentum and relinquish their power.
- Create the need by addressing the benefits: As mentioned above, we are naturally wired toward preservation and comfort. The need for change must, therefore, come with high benefits to motivate a state of transition and possibly discomfort. Clearly emphasize the benefits the change will bring and provide KPIs to track the “hero” progress, to give a sense of accountability and responsibility.
- Have a “Supporting Cast(s)”: You have two types of supporters, the first one being the decision-makers, the “influencers” of an organization. You don’t need to convince anyone, sometimes a few influential and respected people inside the organization to win over, are the only ones that you need to bring about the desired result, as the rest usually will follow. The second type of “supporting cast” you need is data. Back up your story and the motivation to change with data. Numbers are more difficult to argue with than words.
Chapter 3: Tell a Story
Now that you have crafted your narrative and pinpointed all the elements that make it up, it is time to go about and start telling a story. Tie all the elements above in one (or more) cohesive and comprehensive document. This document might be, a Product Requirement Document (PRD), a Press Release, PowerPoint presentation or any other form of documentations you find necessary. Sometimes all of them are needed because they address different needs and different audiences. For example, a PRD alone might be too long and technical to be shared at large and the Press Release might be too short and perhaps lacking when it comes to addressing the fears of each department/area involved in the change inside the organization. Combining them or creating a document with the specific ingredients mentioned above might be a good option to tell your new story. Further things to take under consideration are:
- Provide reading guidance. Whatever might be clear and obvious in your mind, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be apparent to everyone else. By creating and sharing documents to the organization at large, I learned that many different interpretations can arise from a single sentence, sometimes from a single word, even when carefully phrased. The easiest way to avoid misinterpretations is to provide reading guidance in the form of an introduction to each section and clearly state their intended goal (and what is not the goal too).
- Make it glamorous. Change is about behaviors before it is about processes. In order to bring about behavioral change, we need to capture people’s hearts and imaginations. This is why the fashion and entertainment industries are so successful. They have this innate ability to tell compelling stories that make people escape reality and dream about new possibilities. Ever wondered why you might be absolutely convinced you need a Prada bag in your life, but getting enough sleep or giving up sugars is not at the top of your list? That’s because the Prada bag has far more PR that having 8 hours of sleep has ever had, in fact, sleeping is notoriously demonized as making us inefficient. So you see, it’s all about telling stories and most importantly is much more than just the content of your story, it’s how you “package” those stories. Make it beautiful, filled with visual images, and make it desirable, slightly unattainable, but still within reach if you stretch your arm long enough (even if this means spending an entire day making a PowerPoint presentation).
- Be the Evangelist. You are going to be the storyteller of your own story, so being prepared is important. This usually involves a fair amount of rehearsing out loud your presentation. Are you making justice to your story? Are you effectively selling the change in a compelling and motivated way? See the point above, making it glamorous, because this also applies to you as you need to “dress the part”
- Make it visible. Everywhere. Create roadmaps, hold presentations and 121 meetings. Start spreading the seed of the change, at first by telling a few people who can help you in leading the change in informal meetings. Their buy-in is crucial to winning over the rest of the organization. Once you have that, you can proceed to spread your narrative in officials, larger settings. Once the “cat is out of the bag”, so to speak, make it as visual as possible (e.g. create a physical roadmap and leave it somewhere visible for people to pass by every day). The result is that after a while your new story won’t be “new” anymore. It’s mainstream
- Divide and conquer. Contrary to popular beliefs, change (sometimes) can happen in small chunks and it doesn’t have to be a great Big Bang. Even when that is the case, you can phase out the changes in your roadmap, to make it more relatable and approachable. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, so probably won’t your product, therefore you might start with the smallest changes and make slow reveals throughout the journey.
Bringing all the elements together, we end up with the following:
And this brings us also to the end of this story. What is your own experience with change management and introducing behavioral change? What are the tools that helped you in the process? Share your experience in the comment!