Being an Agent of Change

Being an Agent of Change

One of the most important parts of being a Product Manager is becoming an agent of change in your organization.  Unless by some absolute miracle you’re working for a company that has everything figured out, has no conflicts at all, and is able to go from theory to strategy to tactics to release smoothly every single time, you will need to learn to spearhead change in your organization.

And being an agent of change is a scary thing – you’re asking people to follow you into the unknown, to take your research and your knowledge and your experience as the stepping stones to a better future.  You’re putting your personal and professional reputation on the line, in the hope that the light that you see at the end of the tunnel is not a train heading in your direction.

It’s scary — but it’s also what separates a great Product Manager from merely a good one.

Product Manager, Know Thyself

The most important part of being an agent of change in your organization is to assess your own strengths and weaknesses, and to assess what existing tools and relationships you have to rely on in your attempts to drive change.  This requires a level of self-realization that is scary for many people, but it’s absolutely essential so that you don’t wind up over-extending yourself inadvertently and causing your entire vision to collapse simply because you relied on the wrong person, or because you said the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Knowing who you are as a PM, where your role fits in the larger universe of the company, and who you can 100% count on to have your back will all be necessary bits and pieces as you move forward to drive the change that you want to see.  This will also give you insight into those areas that you may wish to “shore up” before you plunge headlong into changing the way your company does things.  Maybe there’s a rocky relationship with a key stakeholder who would be the ideal champion for your proposal?  If so, take some time to repair that relationship before you move forward.

The future belongs to the brave but not to the foolish — it’s important that you can tell the difference between the two.

Know Why You Want to Change

It’s often the case that we can clearly articulate what it is that we want to change, and where we see that change leading.  It’s less common that you find someone who can clearly articulate why the current way of doing business is broken or in need of attention.  People (and the businesses they create) are largely creatures of habit — if something isn’t actually causing them acute pain, they are likely to avoid changing things “unnecessarily.”  To combat this predisposition for the status quo, you need to start collecting as much data and objective observations about what you want to change as humanly possible.  But that’s not enough — then you need to examine this data and figure out how it represents a clear and present danger to every single possible stakeholder.  You need to come to bear with as much armament as possible to demonstrate not only that the process or practice should change, but that it simply must change, or Hell itself will crash through the floor and destroy everything in its path.

Okay, maybe not quite that melodramatic, but you get the picture.

People are resistant to change until they realize it’s necessary to relieve some pain — it’s your job to discover that pain.

Create a Shared Vision

While it’s important to know where you want to direct some change in your organization, it’s literally impossible to force that vision on others if you’re in a traditional Product Management role.  Which means that it’s your duty to not simply evangelize the pains that you have uncovered, nor the solutions that you believe will work, nor the envisioned future in which everything is sunshine and roses and rainbows and unicorns.  Rather, it’s your duty to take the vision that you have, the solution that you have, and the problems that you know about, and to relate those to your stakeholders in a way that allows them to make them their own, to mold and adapt them until they fit in with their particular view of the world.  Necessarily, this means that your pristine vision and straight-forward plan will gain a little bit of rust and some tangential directions.  And that’s okay.  It’s far more important to have a group of stakeholders who have internalized your goals and your vision than it is for your vision to be the One True Way to success.  Once a direction is internalized, and once your supporting teams have adopted your goals and vision as their own, you can leverage that emotional connection in driving change forward and fundamentally altering nearly anything that your company does.

Having a “pristine” vision is not nearly as important as having supporting teams who have internalized you goals and adapted them for their own interests.

Find Opportunities to Prove Success

You cannot create change through a death march.  There is no scenario whatsoever in which a 12-month plan for changing fundamental business practices succeeds in anything other than wasting everyone’s time and energy, and destroys everyone’s morale and trust in the process.  We’ve all seen these efforts before – the war-weary result of analysis paralysis; the glazed looks on the eyes of the people who have been in the exact same meeting every week for the past three months; the constant echo of the promise that “it will all get better soon.”  Don’t do this, just don’t do it.  Rather, for whatever form of change you’re looking to impose on the business, identify the smallest, most self-contained particle of work that you can do using the new process, and do it.  Show that it works.  Figure out what needs to be polished up, then repeat it on a larger project.  And show that that works.  Then polish it up again and take on something bigger.  Wash, rinse, and repeat — and I can guarantee that with every single success that you show, more people will fall behind your efforts to change things.

Nobody wants to back something they’re unsure of.  The more you can show that your solution works, the better the odds you’ll find growing support for change.

Be Willing to Fail

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that not every effort at change actually results in positive outcomes.  Sometimes, for all of our good intentions, and despite all of the objective data and hard work, the end result is less effective, more painful, or all around worse than the original state.  When this happens, the key to “saving face” is not to point fingers, to blame others, or to collapse into a pile of despair.  Rather, it’s to accept that you weren’t able to achieve your goals and to carefully examine what you did, how you did it, and where everything went wrong.  Do your own root-cause analysis, even if nobody else is interested, so that you can understand where to improve next time.  Were there unstated assumptions that could have been fleshed out more?  Were there people you relied on who wound up blocking more than they helped?  Were there entirely unpredictable factors that came into being while the process was underway — and did you account and adjust for them as they arose?  Treat your change efforts as you would any other project — understand not only the what but the why as well.  Being able to critically assess your efforts and be honest with yourself if not the entire organization, will permit you to feel more comfortable and confident the next time you see a change that needs to be made.

Not every change you want to make will be successful, but what you learn from your failures will only make your successes that much sweeter.

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