Navigating Disagreements When It Comes to Priorities
9 May, 2022
When Stakeholders Disagree on Priorities
In any professional environment, disagreements can happen every so often. It's natural to have different perspectives on how to build a product, or simply make any decision in general. But when team members don't trust your ability to prioritize, it becomes a problem that can snowball into conflict.
Sometimes, people higher up the ladder, such as owners, founders, and CEOs, can base their priorities on a “gut feeling.” On the other side there might be people who favor data-driven approaches. This can lead to clashing opinions. In my experience, such disagreements often arise between product managers and, for instance, more senior commercial reps. They can also occur between between any coworking, or product and engineering teams.
Throughout my career, I’ve met a lot of people in product-related positions describe the same problem: their CEO insisted on a feature that wasn’t a priority. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Another common scenario is when sales people request a feature that nobody else wants, but it seems to be the top priority in their region.
The vast majority of product people that I speak with are very familiar with at least one of these situations. And their attempts to discuss these ideas were often misinterpreted as arguments. In these situations, it helps if you’re experienced and have decent verbal communication skills. But if you're relatively new in the product division, it can be challenging to justify the way you work. When your priorities are questioned, do your best to understand the other person’s perspective.
Resolving Disagreements About Prioritization
First of all, keep in mind that there are going to be instances where people will come to you and ask, "Why aren't we doing this?" Especially if there isn't a transparent, math-driven prioritisation available to them (which often isn’t the case, even though we all read about RICE prioritisations, kano models, and so on—and even then, people can question the drivers).
My advice is: accept that these questions will come. In this situation, the most inefficient thing you can do is dismiss their question. Even if it might seem like the easy way out, this will often have a boomerang effect— meaning that they'll keep pondering that question and, eventually, ask again.
On a similar note, remember that people can have different ideas in terms of prioritization. But these differences don’t need to turn into conflict. Always ask this question: What if they know something I don't?
DISCUSS THE DIFFERENT POSSIBILITIES
When someone disagrees with you about what to prioritize, keep in mind that you can't just resolve this with a framework or a model. The most important thing is to understand the reason behind that person's thinking. So hear them out. Why do they believe that some problems or features are more important, or why do they think that there's a better way to build something?
For example, when someone disagrees with my roadmap, I invite them to a 1-hour meeting where I encourage them to share their ideas on how to build better. Then, I can synthesize these ideas and filter them through my own expertise. Together, we can identify some drivers that allow us to compare our priorities. Drivers such as:
- What impact will this have on our company goals in terms of OKRs?
- How many companies do we expect will use it?
- Why it differs from other regions, segments, or people?
- What roles are needed for success?
- How will companies use this feature?
- What impact will this have on companies?
- How much effort will this require?
- Is it feasible?
If a team member comes to you with a suggestion, let them try it out. In my experience, learning-by-doing is the best way to learn. It's far more effective than listening to someone else talk.
For instance, if I didn't agree on the way something was being built, I'd want the PM to let me test my proposed method, rather than just saying "no." Am I overly indulgent? You may not prefer to do things this way, but remember that sometimes people simply can't imagine what goes behind building a feature. They may say, “Hey, it's just a button, how come it’s taking so much time?”
Therefore, giving the freedom to test out a suggestion becomes a very valuable learning experience. Your teammate can see the process for themself and understand why the alternative might be a better fit.
ESTABLISH A FRAMEWORK FOR PRIORITIZATION
What I always find helpful is having a very transparent framework of prioritization. Make sure that your team can see what the PMs will build next, what research will follow, and what drivers are in place. Moreover, involve other leaders in your prioritization decisions. Consult with other departments. This unifies the departments on decision-making. That way, the product department isn't the sole target when dealing with questions. Remember that it's not about “the right framework”—although I highly suggest that you should know the prioritization frameworks well)—rather, it's about opennes and establishing a system together.
Resolving Disagreements About Priorities
- Communication is vital. When someone suggests going a different direction with a product, take the time to understand where they're coming from. Discuss both points of view and weigh the potential outcomes by going over some drivers.
- Give your team members the chance to test out their suggestions. This is the best way to facilitate learning. Once they realize why something may or may not work, they will become your ambassadors and defend your roadmap.
- Build a prioritization framework or system that invites others into the process. Establish transparency. People who are part of one company should have shared goals; one department's decisions shouldn't come as a surprise to others.
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