NOTE: The following is a guest post from Prabhakar Gopalan. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.
“Empathy is probably the single most important difference between a good hacker and a great one.”
The ability to see things for the perspective of others (i.e. have empathy) is as critical for engineers as it is for product management. And the ability to truly listen to others is all you need to have empathy.
Here are three steps to improve empathy in your company and your product management process:
1) Stop setting strategy at the top
Many executives love setting strategy from the boardroom. The problem with this top down approach is that they are removed from the actual innovators. This results in:
- poor buy-in from people who actually work on the product
- poor execution as a consequence of the poor buy-in
- low innovation because innovators are unmotivated and uninspired.
In The Future of Management, Gary Hamel talks about how Eric Schmidt at Google commits time, collaborates across the board with employees, and uses a consultative decision making process – all ingredients for empathy driven product strategy. The results are there for all of us to see.
2) Discard organizational hierarchies
In Step 1 above, you bring the right people together. Step 2 is about leaving the titles outside the door before you attend meetings. Great ideas typically don’t get heard because of
a) top down model
b) organizational design that doesn’t promote constructive arguments and dissent.
Observe how top management consulting firms handle this problem. They keep the organizational hierarchies flat, and promote active dissent. The best idea wins, not the biggest title in the room. When you start viewing your colleagues as intellectual peers, you listen to them more.
3) Stop being a professional apologist
The usual apology for not shipping is: “We are working on it. It is in the roadmap. But there’s no commitment right now on when it will be released.” How long should your captive customer accept this? Where is empathy for that customer?
Situations like the above happen because managers often pay lip service year after year, release after release to addressing what customers want. They get caught in the unending battle of tradeoffs between requirement prioritization and resource availability for the next product release.
Think of creative ways to solve this problem, arguably the toughest. A relentless pursuit to find what’s going to stop you from shipping should be the leitmotif (i.e. recurring theme) in the product planning process. Startups are especially good at solving this – at least the successful ones are. They work only on the fundamental problem of the user, in small teams, with limited resources and yet produce magic.
A resource like Seth Godin’s Ship It, which is a workbook for listing all the hurdles that prevent you from shipping and what you can do to turn it around, can be an excellent tool in the product planning process.
The bottom line is this – get the right people involved to define strategy, and not just a few at the top of the organizational pyramid. Once you have the right people, encourage dissent and argument and build a consensus for selecting the best ideas. Finally, don’t forget who you are building the product for – it’s the customer.