Leading and Managing Product Innovation Teams [interview]

Leading and Managing TeamsI enjoyed watching Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” when it was released in 1998 and have more recently re-watched it with my kids. I was amazed at the character animation and quickly pulled into the story line when I first saw it. What I didn’t expect was the reflective advice it would provide on leadership and management, including Hopper’s statement…

“first rule of leadership – everything is your fault!”

While Hopper was far from a servant leader, his first rule is good advice about the responsibility that servant leaders should take. Of course, this is only one of many approaches to leadership, but the attitudes of servant leader do work well for those leading and managing product and innovation teams. These teams generally consist of members from functions across the organization. They are accountable to their functional manager, not a product manager. This means that leaders of product and innovation teams must use their influence, in light of having no actual authority, to motivate team members.

Consequently, product managers who often work in diverse teams need good team leadership and management skills to be successful. To explore managing teams, I interviewed a frequent keynote speaker and coach who companies invite to teach them about improving teams and their work. He is Dr. Todd Dewett, a best-selling author, popular trainer on Lynda.com, a TEDx speaker, and an Inc. Top 100 leadership speaker.  His latest book is Show Your Ink: Stories About Leadership and Life.  When you listen to the interview you will no doubt hear that he has huge enthusiasm for helping people.

In this discussion, product managers and innovators can learn:

  1. the value of feedback,
  2. leading when you have no actual authority,
  3. conflict management, and
  4. two actions for being a better team leader.

A summary of Todd’s responses to my questions is below followed by a link to the audio interview.

Let’s start with a true story of team performance.

A short one I remember has the moral that everyone needs feedback. I was working with a product manager in a technical manufacturing organization in the areas of core culture and leadership training. The product manager told me, “I’m glad you’re here, but I have to tell you, my team is humming along. We know each other, we get along, we like each other. I’m not sure some of the observations and survey work that you’re doing are really going to provide much insight, but I’m going to comply and do this for you, Todd.” Later I showed the results of my assessment and I remember this fact: everyone needs feedback. Most who need it don’t realize it or appreciate it. The feedback from his team said they appreciate his competence and respect his accomplishments, but they felt he was cold and they were aghast that he never engaged them personally. On Monday, he never said, “Hey, how was the weekend?” On Friday, he never said, “Thank you. Have a great relaxing, rejuvenating weekend.” He was blown away by the significant power of these small interpersonal issues that he didn’t even know existed. He started to relate to all those people a little bit more personally. I’m not saying that he needs to be best friends, but a little more as a human, a little less as just a professional. And according to him, it completely changed the tone of most of those relationships, and I take great pride in trying to help people wake up a little to the human side of those interactions. That’s one that struck me immediately when you asked me the question. [To hear another example, listen to the interview with Todd.]


How can we improve the performance of a product team when we have no actual authority?

My answer is that how a product manager becomes successful managing relationships isn’t in and of itself different than how a manager in accounts payable gets their team to be highly cohesive and productive. For example, reducing ambiguity, communicating clearly, giving goals, giving resources and support. All these basics of interpersonal relationships and management apply to any team. Here’s the one thing I see as actually different for the product manager: understanding social dynamics in the organization for where those people work and helping them understand how what you’re asking of them fits into their world, not just your world, becomes very, very important. So if you’re thinking back to my accounts payable manager, I tell them you’ve got to look at your people and care about developing them even more than developing yourself. Now, product manager? They’ve got to do the same thing for a person in a different unit, different geography, different division, different line of responsibility with different bosses, involved in politics and relationships that you only know a little bit about. What that requires is a thoughtful, more patient communicator who digs a little deeper, who asks for a little more feedback, who pauses to listen and try and understand a little more than the average manager, because what they’re asking needs to be framed for that person. Sometimes you’ve got to do a little more to say, “Hey, what can I do for you?” Product managers have to try and understand where those people on their team live and breathe, because it’s different from where they sit as a product manager.


How should conflict be managed?

Human beings have a tendency to find conflict when they don’t fit well and that’s a biological reality. We all have different personalities from the genetic lottery, and sometimes those naturally cohere, and sometimes they naturally butt heads. Beyond the personality or genetic lottery component, then we have the different place at work where we have certain goals and agendas and resources we wish to advocate for or advance and protect.  These sources can sometimes put us at odds. The first question is, are we good at dealing with the crude explanation for conflict I just gave you? Most people are not inclined to say, “Wow! Can’t wait for some new conflict. This is going to be productive.” Most people flee, just hate it. So if you think about a bell curve, at one end you’ve got the people who are really good at dealing with it, and then at the big middle, you’ve got the avoiders, and at the other end you’ve got the people who think they’re okay at it and know it’s part of life and they try to get involved and they’re horrible at it and they inflame everything. That’s not productive. But there is good news. The good news is that if you have conflict meaningfully focused on issues that matter, not people who irritate, there is hope for you. But I have to be specific to be honest about the research in this area. You have to have not just good intentions. You have to have at least modest clear conflict management skills. That is a very specific interpersonal skill set one can learn about, read about, get trained on, and the research suggests that if the conflict is issue-focused, moderate, not extreme, and the team tends to have at least medium-quality conflict management skills, on average, conflict makes teams more productive and more creative. I love sharing that because people are so busy every day, so wired to think conflict is simplistically negative, they never stop to think what you already know, which is that managed correctly, you can create positive benefits. Conflict can lead to more creativity and innovation.


How can we quickly improve team management?

There are many, but I’ll share two. One, which is a classic, and one that’s not a classic. First is to model the way. One of the reasons teams under-perform is because they see the leader espousing A and doing B, as opposed to modeling the way. Whether they’re talking about the business practice directly related to the product or service they’re supporting, or something that seems mundane, such as the adherence or non-adherence to some goofy HR policy that just came out, they will believe in you and follow what you’ve asked of them, what’s been asked of them, often to the extent that they see you carrying that flag absolutely like you told them to carry the flag. You have to model the way. That’s number one. Second, and a little more near and dear to my heart, is you have to throw yourself under the bus. We really get lost in trying to put our best foot forward, which by the way, we should do every time we talk with our teams. On the other hand, we talk too much. We self-aggrandize too much. We say, “let me tell you about that time I did this great thing that is related to the problem you’re facing.” You need to be throwing yourself under the bus once in a while to be real. I like to be specific here — do not do this twice a week; that makes you a very strange leader. But most leaders never do it, which is why I advocate twice a year, at least, twice a year in the right organization context with your team, tell them that most explosive, embarrassing, professional thing you did that you were a part of and let them see, very raw, the human that you are.


Listen NowListen to the interview with Todd on the Everyday Innovator Podcast.


image credit: depositphotos.com

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Chad McAllisterChad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow @ChadMcAllister

Chad McAllister




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