How To Influence Product Teams with Karl Sluis – Masters of Product Management

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Every product manager knows that their job is to influence people who don’t work for them. At the core is effective communication. This episode of Masters of Product Management features a conversation between Steven Haines and Karl Sluis, Founder of CityAtlas. They’ll discuss challenges and solutions so that you can improve the effectiveness of your cross-functional product teams.


Key Points:

  1. Communication is a message delivered in a package, where words are but a small piece. Many people don’t understand this, and so they struggle to influence others in the workplace.

  2. Communication is essential to a healthy work environment, but it’s easy to misread someone—especially when they are communicating over technology. Such situations are frightfully common.

  3. It is a product manager’s responsibility to lead meetings that keep their teams informed about everyone’s goals. And move everyone in the same direction to promote a successful product.



[00:00:28] Steven: Welcome back everyone. A long time ago, I was a product leader working in big companies. One of the challenges I faced was facilitating, the work of my cross-functional product team members in moving in the same direction.


[00:00:51] Steven: Now, what’s interesting is—if you were in the military and your platoon captain said: “Go this way and take that hill,” everybody would take their specialties and go tackle the hill.

But in large companies and most complex organizations, not everybody has the same agenda; and it’s sometimes very hard to get people to move in the same direction.

And we, in product, know this. We know the perennial saying, “We have all this authority or accountability and we can’t influence people; but we really have to influence people. They don’t work for us…” We know the whole story. What can I tell you?


[00:01:34] Steven: What I want to do in this show today is talk with an expert who has some experience in getting buy-in from not only just a single person, but many people.

At any rate, if anything is potent that I’ve learned, it’s that when you bring facts and data—especially market data and good stories to the table—people tend to pay more attention.

In the world that I’ve grown up in—you know, opinions are always a dime a dozen; and the facts and data tell the real story.


[00:02:13] Steven: I want to raise the issue of team effectiveness and decision-making to the surface today, through a conversation with my guest Karl Sluis. And Karl is a designer-turned-product leader.

His most recent role was at a company called Next Big Sound, which was the analytics arm of Pandora Radio—which I’m sure you’re all familiar with.

What we’re going to talk about today is this topic of influencing product teams.

Karl, thanks so much for being on the show. I know we’re really not far away from each other, ’cause you’re in Brooklyn and I’m not, right? Today.


[00:02:48] Karl: Yeah, very true! Close enough. And certainly, we’re connected over the magic of the Internet. It’s a pleasure to be here.


[00:02:55] Steven: Thank you. Anyway, as we talked before—I know I’m not alone. And you’ve got some opinions on the topic. Your opinions are more than a dime a dozen—and you’ve got some of the real deals.


[00:03:10] Karl: [laughs] There’s no corner, perhaps. Yeah.


[00:03:10] Steven: No discounting applied today! [laughs] But you know, most of the product people who you and I have encountered talk about this influencing thing. But can you talk a little bit about some of those challenges, and the depth, and peel back the layers of the onion a little bit more—almost even from a therapeutic point of view—so that we can get some of these things on the table. It’s like revealing our problems first.


[00:03:37] Karl: Yeah, totally. This is like my hobbyhorse. At work, communication is just a really fundamentally hard, difficult thing. As time goes on, it only reveals itself to me to be more difficult and more of a—almost, but not-quite-impossible task. You think about a team that you might be on, whether it’s, like, four people, twenty people, a couple hundred people, a couple thousand, right?

Any one person only has a very limited amount of knowledge about their local life when they’re working, what they’re working on, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it. It’s like the classic parable of the blind man and the elephant: one grabs the trunk, thinks it’s a tree, all this other—I’m sure you’re all familiar, right?

Then, language is a fundamentally clumsy, difficult thing. Words and concepts are often—they can be unclear, they can mean multiple things, we can have our own individual understandings of what these things mean, people like to use metaphor and simile. There’s a lot of opportunity for messages to get mixed up or completely missed altogether.

And then finally, especially lately, teams have been distributed. People work remotely. A lot of the tools we have for communication present their own obstacles to be able to communicate. Like slack is just typing—the content of the words themselves is only usually 10 to 20 percent of the communication, at best; you lose things like tone of voice, which I get to use now; but even on this podcast, you don’t get to see me move my hands or the facial expressions that I have, and that can be sometimes more than half of the actual throughput of the communication you have as a human.


[00:05:48] Steven: I’m sorry to interrupt—this is really interesting. I was having this conversation with somebody recently about texting—which is, when you talk about slack and typing and all these other things. I see communication as a package of things that help get points across. And to me, things that you talk about are prevalent. And I don’t know that people who are—I’m going to use the model of a person walking down the streets of the city, which I see all the time, with their heads down in their device, and they’re texting.


[00:06:29] Steven: Could you imagine just having your heads down and texting, and not being able to see the person’s face, or response? And, listen I’ve misinterpreted what people have said in text.

I’ve misinterpreted what people have said in email. And so, what I’m hearing from you is that communication is like—there’s a portfolio of things that make for a more effective communication.

Those are just the mechanisms; the actual content is different, correct? It’s almost like you have a product you have to deliver through a channel. We have a message; we have to deliver it through a series of channels.


[00:07:09] Karl: Exactly. We know, at least, what these different channels we have are; so as product people, one thing we do have control over is what are we delivering through that channel.

And then the other—to me, the other factor that’s important is how often we deliver it through that channel—putting together that package of things to communicate is important, and then knowing to do it—not over and over and over and over and over again; but to reinforce it and always communicate it at the right time to the right people.

That is also, in and of itself, an important art.


[00:07:50] Steven: I like to think of communication. You have a source, meaning—I’m a source, or there are other sources that are feeding me as the source, and I’m the “mouthpiece.” But I’ve got to find a vehicle to get people to both understand what my message is and what their action is; it’s almost like marketing.

What’s the message and what’s the call to action? Then you can identify whether or not somebody actually did it.

I think what happens in communication is that there’s some breakdown between the back-and-forth because it’s not always clear what somebody is trying to say.

It’s not always clear about what the receiving end is going to do. I know it sounds almost like—I can envision a PowerPoint of the coaches who go out and teach communication.

But when it comes to product managers, and the work that they have to do, I think it’s a bit more explicit.

And what you and I spoke about beforehand was about, well, how do we then take what we know about these issues and move the team forward so that they can make progress? So, what are some of the thoughts that you have on that?


[00:08:54] Karl: So for me, it’s about having a framework that you can create for your team. Or, to put another way: context you can give everybody for how the whole team is working as a unit, and what kind of goals they’re working toward; so that everybody on the team can then look at what they’re working on, and see how it applies to the greater group, and start to put the pieces together for themselves and know how they’re contributing, and what they should prioritize. Like, not even on a weekly—even a daily or hourly schedule—to help the whole team accomplish its goals in the best way.


[00:09:38] Steven: Well, you bring up an interesting point because I was envisioning a scrum team, right? They work in close proximity.

They work together over some period of time. But one of the things I learned about—actually through another podcast interview recently—was where other people from other functions are not involved in the ecosystem of the product’s business, and that they’ve become—it’s almost like the development function becomes the core product team, and the ancillary team members just find out things serendipitously.

And if it came to something like integrating a product for a release, or making sure that there were service and operations and other support activities, those tend to fall through the cracks. So, that’s something I think that’s definitely worthy of note.


[00:10:33] Karl: It’s a weird thing that a product team generally becomes a de facto center of all of the larger teams’ activity and has, I think, a lot of responsibility for going out there and listening to all these different parts of the team—even if it’s not necessarily through a court mandate or something–but being able to have that complete perspective and then report it back out to the whole team too, like a quick summary.

Even if it’s weekly, through email, for people who care. “Here are the three things we shipped. This is what we expected to have.” Some kind of an import on our metrics. “Also, these things happened.”

Just a little bit of this—a narrative, almost, that you keep writing about your company and the work you’re doing—week on week, month on month, year on year—is really powerful to stitch everybody together.


[00:11:25] Steven: Absolutely. And so, in terms of the evolution of this conversation—especially to have our audience threaded—talking about issues that are associated with communication, and then how do we get people to move in the same direction?

But then the team has—they certainly have to operate based on data and inputs; that’s for sure.

But ultimately, a team has to make some decisions about what to do and what not to do; and they have to be able to work together to do that. We know that the product manager plays a central role in that, but could you articulate that?

This is to reinforce important points and takeaways for product managers as they’re listening to this show.


[00:12:12] Karl: Totally. So, for me, the product manager always should be focused like a laser on answering two questions: What are we working on? And why are we working on it? That thing we’re working on really ought to be the highest-value, lowest-cost, most impactful thing, from moving whatever key metrics we’re looking at. And then why are we working on it?

What is this going to do for users? How is this going to influence our key metrics? How is this going to make us more money? Whatever is going to be that reason for doing it. For me, when I was on a team of twenty-ish people, the thing that worked the best was also for having a product drive conversations about what’s the right thing to do, and why we’re working on it.

It’s the product manager’s role to lead those meetings, tee up context, know everything that ought to be talked about—but also to let the team talk it over with themselves and make sure that all their local knowledge gets surfaced, and the whole team can start to work through a shared understanding of what we’re all working on.


[00:13:18] Karl: At the end of the day, the product lead has to make the decisions. And no one—you can’t actually imagine a world—like, consensus isn’t good. If everybody agreed, to me, that would make me feel comfortable. You have to accept there will be disagreement. But as a product leader, you have to drive those decisions, make sure everyone is on board, and then filter and synthesize, and get what you need out of those conversations and move the team forward.


[00:13:52] Steven: That makes a lot of sense. We talked about some of the top tips that a product manager could really just think about and apply. They basically put down the device and turn their headphones off and say, “Okay, what can I do right now?”


[00:14:10] Karl: Yeah. I mean—for me, almost daily, I repeat this to myself that repetition is the key to communication.

If you have your mission, or your strategy, or your goals, or your key metrics, being able to say them over and over to a team, to the point where they start to play it back to you—that is one of the most powerful techniques.

It used to make me feel so frustrated sometimes, when people on the team didn’t know what our yearly goals were, or couldn’t even articulate the mission of the company; and as a product leader, helping them get there by saying things over and over again, I think, is one of the most important things you can do.


[00:14:53] Steven: That’s amazing. You know, it’s so funny how—I gotta tell you, I look at the clock and I say, “Well, how long do you think we’re having a conversation today?” And then I go off and off and off, and I could be on this for an hour and a half. This is in full transparency, when I try to set these shows up—as I’ve said to you—I really want to try to keep them short.

And then, all of a sudden, I want to go on and on. But I could also understand that the people who listen in are driving a short distance to work.

I want them to get the entire cast done; I don’t want them to come back to a two-hour show that they may forget about doing. So that’s why I’m trying to keep this on track. So thank you for doing that.


[00:15:37] Steven: But Here’s my synopsis, because it’s almost like we’re having communication therapy! Everybody knows this, all right?

We all have a common understanding that communication is important, that we have to influence other people who don’t work for us. Fine. We keep talking about that, but we’re still having challenges in doing it. And it really does come down to this understanding—from my point of view—about some of the challenges we have in how we communicate: what’s the context with which we communicate? What’s the data? What do we talk about in terms of customers? The marketplace, the strategy, and the things we’re trying to do.

And when you talk about “What are we doing and why are we doing it,” that’s very, very important because everybody gets a chance to understand that.

The product manager has to have the skills to literally shape that conversation, consider what other people are saying, but also to say, “Hey, this is the business of the product that I’m responsible for; and therefore, here’s what we’re doing, and here’s why.”

And everybody needs to basically follow—not follow the order; that’s a horrible thing to say!


[00:16:59] Karl: [laughs] A lot of product people don’t listen!


[00:16:59] Steven: [laughs] …set the direction. So everybody could be laughing at me now—they’re driving in their car in they’re saying, “He said orders, right?” But that’s not really what I meant.


[00:17:03] Steven: So that’s it, and that’s the general gist of what I wanted to talk about in the show today. And for you out there who are listening: if you have a topic that you’d like me to discuss on this podcast, or somebody I could interview, or you’re interested in training or coaching or other product management resources, reach out to me through the contact form at Sequent Learning Networks, and be sure to connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter. And make sure that you tell your friends about subscribing through iTunes and Stitcher and all these great mechanisms, so that we can have conversations. I think that’s really, really critical. Anyway, thanks a lot for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Masters of Product Management.


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