Intelligent Disobedience for Product Managers

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Are there times that product managers need to be disobedient – not do what they were asked to do? If such a situation arose, would the product manager be insubordinate or practicing a form of innovation? After all, the people that product managers report to make mistakes – they can’t always be right. But, to willfully practice disobedience? It could make them be seen as a hero or brand them as not being a team player.

To explore the topic I spoke with Bob McGannon who has great experience with this through the lens of project management. As the purpose of a project is to develop a product or service, product managers and innovators have much they can learn from the field of project management.

Bob is vice-president of Mindavation, a company that focuses on helping businesses increase their capabilities in portfolio, program, and project management. Bob has set up project management programs on three continents. He has 25 years of IT, project management, and project analysis experience, 18 of those years with IBM.

In our discussion, we addressed some valuable topics for product managers and innovators, including:

  1. the value of project management,
  2. three key project management skills product managers must have,
  3. what intelligent disobedience is, and
  4. how product managers can exercise intelligent disobedience.

Below is a summary of questions discussed follow by a link to the interview.

Why is project management valuable?

A project ultimately brings change to an organization. With change, different people have different perceptions of what the outcome should be. Also, there are several approaches to ultimately accomplish an outcome. The project manager works with the team to create a plan – a path – to achieve the desired outcomes in a commonly understood manner. As the project is executed, they’re keeping the stakeholders involved.

What are the important skills a project manager needs?

First and foremost, you have to be a good and enthusiastic communicator. That includes being comfortable communicating to a junior team member as well as someone that is in the corner office, and everyone in between. Next is persistence, because you often have to do a number of things at the same time and you have to continue to promote the objectives of the project. Third is what I’ll characterize as a whole-mind. Project management has this left-brain, procedural, build a schedule, predecessor/successor logic to it. At at the same time, stakeholder management is critical, particularly of senior stakeholders in the organization. This is more than just communicating to them. It’s understanding what drives them, sometimes understanding when to ask them a question, when to listen, when to push an agenda. That is a significant art and a right-brained exercise. Consequently, project managers need to be whole-minded.

What advice would you give product managers that are new to project management?

Product management and project management are more than just a difference in words. The interesting thing is that product management often looks like project management, and vice versa. So product management is the process of getting from an idea to an outcome. Project management is the same — you start with an idea and you end up with an outcome. But, project management has some other components, such as the analysis of risk and working with different stakeholders. There’s a difference between the two, but there’s a lot of overlap.

What is intelligent disobedience?

The phrase comes from the world of seeing-eye dogs. So picture this – you are in need of a seeing-eye dog. The dog is on a very rigid harness so it can more easily guide you, but it also allows you to command the dog. You may be walking down a street, stop because you need to do something and then you want to start up again. You let the dog know that you want to proceed forward. The dog, however, should not be obeying your commands all of the time, because you might be hit by a car or step into a hole, or run into an obstacle. It’s a characteristic that only 1/3 of the dogs that go through seeing-eye dog training possess. That characteristic is intelligent disobedience: knowing when to obey a command, and when to disobey a command. The concept applies to leadership and management as well. There are times when you look at a situation, following what you have been told, and recognize you won’t be able to achieve the outcomes desired.

What does it mean to take risks?

The idea of managing risk in an intelligence disobedience context is to do your homework. You should understand the culture of the organization, the desire of your management team, the desire of your clients, and the environment. Let me give you an example – working on a project in an aviation company. If I want to take some risks relative to the way financials are analyzed, that’s low-risk in some respects. But if I change the way maintenance is applied to an aircraft, that’s a much riskier environment and one that is regulated by the FAA in the United States. For that, I have to be really careful and do a lot of homework, do tests, receive verifications, etc., because that disobedience could become not very intelligent very quickly if I’m not careful. So it’s a matter of doing your homework and understanding the context.

How do relationships impact risk taking?

Let’s start with the importance of trust. If you want someone to share what they’re thinking, their emotions about something, you must develop trust. For example, if I want to work with a senior stakeholder and ask where do you feel you’re succeeding and where do you feel you’re failing, I need to take a personal risk to share that first. You display the behavior you’re hoping to get. Next, the context of intelligent disobedience must be outcome-based — there’s a circumstance that you’re ultimately trying to avoid or enhance. Also, the teams you are responsible for or work with must know that you will defend them. You must be the one to raise your hand, take the darts, and protect the team. And of course, clear communication is a critical component.

What are characteristics needed for intelligent disobedience?

You have to be comfortable with taking risks. Maintaining the status quo has not gotten many people extraordinarily far. I don’t know anyone who is touted as being a wonderful person or leader in the organization without taking risks. Next is a sense of ownership and conviction. It makes my skin crawl when I hear somebody say “it’s business, don’t take it personally.” I want everybody on my projects to take it personally. To me, you do take it personally. You’re willing to look at different pathways, you’re willing to face a dragon once in a while. It’s not only just the risk, it’s just the fact that it’s going to be difficult and you’re okay with tackling that difficult conversation or the difficult change that needs to occur. You must also have a willingness to be creative and to listen to other ideas.