Is Your Product Team’s Silence Killing Your Product?

by drjim on January 17, 2011

Just Because You Can't Hear It, Doesn't Mean That They Aren't Talking

Just Because You Can’t Hear It, Doesn’t Mean That They Aren’t Talking

It turns out that a Product Manager really doesn’t do all that much. I mean, they don’t actually create the product and they don’t actually sell the thing now do they? Sorta makes you wonder just exactly they do do? It turns out that most of a Product Manager’s time is spent doing scary stuff, like managing people and getting them to work together in order to get a product created and out the door…

Why Silence Is NOT Golden

So here’s an interesting thought: if one of your primary jobs as a Product Manager is to do a good job of managing all of the people who work on your product, then how are you going to be able to tell if you are doing a good job? One way that might come to mind right off the bat is if you don’t hear any complaints than certainly you must be doing a good job, right?

It turns out that Dr. James Detert, a researcher at Cornell, and a team have been looking into what workers do and don’t tell the people that they are working with. The results (and the reasons for them) just might surprise you. Here are four common myths that every Product Manager should know are not true.

Myth: Women Are Less Likely To Speak Up

Most Product Managers believe that women and non-professional workers are more likely to NOT speak up simply because they think that it will either harm their career or just isn’t worth the effort. I must confess that I believed this myth.

It turns out that this just isn’t so. Based on studies that were done by Dr. Detert and his team, it turns out that women and non-professional workers are just as likely as professional men to speak up in the workplace. In fact, the researchers have shown that your gender, level of education, and your level of income have no bearing on the probability that you’ll express your opinions at work.

Myth: Talkers Tell All

Product Managers who are getting a lot of feedback from their product team may start to feel confidant that they are in touch with everything that is going on. I mean come on, if your team is talking to you then they’ve got to be telling you everything, right?

Sorry, once again it turns out that this is not the case. In studies that were done by the researchers it turned out that almost half of the workers polled said that they hold back. The reasons varied, but the most common causes of team members holding their tongues were when they thought it wouldn’t do any good or when they thought it might harm their career.

Myth: Safety First

Product Managers who have a problem with their staff not talking to them may wonder why. A natural first assumption is that their product team for some reason doesn’t feel safe doing so. For some reason, the thinking goes, they believe that speaking up about an issue will come back to haunt them.

Well guess what, the reasons that your staff might not be talking to you is actually much more boring than that. The number one reason that staff won’t tell a product manager what’s really going on is, drum roll please, simply because they are too busy – they don’t want to waste their time. Ouch, that hurts!

Myth: Only The Big Issues Are Scary

Finally, you would assume that it would be the big issues that would cause product team members to hold back. You know, things that involve actual crimes or unethical things. Oops, once again you’d be wrong.

The researchers found that members of a product team will not speak up on even the smallest issues. Unfortunately these are the very issues that a Product Manager needs to hear about if he / she wants to improve how their product can help the company operate.

What All Of This Means For You

The product specific part of being a Product Manager is probably easier than the people part. However, you are going to have to be good at both if you want to be a successful Product Manager.

One of the most important things that you’ll need to realize is that your best way of identifying issues within the product team is to get your staff to tell you about them. Not hearing about issues doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. We’ve pointed out four myths that can lead a Product Manager to make the wrong conclusions.

Now that you know that silence doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have any problems, you are ready to take the next step. This means that you’ve got to go out and form real relationships with your product team so that you’ll be able to tell when they are holding back – and then you’ll know that it’s time to dig deeper!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that having an “open door policy” really means anything for today’s product managers?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As a guy, what I know about women’s make-up can pretty much be written on one side of a file card. With a lot of space left over. However, as a consultant to lots of product managers, I’ve always been very impressed by cosmetics products. They are a simple product that a lot of advertising makes seem very valuable. It turns out that the long global recession has hit cosmetics companies hard also and so their product managers are doing something about it – they are changing how they sell their products…

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