Anthropology Culture Product Management

Tribes in Conflict… in the Same Village!

In previous posts (as well as in ProductCamp and conference sessions) I’ve mentioned the various professional tribes within organizations and the challenging dynamic they present to an observant, socially-curious product manager. I’ve also suggested ways in which a product manager can thrive in the complex social environment and bridge gaps across the different vocabularies and views that the various professional tribes hold. An underlying assumption in my proposals has been that despite differences, the overall intentions of the tribes basically align to the good of all, or can be encouraged to align. What if they can’t?

We like to believe that we operate socially, if not with angelic beneficence, at least with informed self-interest. We inherit this perspective from the Enlightenment, “systems thinking”, and widely accepted (at least until recently!) models of the marketplace. As busy and pragmatic product managers, we may hold on to the convenient assumption that, whatever their differences, the various professional tribes we rely on – that the entire company relies on – are rational and will act in their own long term benefit. Given that we are all in the same revenue and profit “boat”, no one would deliberately poke holes in the hull, right? No, not deliberately, at least not in the belief they are poking holes in the boat, but perhaps deliberately poking holes in another tribe you rely on. For them, the boat taking on water may be just an unintended consequence of undermining their perceived adversaries.

While I am a huge fan of employing social, collaborative, and semantic clarification techniques to align tribes in the pursuit of a successful product, I have to recognize the limits of these techniques. They can certainly help achieve a shared meaning within a project if the biggest issues are simply misunderstandings. They cannot, however, do much about genuine and heartfelt distrust, disrespect or antagonism between tribes within the same organization. Part of the reason true antagonism cannot be talked away is that it often has a rational basis of its own. For example, incentive programs in many organizations lag far behind their evolving priorities, so that while you, as a product manager, may clearly see the destination, some groups may have no clear incentive to help you get there.

So what to do if you suspect that your success as a product manager is being threatened by a clash between groups that a finely honed team glossary won’t fix? Your options depend on your position and your relationships with the relevant executives.

If you are an executive, surely you’ve got the relationships and influence to deal with it directly, from disciplining and coaching individuals, up to and including re-organization.

If you are not an executive, it is going to be an uphill battle, but not necessarily a hopeless one if you have good relationships with managers and executives. A frank discussion with your own manager may: 1. Alert your them to a problem they weren’t aware of, and/or 2. Educate you to contributing factors you weren’t aware of. In any case, your first hope is to have your manager, or another management ally, escalate the issue to a level at which it can be addressed. This is only likely if you are perceived as trustworthy and not prone to crying wolf. If you are going to raise the red flag, make sure you that you have good information on both the issue and your recommendation for ameliorating it.

Hopefully you can protect your product and make your work life more enjoyable by bringing attention to inter-tribal conflict in your organization. But if, in spite all your best efforts at lobbying, escalating and suggesting, the organization makes no movement in addressing an issue of this magnitude, you have to reconsider your role. Is the organization serious about how its groups work together? Do they understand the connections between the belief in a common set of goals and the achievement of those goals? Or have the measures of department-level metrics disconnected the organization’s fundamental value proposition from its day-to-day functioning? Given how challenging product management is considering the external forces alone, can you continue to thrive in such a situation?

A few thoughts to take with you:

  • While a significant part of product management success is driven from your ability to understand, clarify, and communicate product goals across different professional tribes, clarity alone can’t overcome genuine antagonism between them.
  • If you do not have the authority to address this kind of issue directly, effective escalation requires your thoughtful action, credibility and good relationships with those who can truly address it.
  • If those who can address the issue won’t, you need to reconsider if you can succeed where you are.

the product manager

About the author

Trevor Rotzien

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