Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

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A Roadmap to Product Peace

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in April 1975 (Source: Ford Library)At 6:15 am on October 6, 1973, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to US President Nixon, was abruptly awoken by Joseph Sisco, his Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. According to Kissinger’s new book, Crisis, The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises,

“As I forced myself awake, I heard Sisco’s gravelly voice insisting that Israel and two Arab countries, Egypt and Syria, were about to go to war. He was confident, however, that it was all a mistake; each side was really misreading the intentions of the other. If I set them right immediately and decisively, I could get matters under control before the shooting began.”

Ever feel like that as a product manager? Responsible for synthesizing a plan from the seemingly irreconcilable differences among sales, engineering, marketing, services, and the executive team?

This was the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war in the Middle East and, despite frantic diplomatic efforts that day, Kissinger was not able to stop the shooting from starting. Over the next 21 days, however, Kissinger was the key player in establishing a cease fire that actually enhanced the precarious security of Israel, a US ally; reduced the regional influence the Soviet Union, a US adversary during the Cold War; and opened up options for enhanced dialogue with the Arab world.

Ever wonder how he accomplsihed all that?

This is the seventh article in a series called The Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks. In this article, I will talk a little about what this controversial nobel peace prize winner can teach us about getting your stakeholders to buy into a practical plan and come together to make it happen.

Shuttle Diplomacy

“The action of an outside party in serving as an intermediary between (or among) principals in a dispute, without direct principal-to-principal contact.”

This is how Wikipedia defines shuttle diplomacy. The term was actually coined to describe Kissinger’s efforts in, during, and after this war.

Kissinger leveraged international toll lines, the White House’s hotline to Moscow, telegrams, couriers, recorded messages, transatlantic flights, and any other means of communication he could get his hands on. Because the parties could not or would not speak with each other, Kissinger spoke to and for each of them separately. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Kissinger could cut through the spite and the pride of each party and talk about things with them sympathetically and pragmatically. This would have been impossible with parties like Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, the Soviet Union, and others in the room.

Though the stakes are less dramatic, I have found the same dynamics in businesses of all kinds. It’s much easier to discuss priorities and roadmap items one-on-one with the head of sales, for example, than it is if the head of marketing is also in the room. So I make it a point to continuously “shuttle” between all my stakeholders gathering their input individually, discussing how the others might react, and trying out early versions of the plan on them en route to a final roadmap.

Set the Stage with Goals

One thing Kissinger did repeatedly was to reiterate the mutual goals of the parties in any conversation. Whether it was Nixon, Brezhnev, Sadat, or Meir, before getting into detailed proposals or relaying messages, this diplomat and strategist (not a bad description of a good product manager) would remind everyone what they were trying to achieve. This focused each conversation on problem solving and consensus rather than the latest provocation by another party.

This works well in product direction discussions, too. When someone comes into your office all fired up about a competitor or a new feature idea, reminding them of your strategic goals helps to ground the conversation and focus it objectively on whether the latest shiny object is really more important than something already on the roadmap.

Ask for Help

Kissinger never approached a world leader with a plan and said, “This is it. Take it or leave it.” He preferred to provide an update on the current situation and proposals on the table, then ask for help in crafting the best response consistent with their goals. Over time and with many such iterations, authorship of any given plan became difficult to determine. Everyone could claim it was their proposal, and this made it easier to get consensus without anyone losing face.

When Egypt and Israel finally met face-to-face after weeks of war and shuttle diplomacy, the outcome was nearly certain. Similarly, when you collaborate on your product roadmap with your key stakeholders, a powerful thing happens: “your” plan becomes their plan, too. This makes the big review meeting with the execs more of a formality because everyone around the table had a hand in putting together the plan. Do this right and you can say: “I’ll present our priorities to the executive team on Friday.”

Keep Lines of Communication Open

Even after the cease fire, Kissinger spent years shuttling between the major players. Whatever you think of the former Secretary, his efforts culminated in the 1979 Camp David Accords and the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? It is. I collaborated with the folks at Product Management Journal on a cartoon that places the product manager at the center of a group of very demanding characters. When I showed this cartoon to my wife, she said: “Why you still do this job I don’t know, but it does explain all the beer.” 

It’s worth it, though, when your development team makes uninterrupted progress toward enabling your company’s strategic goals.

Struggling to get buy-in on your roadmap?

If you're struggling to get buy-in on your product roadmap (or just need a beer and someone to talk to), pick a half-hour slot to chat with me. I'm happy to help.

You may also be interested my popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamps in Boston, Washington DC, and Halifax; or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.


The Voice of Boston's Product People

I meet with product people all around Boston frequently. They are a savvy, experienced bunch with a lot to offer. Wouldn't it be great if there were a place where could all learn from that wisdom?

These same product people are, just as often, the unsung heroes of their organizations' success. Wouldn't it be great if there were a platform for them to talk about how they made a difference?


Sharing what we've learned is the core concept behind ProductHub, the Boston Product Management Association's new member-contributed blog. To quote BPMA President Mak Joshi:

The depth and breadth of product management and marketing expertise across a variety of industries is clearly an asset we as a community can leverage. We at BPMA are convinced that providing a medium for sharing techniques and ideas will facilitate a powerful cross-pollination of product best practices. This we firmly believe will yield professional development opportunities across the community.

The ProductHub Team

ProductHub was created in just a few weeks this summer by a tiny team of passionate product people. We owe these folks our thanks for creating this platform for all of us.

Hally Pinaud

Hally is a smart, energetic product marketer, currently contributing her talents to the resurgence of Aberdeen. She is our chief editor and author of our launch piece on content marketing. She's also about to get her MBA from Boston College.

Vanessa Ferranto

Vanessa is a savvy and technical senior product manager, currently driving product strategy forward at Kendall Square startup Leaf. She is ProductHub's WordPress wizard and created the entire blog from scratch in her spare time.

Rob Savitsky

Rob is working on his MBA at Babson. He'a also interned at the New York Times and (before bschool), he oversaw social media at record labels for artists such as Evanesence, Seether, Civil Twilight and more. Rob manages the blog's social media presence, getting the word out when there is new content.

I'd also like to thank ProductHub's first contributor:

Janet Lee

Janet serves as VP of Products at Lattice Engines on State Street in downtown Boston. She agreed to spend her free time creating an article on estimation for the community based on only the idea of a member-contributed blog.

Check out ProductHub and tune in to what the Boston product community is learning, as we learn it. Want to add your voice? All are welcome. Check out the contributor guidelines.


BPMA Product Excellence Awards

Readers of ProductPowers know that I've held a Hall of Fame and Shame awards program in the winter for a number of years. Some of you may also know that this year I am Vice President and Chief Evangelist for the Boston Product Management Association (BPMA). Collision of these things has resulted in a new Product Excellence Awards program sponsored by the BPMA.

Call for Nominations

If you, your team, or someone you admire has overcome market challenges, developed something truly innovative, changed your industry, pushed the envelope of best practices, or otherwise demonstrated some epic product management joojoo, this is an opportunity for recognition.

Just fill out this form with a few bits of information, including why you think an award is warranted.

Voting by Our Peers

Here's how it works. Through the end of September, anyone can nominate anyone else via the form above. During the month of October, BPMA members (all 3,000+ of us) will vote on which nominees they think are most worthy based on the descriptions provided. The top 3-5 vote getters will become finalists.

Judging by Experts

Those finalists will be invited to present their case study at the November BPMA event at the Harvard Innovation Lab. I will moderate a panel of judges from industry and academia who will listen, ask questions, and evaluate the finalists, in a Top Chef-style bake off.

Awards Gala

In January, the BPMA will hold its Annual Gala event at the Charles River Museum of Science and Industry in Waltham. There the judges will recap their findings and announce the overall winner of the Product Excellence Award.

Who will you nominate? What Boston-area product, product manager, or company comes to mind when you think of product excellence? Act now as nominations close Sep 30th. 


How to Win with Superior Decisions

Have you ever worked at a company where the CEO or some other executive changes the priorities every week? Where no one can get anything done because they are constantly switching gears?

Or maybe you’ve been stuck on a project that seems like it will never end because there are always “just a few more things” needed for it to really take off.

I certainly have and I’ll bet most of you have as well.

Why do seemingly smart people make (and repeat) bad decisions that waste time and money, suck the energy and enthusiasm out of their people, and ruin good ideas with poor execution? According to Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, all of us are vulnerable to a series of very human decision-making mistakes. Fortunately, there is some good data on ways to counteract these weaknesses and make the kind of gutsy, brilliant decisions that drive success.

I listened to both of these books recently on Audible (a great way to make use of otherwise wasted time in the car) and they’ve both resonated with and clarified my thinking about effective ways of making product management decisions. I recommend reading (or listening to) both books, but I find the WRAP decision-making framework from Decisive a very accessible way to remind myself of the right ways to make decisions when faced with them.

Here's how WRAP works:

W - Widen Your Options

According to the authors of Decisive, “Teenagers and executives often make ‘whether or not’ decisions,” overlooking a host of possibly superior alternatives. Should we acquire this company or not? Should we approve this project or not? Should we hire this person or not? The right question is more like: What is the best use of our available funds?

'Whether or not' decisions ignore opportunity cost. You can only do so many things, given limited finances and time. So step back, think about your overall goals and what things will get you there quickest. That one thing you were trying to decide on will be a much easier decision when compared with a lot of other things that will help you more or less with getting where you want to go. Try my prioritization methodology if you are stuck on a 'whether or not' decision.

R - Reality-test Your Assumptions

Testing your way to success is the heart of the Lean Startup movement. It works because it forces us to expose our assumptions to the disinfecting effects of real-world data. Many of us are guilty of doing some interviews where friendly people tell us what we want to hear and calling it “market research.” This phenomenon is called “confirmation bias” because we all have a tendency to pay more attention to information that confirms what we already think we know.

I became a much better product person overnight, years ago, when the survey data that suggested people were interested in my product in significant numbers turned into a response rate of less than 0.1% on launch. I vowed then and there never to believe customer or prospect intentions until they put some skin in the game.

Testing your ideas with small experiments is called “ooching” your way to a decision in Decisive, which is a more succinct (and more fun) term than “testing and iteration,” as the Lean-ophiles say. But the notion is the same. “Why predict when you can know?”

A - Attain Distance before Deciding

We all tend to make decisions with our heart and then look for reasons to justify our gut feelings. And sometimes we’re right, but in business, being wrong can be very costly. The prioritization methodology mentioned above helps you and your stakeholders look at decisions from the perspective of shared goals, but there was one story in Decisive that made me think about it differently.

One Navy ship captain created a “stop doing” list as a way to identify things that took a lot of time but added little value to their mission. On the list was repainting the hull when the bolts holding the ship together stained the surface with rust. Rather than repainting every month or two, he had the crew invest time (and money) in replacing every bolt with a stainless steel equivalent that would never rust. This allowed them to put off repainting for orders of magnitude more time, freeing up crew time to focus on things that contributed directly to their mission.

What was interesting for me about this story was that they decided to invest in the things product managers tend not to approve. Replacing parts that are still doing their job is very much like addressing technical debt, or re-platforming, or test automation. The initial investment does nothing to advance your goals, but the payoff is increased development velocity. Maybe that should be one of everyone’s core business goals.

P - Prepare to Be Wrong

Because we all (especially entrepreneurs, engineers and product people) tend to be overconfident in our decisions, we need help preparing for bad outcomes — or sometimes even acknowledging them. If you read Decisive, you’ll learn why David Lee Roth’s legendary meltdowns over brown M&Ms were actually a shrewd way of setting a “tripwire” to alert him to a potentially bad situation with the complicated wiring scheme required by their elaborate stage show.

As a product person and entrepreneur, I found the idea of tripwires intriguing as a way to avoid over-commitment. It’s easy to keep working at something “just a little longer” to see if it finally succeeds. Creating explicit success criteria — including milestones — can help you assess realistically if you are on track or spending good time and money after bad.

Good decisions are a key product power and we all need the right tools in our utility belt here. What are your favorite examples of really bad decisions (yours or others) that could have been avoided by employing one or more of these ideas?


2014 BPMA Gala Online Discussion

Some of you may know that I've taken on a role as Vice President and Chief Evangelist for the Boston Product Management Association. The BPMA is the second-largest professional association for product managers and product marketers, after the SVPMA, and I am honored to be involved.

My job is chiefly to acquaint you, product people, with the benefits of joining the association and becoming involved as a volunteer. My pitch is no more complicated than pointing out that involvement with your profession will help you to be a better product person, to make the great products people really get value from. And if you're reading this blog, I presume you are interested in that.

I'll give you two ways you can act on that interest right now.

First, you can sign up for an upcoming BPMA event. These monthly happening occur in the evening at a variety of locations around Boston. They include networking as well as professional development workshops and interactive presentations.

Second, you can read about the 2014 Gala that took place earlier this month at the Museum of Science Boston. The summary, slides, and videos are all available on the BPMA website at the link above. Then join in the dialog with Jeff Bussgang -- Boston area VC and our keynote speaker -- about the rapid evolution of the product management profession.

We've set up a LinkedIn discussion about the topic and anyone is welcome to sign up and weigh in with questions or opinions. 

What are you waiting for? Take this opportunity to amp up your product powers!