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.
“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.
Use your product powers for good.