Building alignment in organisations

Building Alignment in organisations

I recently pitched our 2017 plans to executives. I was told that the ideas are sound but what is our overall organizational point of view of these ideas? If one product team leads with an idea, will other teams follow along later. Are they bought in?

This remark seems well thought out but it seems way above by pay grade to drive alignment across the entire company on what I think is right for my product. I’m not the only PM who has felt this way. I think every PM, who is trying to do something big runs into this in a large organization.

So what do you do?

When I heard that comment, all I could think of was how many more meetings just got added to my calendar and how I will have to help others to see my POV and buy into it. My mind immediately went to the power centers in the company and who will be the most important influencers to speak with. And, who do they listen to. How can I get into the ear of those guys and gals.

I was thinking about all the folks who are not ready to change their mind. I thought why do I have to do this at all, its not my company. Why do I care so much about this initiative, fuck it. Let me move on to other things I can do for my customers that don’t require organizational alignment. Sell the easier stories while the company makes up its mind on issues of broader importance.

I thought of other PMs who have it easy. Who can push through their initiatives because they are closer to the throne or have more organization support. I thought of all the roles in the organization where I need to plant my ideas and build an army of allies that come to my aid like Foster Tully at the battle of the bastards.

Who will be my Gandalf the white when I need him?

Perhaps I was thinking too much.

Thinking was not going to help. Action will. Or so I thought.

Three weeks and many a meeting later and no closer to organizational alignment I am writing this post to show what you must do and wrestle with to pursue big ideas. Hope this helps others. It certainly helps me get it out there and solicit advice.

Good product managers get into high stakes meeting after getting organizational alignment. That is the craft of product management. I still need to master this.

–Anubhav

Confident Product Managers

Very few things irritate me more than confident product managers. PMs that can fake confidence even though uncertainty abounds get on my nerves. I guess it’s because I’m not one of those Product Managers.

Folks like Jason Fried, DHH seem to never talk about their anxieties on Medium. Neither does anyone else frankly. Just like Facebook shows you everyone’s brighter side of life, Medium posts by PMs and founders show off their confidence in predicting the future. Very few PMs or designers talk about the forks in the road and the many paths they could have taken and how they all looked reasonable and defendable.

They don’t talk about organization realities that did not allow them to pursue their vision. They do not talk about the lack of resources or the lack of talent in the organization. They do not talk about building alignment in an organization. And, how hard and often unrewarding that is. They don’t talk about uncomfortable conversations. They don’t mention crucial decisions taken because someone with more cache in an organization wins over data. Or someone with better copywriting and presentation skills wins over rationality and how that is ok.. because its perceived as passion.

They don’t talk about long plane rides full of anxiety and the prep work before these crucial conversations. They don’t talk about the constant pitch deck rewrites and narrative changes. They don’t talk about the challenges of being remote or away from the HQ and trying to push for ownership on larger initiatives. They don’t talk about the VPs and Sr. VPs that have never met customers but have a POV on the UX of your product. They don’t talk about how hard it is to stay positive and optimistic amongst all of this. They don’t talk about how difficult it is to not order that one more cocktail on an expense account on many a dark evening. And, how hard it is to pick yourself back up again.

Coz’ that would be a downer wont it. Why be a downer?

Sorry if this seems like a bit of rant but It needs to be said. Product managers, especially in large companies need to know that their job is hard and why it is hard.

I am much more comfortable being vulnerable. But, I often wonder if this sits well with executives or if it just makes me look weak. Many books and articles talk about faking till you make it. I don’t think that works for me. Wouldn’t you be better off stating risks and assumptions and being vulnerable? I guess not. Your engineering team, your designers, peers and stakeholders are looking up to you for leadership, confidence and guidance. Which is why to me, confidence in a PM is just like an oil spill on an ocean of anxiety. Or the 1/10th  of the iceberg floating in an ocean of uncertainty.

Why don’t we acknowledge this reality? That this is the craft of product management.

–Anubhav

My love for comedy

The Meccas of comedy

I’ve actively cultivated my love for comedy. I visit the comedy store every time I visit London or LA. I visit second city and UCB and second city every time I go to Chicago. These places have given a lot to comedy. And, comedy has given a lot of me. 

As a child, I distinctly remember listening to an audio tape of Johnny Lever, a young standup comic/impersonator at that time, making the audience laugh hysterically in Mumbai. This audio was recorded in 1989! Johnny Lever went on to become a famous comedy actor in India.

I was in New York City again in October 2016. I went to the Comedy Cellar and to the UCB in Chelsea to the see the ASSSSCAT 3000 show on Sunday. It was fun. It was also clear that the Chicago shows are better even though folks were lining up two hours in advance of the free ASSSSCAT 3000 show at 9:30PM on Sundays.

I’m heartened by the recent interest in stand up comedy in Gurgaon, especially. You can actually attend a standup comedy show every weekend in Gurgaon now. Interestingly there isn’t any improv in Delhi. Improv is a great tool for telling stories and learning to be really present in a situation. I hope we get some good improv here soon.

–Anubhav

Shadowed Qualities – Good Tape, Great Story

I listen to the startup podcast from Gimlet media fairly regularly. Last week’s episode was groundbreaking in a lot of ways.

What a fantastic episode. It’s raw, personal and honest storytelling. Its great tape edited to produce an even greater story. It was so poignant, it made me cry. Alex Bloomberg’s personal journey felt so relatable since I went through a 360 survey not too long ago.

While I did not get as deep with the analysis of my own survey results, it was clear that I had work to do. I could not carry on the way I was. I needed to develop my time and team management skills. This is not something I enjoy. I’m much better at managing my own work than the work of my team. I’m still trying to get better at this skill that I really did not care for, much to the detriment of my team. I’m also getting better at stepping back and really holding more people in the team accountable for outcomes.

Finally, I also remembered how I had written off Alex Bloomberg’s effort in my post 2 years ago. I’m happy he did not listen to me. I’m happy I did not bet any money on a negative outcome for hearstartup, which is now Gimlet media and it doing over $10Million in revenue and employing 40+ people in Brooklyn. I still dont think they have a big exit ahead of them but they are onto something.

Picking winners is hard.

–Anubhav

Difficult conversations

Crucial conversations are crucial because the stakes are high.

I’ve had to have a 3 difficult conversations in the last two weeks around the ownership of a project within the company. In all these cases, I felt uncomfortable having these one on one conversations but I had to. I’m glad I did because it forced early disclosure of everyone’s agendas including mine.

I was very honest and clear on what I wanted and what I was ok with. I wish I could say that all these conversations were pre planned and well orchestrated on my part. The only thing I can say was that I was clear on my goals. What I wanted out of the conversation was pretty clear to me. This allowed me to listen to arguments from the other side and empathise without giving up my goals.

I wish I could say that all these issues are now sorted. I know they are not. These issues are so important that they will need more conversations in the future to reinforce the decision we’ve come to. Such is the nature of these conversations. No ones tells you that its never over. Passionate people bring up past arguments whenever they see a window of opportunity.

–Anubhav

 

An immigrant story

Nanaji told me a great story. When he landed in the UK after the Second World War the first piece of advice he got was that there are different toilets for men and women in the UK! The second thing he was told was that tissue paper in toilets is not the same as a handkerchief but for a completely different purpose so, he should not stuff it in his pocket.

Weird huh.

Apparently in 1963, India did not have separate toilets for men and women. Well… You really don’t need to and fancy places around the world are switching to unisex toilets just to ensure toilet equality for women.

The other interesting and heartwarming story is of when he arrived at Heathrow airport. He was supposed to be picked up by a taxi driver named Himmat singh. A Sardar, who was nowhere to be found. When he had all but given up, he was approached by a gentleman. He asked who he was looking for. Nanaji said, ” Himmat singh”. He said, “oh ok”.

Nanaji gave this gentleman a big hug because he was almost in tears and thought that Himmat singh must have cut his hair as all Sardars had to do in the UK. No one would hire a Sardar if he did not get his hair cut. The man was quick to correct his misconception. He was not Himmat singh but knew him since he was looking around for Nanaji as well.

Nanaji went to Nottingham. He knew someone there. This gentlemen just added a charpoy to his one room to accommodate him. There were other homes where immigrants like him booked a time to sleep and lots of people shared the same bed on rotation. He was glad he at least had a charpoy. Today this is called hot-bedding or hot racking in the army.

The next morning, his friend took him to a factory for a job the next day. This began the most horrible week of his life. 50 years late he still physically shuddered while telling me about dealing with hot oil, black and sticky and difficult situations. He was lucky to have
been able to apply for a post office job. They were th best jobs to get but only educated people could get these jobs. But even this was difficult. You had to get references for the last 10 years of your life from India to prove that you were not a criminal. He told me that at that time, post officers handled cash in the mail.

The interesting thing about this job was that the job was in London but he applied for it and was interviewed and tested in Nottingham and how his papers arrived from India, I have no idea.

Fifty years later he is a British citizen getting his roof fixed by Polish immigrants who are eager for his work. Unlike the resident Indian owned construction company that went bust and left his job in the middle.

He is concerned about Brexit and what that means for his son who is a teacher in Madrid and his Spanish wife.

–Anubhav

Traveling alone for business

I’ve traveled alone a lot. Probably more than most people. I can tell you that it’s not fun. Especially when you can travel with other people. There is no one to talk to. No one to share experiences and no face to look at as I laugh at a good joke at a comedy club.

Everywhere I go, I see what I don’t have. Other people with company. People holding hands, kissing, talking and enjoying the simple pleasures of company.

Everyday I test my motivation and try to stay in action and do things instead of reading a book or just pursue passive ways to pass time. I also have to be ok not talking to anyone for six to twelve hours everyday. This is strangely meditative and not calming at the same time. I continually wrestle with my thoughts. I entertain fantasies where I make a real breakthrough and get clarity on life changing decisions in such times of loneliness. This never happens. Often the best decisions I’ve made are by talking to other people and not while engrossed in my own thoughts.

Often I have to actively stop thinking about work problems or problems at home so that I dont lose my mind away from home. I also have to find ways to fight depression as I settle to familiar patterns while traveling:

  1. Get up – search for places for breakfast on yelp
  2. Talk to the family
  3. Walk to work
  4. meetings ++
  5. Walk back to the hotel
  6. Search for places for dinner on yelp
  7. Eat (sometimes with local friends or customers)
  8. Watch TV or listen to comedy on YouTube
  9. Talk to the family
  10. Sleep

So yeah, its not always fun. Especially when you travel to the same place all the time.

–Anubhav

Getting out of a slump 

If you are working on something important in a large company, chances are a lot more people at going to be involved in this project than you imagined and you have to find a way to engage and align them. I thought I knew this but I did not realise how crazy things can get. I think I almost got depressed working on this new, important project as I figured out how many conversations I needed to have and how many presentations I needed to make to get alignment. Here is a quick summary of how I felt during the last one month working on the project. 

Thursday July 4th: Down and Out

It’s so easy to get yourself down. I am having a hard week because it’s been difficult to figure out product strategy questions while figuring out the politics around it. Stakeholders are asking good questions but I’m just seeing them as roadblocks. I’m also spending every waking moment thinking about clever retorts and smart one liners to put them in their place. Obviously this is not healthy. And, for the first time in my life, I had trouble sleeping two nights in a row. 
So.. I brought out the big guns. I relied on the advice from Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss and my dad and decided to: 
  • Write 
  • Listen to music 
  • Change my body language to feel how I want to feel 
  • Journal (gratitude, morning journal) : Could not get myself to do this. 
  • Exercise to get the good chemicals flooding in (swam or cross fit every day) 
  • Decided to treat it as my problem to convince the roadblocks and make them allies. 
  • Met an old friend from high school. Had a good chat, good Zin, unhealthy food 🙂 
  • I also decided to blog about my predicament. This was very helpful. 
I have three paths forward now: Engage my team to answer the objections Ask the roadblocks how they would pitch the idea Let my management chain know that I will need help It’s amazing once you do stuff… Depression disappears and opportunities appear. You think about things you normally won’t. You smile. You change your mindset. The nature of the problem changes. Your head reconfigures. Hope this helps you get out of your head and “save your soul” https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk 

July 18th: Working through it. In Action. 

Was a really difficult week but rewarding at the end as I was able to resolve conflicts, raise issues as and get stuff sorted out within the company so that we can get good results in the long term. I did not win every argument. I did not get exactly what I wanted. But it really allowed me to hear other people’s points of view. And, a promising future. 

Update August 16th: A fantastic week

Things have gone well since I decided to stay in action and bring all stakeholders along. It prevented internal sabotage. I did have to have difficult conversations in person with some stakeholders but it was all important and necessary. Had I seen these folks as roadblocks and tried to steamroll my way through, it would not have worked. 
Onwards and upwards. 
–Anubhav 

Restraint is overrated

Restraint is over valued I was reading a travel mag on a flight to MSP and read something provocative. “Balance in life is overrated”. Passionate people pursue their passions singlemindedly, produce extra ordinary results and then burn out and need to recharge. Maybe that’s how innovation happens. Concentrated periods of singular focus and compete immersion in an area. 

–Anubhav