People often say that product is at the center of the organization. Whenever you're leading a large change as a product manager, you have to make it clear to your team how it's going to impact both customers and everyone within the organization.

At FoSaaS’ Future of SaaS Festival in September 2021, this is exactly what some of our guest speakers were discussing, including:

  • Valentina Thörner, Head of Product, Klaus
  • Christine Lee, Director of Product Management, GoDaddy
  • Mark Kawczenski, Head of Product Operations, FreeWheel

While the full, unfiltered panel discussion is available OnDemand for Future of SaaS members, we've picked out some of the best bits for you below. Enjoy!

Q: Where does product sit in an organization? How does that touch other parts of the organization?

Christine: I'll talk you through a launch I led at Twitter when I was on the ads team. We launched a new release focused on objective based campaigns. It fundamentally changed our business model. Before the change, we were billing for every engagement on the ad. The update we were making was that we would only charge advertisers for engagements that were specific to the goal for their ad campaign.

To make this kind of launch successful, it involved aligning the goals for over 10 different product teams. We had to update the user experience for campaign creation. It was a huge change to make across the entire organization.

As the PM, your role is to make sure that all the resources you need for the launch are covered in terms of dependencies. That really requires you to convince a lot of people who aren't on your immediate team to help you out. That's where goal alignment is so important.

The other role for the product manager is to think about how to make sure that changes are successfully articulated to your customers. For that, you're going to be working with all the different stakeholders, like marketing, support, sales, etc. You may also be working with external partners.

These people help you make sure that your customers understand what the change is. And these are also all the people that are going to be there for your customers when they have questions.

Q: Any change in product has a knock-on effect elsewhere in your organization. Does this make it more or less challenging to drive change?

Valentina:  What Christine just said about empowering everybody in the organization is super important for the entire change process to work successfully. Different departments in a company have different timelines in which they think and create their plan. What is easy to forget from a product perspective is that once you've decided what's going to be changed, you're already late in communication.

It's very important to bring everybody on board as soon as possible in the process. Not only once you've made a decision, but hopefully while you're still in the research process. All these departments that will be impacted will impact everyone else.

Everybody else probably has an opinion and should at least be informed about the change. I think the entire communication strategy around the product sits in the middle of the organization. They are in charge of what you're actually selling. It's a little bit like a star that goes out. You need to make sure that all of these connections are strong enough. Otherwise, the entire organization might go off course because you have a weak link somewhere.

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Mark: Yeah, that's a great point. By the time you figure out what you want to change, or what the new direction is, you're already late. I think bringing people along immediately from that journey is super important. I think what Christine and Valentina said about empowerment is super important. With the product team that change is happening too commonly for, they're stressed, and they have a lot to do. We need to not lose sight of the individuals and the teams that are taking on change efforts.

Q: What do you think is the most important thing for an individual or team to absorb when a change is happening to them?

Christine: People want to understand why things are changing, and how that's going to impact them personally. You really have to win both hearts and minds. At the intellectual level, people want to understand, why is this change needed? Why is it better for our customers? How do we know it's going to be better?

These are all reasonable questions that are likely to come up. Emotionally, I think this is where a lot of the work around change management happens. People need to maintain their confidence in why this direction is better. You basically just told your team that a plan they were working really hard to execute on is not the right plan.

They're going to have a lot of emotions related to that. You may be taking resources away from something that the team was really excited to work on. It's a bit of a fragile moment. What you really need to do is reinforce trust, not only that your new plan is going to be more impactful, but also that they really trust you as a leadership team. You're making the right decisions and that they want to continue to follow you in that direction.

Valentina: I think what is important to emphasize is that change is scary. You could be changing to paradise on Earth, and it would still be scary. From a neurological perspective, humans don't like change. Change usually means danger. There is this visceral reaction to change where people go into defense mode. The first reaction will always be, how does this impact me? Am I going to lose my job?  This is usually the first reaction that people have when there's any type of reorganization.

When it comes to communication, it's very important that every single person that is affected by the change gets one on one with somebody who can not only explain what is changing, but who can also mitigate possible fears that come up. This just opens up a space where that person can also talk about that fear, and gets listened to and can get answers for all the questions that they might have.

This must be a team effort. The danger with only doing one on ones is that suddenly you have drama situations where people are hearing conflicting things from different people.  

By making sure that communication is clear on all levels, you can bring people on board.  There's nothing worse than having a team member asking their manager, “so what does this mean?” And the manager saying, “Oh, I have no idea”.

Mark: Yes, I think they're both great points and ties back to the earlier conversation about product teams and how over- communicating is important. I heard a phrase once, “if you're not tired of saying something, you didn't say it enough.” I think that's an important thing, especially when you're trying to explain why we're introducing change.

On that point about embracing people who are excited about change, one thing I try to do with my team is I try to explain why the change is being implemented. I demonstrate the value to the product person. They are then eager to take on this new way of working because they see the value of it.

Q: How did the pandemic impact your company, and how did you adjust?

Valentina: From a personal perspective, I live in Spain, and in 2021 we had a strict lockdown. For about two and a half months, we weren't even allowed to leave our flats. Having kids myself, I was able to gain more empathy for the people in my team who also have kids.

I have been working remotely for the past 10 years, and I had taken advantage of the flexibility that I have as a product manager. If you work in customer support, you have very strict schedules because there needs to be somebody available at all times.

Working in product management, we have a little bit more flexibility. It doesn't really matter whether the strategy paper is written at three o'clock in the morning or three o'clock in the afternoon. No one really cares.

One of the things that the pandemic has really driven home to me is that flexibility is really valuable. You can only put pressure on people for so long. At some point, you need to get back to something like normalcy.  

I think the same also happens with product teams. You cannot expect everyone to have 120% energy all the time. They will run out of gas. I’ve learned how to both put flexibility in my day and learned to hold myself accountable.

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Christine: GoDaddy helps small businesses sell and engage with their customers online. The pandemic actually really accelerated some of the initiatives we were going to work on because suddenly everybody had to work with their customers online just to survive.

It actually opened up a lot of opportunities in the business. Before the pandemic we had a pretty good process for some people being in the office but with everyone working from home, the biggest challenge became managing work-life balance.

Mark: For me personally, there was a huge shift in my productivity. I was used to being able to walk through the office and pass messages on to people personally. I had to figure out a new way to engage with people, to keep the trust with the different interfaces.

Because the product is the center, I have to have a lot of interfaces. That was a big change for me. Also, just working from home, being productive, keeping myself on task, was challenging.  

My teams are global in nature. We have product teams in the West Coast, New York, in Europe and the UK, and then in Asia. I think this reinforced some really good behaviors. Not everyone is going to be in the room all the time. We need to take that insight back to the office. In a way, we should still be operating like we’re remote, because there will always be someone absent from the room.

We should always be defaulting to this mindset that we're remote. I think that's something we've learned. Asynchronous work is something we’ve gotten much better at, and we need to take that skill into the future.  

Q: How do you communicate with team members to get them on board with change, when they're both good at their job, but also pessimistic, or resistant to change?

Mark: I always identify the people who I know are going to be resistant to changes when I'm thinking about implementing it. Once I've identified the group of people who are my number one dissenters on certain things, I always try to go to them first.

When we're talking about experimentation, my first and most crucial job is to go talk to that person. I present them with a very low fidelity prototype of why I want to do something, and they will immediately reject it. I will then attempt to strengthen my arguments in order to persuade the dissenter.

In my experience, those types of people who are very good at their job but don't like change, they really resent it if it’s something that’s been going on for a long time. If you engage them early, you find that they really just like being involved. You just didn't engage them early enough.

Christine: I think that it's important to consider that when people are showing their resistance, it's in a large public channel. You don't want to shut it down necessarily, but you want to try to find a space to one on one with them. If they're blasting things in a public forum, you need to think about how even some people who are reasonably happy are going to be impacted by all that emotion and start to get concerned.

Lean into those personal relationships and help them understand what's going on. I mean, is it just that they don't agree with the direction? Or is it something happening at a personal level in terms of how it impacted them in their career ?

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Valentina: Also, if the dissenting person can handle more responsibility, bring them on board to lead part of the change process. It's about how well you know your team members. This can be tricky in a remote environment. That's the importance of one on one. You need to really know every one of your team members. And if you can't take them for a coffee, because you're not in an office, you need to institutionalize that. You need to make time to actually talk with them about what fuels their work, what fuels their motivation.

If you know what motivates them, then it's much easier to actually frame the change process in a way that they can also accept. Some people need personal motivation, for example, “my daughter will be proud of me if I do a good job”.  This depends a little bit on the personality. As long as you figure out what makes the person tick, you have a way of getting them on board in a way that works for them.

Q: Is it important to involve many different individuals in a major change decision? How many individuals would you consider involving?

Christine: Well, when it's a really big change, you're going to need input and contributions from so many different people across the company. I think the key thing is to set the strategic context, help them understand the picture and why you're proposing a new direction.

You can't decide every single thing, and you don't have time to do that. Your job is to facilitate and support all the other people who are working with you.

They need to have the right information, and they need to be able to make really good decisions. They are going to be the ones that make the change happen. It's not a waterfall, it's definitely a co-creation. And I think the biggest part is focusing on alignment, supporting individuals and answering queries with regards to how they’re going to be impacted.

Valentina: I think you need to involve different brains to make the decision, but one person has to make the final decision. You will always have one or two people who are not happy with this, but the important thing is that it does not disrupt company culture. Can your company support that a couple of people might not agree with the final decision?

At the end of the day, decisions are like choices. Sometimes the choices we make as organizations might not be the best choices, but they were the best that we could do at the time, and we can always course correct. The ship is very big and it takes time to course correct.The important thing is that you make a decision and then course correct if it proves to be wrong. That’s much better than talking forever and being paralysed by indecision.

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