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Building a relationship and influencing product as an engineering leader comes with many moving parts. Here’s how you can navigate them.

I’m a director leading a team of 40 engineers in developing a software solution for a government customer. Every 2-3 years our product owner departs and is replaced by someone new. Our current product owner has no apparent vision and no desire to cast one. Their decisions are strictly tactical. I’ve trialed a few influencing techniques to push them beyond this, but these tactics have been unsuccessful. How could the team try to help them help themselves?


— Issa

Hi Issa, what immediately stands out in your challenges is your desire to “help them help themselves.” It shows that you’re here to support them to get the job done and ensure your team has everything they need to deliver results.

On the other hand, it also assumes that they accept crafting a vision as part of their responsibilities and that they know they need help. A lot of assumptions and expectations are tucked away in the short fragment of a sentence, “How could the team try to help them help themselves,” which can cause all kinds of friction in a relationship. My goal here is to help you unpack all those assumptions and expectations, reflect on what influencing tactics you’ve already attempted, and what new elements you can try. 

Put yourself in their shoes

You write that you’ve tried influencing techniques to sway the product owner but they’ve been unsuccessful. I recommend you start by reflecting on what you’ve tried so far and why it may not have succeeded. The goal of this exercise isn’t to point fingers or make assumptions about the other person’s motives, it is for you to try and put yourself in their shoes. “They’re not doing their job” or “they’re just not seeing my point” isn’t what you should be going for here. Instead, try to understand what motivates them. It might be odd to entertain, but if you consider that they might have a decision-making process that’s clear to them, you may understand better how they work. What you come out with are still assumptions in a way, but they allow you to think about how you can best support your product owner.

Reflect on what you know 

Make a list of the influencing techniques you’ve tried. It can be tempting to write down a statement like, “They should deliver a product strategy.” But that’s a written expectation, not an action. You should be recounting specific conversations, commitments they made to you or you asked of them, and concrete actions that you thought would somehow sway your product owner into implementing a longer-term vision for the team. 

For the other influencing techniques that you mention, you can review them and ask yourself the following questions. 

  1. What happened after you tried a particular influencing technique? Think about what you thought would occur and what happened instead – if anything happened at all. It is easy to write down “nothing happened” here and leave it at that. But that only plays to your own frustrations; maybe the product owner changed course ever so slightly after a conversation or a commitment. The goal here is to think beyond what your frustrated voice might tell you and focus on the things you can observe in their behaviors and how those might impact your team. It also primes your mind to think more constructively, moving it away from your frustrations and, instead, looking at reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.
  2. What are your unspoken assumptions and expectations? Write out what you think they should be doing on account of their job title. Unspoken assumptions and expectations lead to many frustrations in any kind of relationship. Failing to address them can leave you fixated on misunderstandings and may keep you from finding a way forward, in this case, a better way to work with your product peer.
  3. Can you ask your product peer to clarify the assumptions and expectations you have? Sometimes this can be as simple as saying, “I thought this task was within your responsibilities, but I now realize I hadn't confirmed that with you. How do you view this?" Influence stems from conversation and a good rapport. Trust comes from an open flow of feedback, conversation, joint commitments, and accountability. You need one to foster more of the other. It’s worth spending regular time with them to discuss your respective expectations and assumptions. These conversations also require flexibility on your part. What you assumed to be true may turn out not to be, and that might open up a path toward different ways of working together.
  4. Find the things you agree on and put your focus there. You may end up disagreeing on some key points, but that's where it's good to be flexible. The ultimate goal is shipping value to your customer. Focus on finding solutions that minimize frustration for both parties while still achieving that goal. This negotiation requires you to listen while reflecting back what you hear without assuming or blaming. Collect these solutions in a shared document that both of you sign off on. Whenever you feel like commitments aren’t met in the future, you can go back to this document to remind each other.

Try to keep everything you write free of whatever frustrations you may have toward your product peer. This exercise is about reflecting on the things that you control and finding new levers to influence their behavior. More importantly, it’s about finding collaborative ways to get the job done.

What if they still don’t deliver?

It is possible that you go through these two exercises and still come out empty-handed. It may turn out that they’re comfortable making decisions in their own way, that they don’t see a longer-term product strategy as part of their responsibilities, or that they’re the type of leader who’s more impulsive in their decision-making. This last type is the hardest to convince and will be almost impossible to work with or around. They will just keep making decisions in ways you disagree with.

You’ve still got a couple of choices here, though you may not like all of them.

  1. Work with their decision-making process. When they do make one of those tactical decisions you mention, you can talk to them and try to get more context. Even if they’re the impulsive type, they’ve likely considered a few factors before making the decision. That way, you could at least unearth the “why.” Over time, this may even yield patterns in their decision-making that help you understand their ways longer term. Maybe they get impromptu ideas after talking to a customer. Maybe they get their ideas in meetings with yours or other teams. Maybe a conversation with your respective boss sparks something new. This is about trying to find out what circumstances trigger their decisions – when are they most likely to come up with something tactical that your team should get done? Granted, this process is still reactive, but you’re seeking understanding with the goal of sharing what you learned with your team.
  2. Wait for the next person to step into this role. You mentioned that people rotate through this role. If you’re not getting what you want from the person currently filling it out, wait for the next one. It’s not entirely satisfying, I’m sure. But it is an option.
  3. Build a product direction that aligns with their choices. Your job as your team’s manager is to ensure your reports understand what they’re working towards and to remove whatever roadblocks are in their way. Given your team’s size, your responsibilities most likely also include working strategically. When you see the need for a clear product direction or strategy, and your product counterpart isn’t delivering on it, it becomes your job to ensure it exists. How you create this artifact is up to you, whether you continue talking to your product peer (which I highly recommend) and try to get them involved as early as possible, or you write out a strategy as a list of objectives that seem to align with their decisions.
  4. Find someone with the authority to incentivize them to do the work. This is probably the most destructive option, as you’re going to someone else to get them to do their job (as you perceive it) – assuming they agree that your product peer’s job is what you think it is. With pressure from above, they may do what you expect them to do, but your relationship takes a serious dent. In doing this, you effectively start from scratch with them once more, with trust levels at just about zero.

Finals thoughts 

Here’s a secret about influencing: you can’t make other people do something that they don’t want to do or that they don’t have the experience or confidence to do. This is especially true when you don’t have any authority over them, or have any ways to incentivize them. So, you need to keep building up rapport, understanding what’s important to the other person, and how you can best support that. That’s where trust and influence come from.