TL;DR — Here are 7 tips to help product managers & product owners navigate some common pitfalls associated with corporate holiday parties.
1. Don’t skip it
I know that sometimes corporate Christmas parties can be a pain, and to some, they even seem spurious, but the managers and executives who are stakeholders and sponsors for your initiatives will likely be there and will likely remember if you were a no-show.
So why not take advantage of it and treat such gatherings as an opportunity to show everyone your beautiful smile while you offer them warm wishes for the upcoming New Year? Who knows, you may even surprise yourself how well this smooths over any recent rough patches.
2. Don’t go in unarmed
I think it was Voltaire who said “On parle toujours mal quand on n’a rien à dire” which Google translates as “We always speak badly when we have nothing to say.”
The point is, just as you don’t walk into a sprint demo without talking points, it’s probably a good idea to have some off-work topics in mind that’ll keep conversations timeboxed to a delightful 5 minutes. This not only keeps you out of the danger zone of over-talking, but it also avoids the accidental commitment to a current customer request.
For example, people may bail on you when you start talking about your mountain bike or vegetable garden, but you likely won’t get fired for voicing an opinion about cyclocross tires on 29’ers or caging tomatoes. If that fails you, do what I do, bring something seasonal to sing … even if it isn’t as stunning as Fritz Wunderlich & Hermann Prey’s rendering of “Weihnachtmusik” … there’s at least this little ditty you can fa-la-la about the office:
3. Don’t gossip or complain …
… and don’t engage others who are.
Quick story: decades ago the CEO’s son was at a Christmas party where he was complaining to me he needed some hardware for a project, and was wondering if he could grab some of the gear I was entrusted with to launch a new database initiative. The kid was pretty lit, I wasn’t. I simply said something to the effect “Hey, our resources are pretty tight right now, so we’d have to work out the timing.”
The following Monday I found myself in the CEO’s office getting chewed out for about 30 minutes solid — not for realistically and soberly setting expectations — but for allegedly telling his son “No, he can’t have what he wants.”
A valuable product management lesson for me filed under: “It’s not as important what you say as it is what they hear.”
4. Don’t make promises
Despite your best efforts on points 2 and 3, be ready for someone to bring up feature requests, pet projects, or some other work-related item. Be attentive to what they say, but keep in mind that a commitment sans input from the team is about as welcome as the Grinch showing up for roast beast sans his 3x heart!
Instead of playing the risky and thankless role of ‘Backlog Clause,’ see if you can’t get them to defer the item till after the party. Usually the suggestion of “send me an email” or “let’s meet tomorrow” works.
I also heard of a product manager who had on her smartphone a Trello board she could quickly and most conspicuously capture such complaints when cornered; gleefully introducing said stakeholder to someone else immediately after while giving the appearance of action.
A good book on this particular topic is “The Power of a Positive No” by William Ury.
5. Don’t overindulge
I shouldn’t have to say this in 2018, but after reading the recent Business Insider article titled ’27 of The Wildest Office Holiday Party Stories We’ve Ever Heard’ it seems we have yet more validation via user stories that no good comes of consuming too much food or drink during such office gatherings.
Sure, the goodies are free, but so are the lasting memories of you stuffing your pockets full of jumbo shrimp while creating all sorts of HR issues while drunkenly bellowing ‘Brindisi’ from ‘La Traviata.’
6. Don’t forget standard party etiquette
Being fashionably late for office parties probably isn’t as fashionable as you think. Nor is a crufty ‘Bad Santa’ outfit. So get there at a reasonable time, reasonably dressed for the occasion. If it’s the type where gifts are exchanged, don’t show up empty-handed, nor with a last-minute dollar store trinket unless that’s what’s expected.
Oh and on your departure, thank the hosts … BRIEFLY … no need for a full-throated rendering of ‘Farewell of Slavianka.’
7. Don’t forget to actually celebrate
Look, you spend at least eight hours a day and forty per week with many of these awesome co-workers and teammates. So take this time to reflect how fortunate most of us in product management really are.
Focus on these blessings, and it’s likely you can ignore the other six points above.
Bonus material for fun …
‘Twas the staff Christmas party,
and on the next day,
We cradled our coffees,
all burdened with shame;
The telephone ringing
made everyone flinch,
But we sat at our desks,
not moving an inch …
The write-ups went out
by HR with care,
With hopes that Corporate
would not be there …
The backlog was lit
with new items of work,
Some 2 points, some 5 points
put up by some jerk …
The WIP limits shot,
the sprint was a wreck,
Leaving only the PO
as the wringable neck.