As product managers, we are sometimes confronted with “feature hostage negotiations.” Here are some conflict resolution tips for such times.
You know what I’m talking about, those emotional instances where the tug between sales needing shiny objects and stakeholders seeking strategic milestones … or perhaps even closer to home, where the desire of customers is at odds with the metaphysical realities as described by devops.
I’m talking about those occasions where it seems that the only way around the solution is for both sides to compromise by splitting the difference. In such cases, I might suggest considering this classic example found in “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” … where I’ve introduced some poetic license based on my own ‘Big Fat Greek’ family experiences …
After a hard day working the grill at the Delphi Diner, Nick Portokális enters his home via the kitchen door only to find chairs overturned and Tupperware knocked to the floor as his two sons wrestle over the last orange in the house. Having ignored the prior warning of “I don’t care whose fault it is, I’ll knock both your heads together,” the siblings stop their grappling as their father snatches the orange from their shared grip, the patron pulling out a penknife and hacking the orange in half.
Handing each half to our hapless pankratiasts, the dad sees both offspring are upset with said compromise. The frustrated father asks “Go ahead, eat up … and don’t give me crap over whose half is bigger … I don’t want to hear it!”
It’s at this time George, the younger of the two brothers, speaks up and says “… It’s not that, it’s just that I wanted the rind to make some zest for some cupcakes I’m making for Momma’s birthday.” This is followed by the older brother, Nick Jr., pointing out “But I wanted slices so I could make some orange juice to serve with her breakfast in bed I’m preparing.”
As Fisher & Ury suggest in chapter 4 of the aforementioned book: “Too many negotiations end up with half an orange for each side instead of the whole fruit for one and the whole peel for the other. Why?” My answer is that quite often we overlook a valuable collaboration when we settle for a compromise.
Put another way, a win-win solution could have been enjoyed had any of the three individuals in this Greek micro-drama had simply asked something along the lines of “Why is the orange so important to you?”
The same is true with those times there is an apparent conflict between two individuals, groups, or companies in discussing features where everyone walks away feeling like a loser. Neither side considering their assumptions were incorrect. Each party’s myopia causing blinding them from seeing the real problem.
This is where we as product managers can provide significant value by approaching the ask in the following ways:
- Focus on interests, not positions. In the case of the Portokális brothers, their entire focus was on their feeling of entitlement to the orange based on the good things they wanted to do in celebrating their mother’s birthday … not realizing that his interests were aligned. Both just assumed the other wanted to eat the orange.
- Invent options for mutual gain. Had the father not focused so much on stopping the fight as much as understanding the ‘why’ behind the scuffle, he might have been able to guide his two sons to a win-win solution neither had considered.
- Insist on using objective criteria. While it is not really applicable to this situation, I suppose another path to an inventive solution might have been some form of net promoter survey to see how Mom felt about cupcakes and orange juice, over perhaps a spa day followed by dinner out.
The bottom line is this, as a product manager, you’re going to find yourself thrust into a position of conflict resolution between two competing parties. It could be over a new feature request, or it could be over the prioritization of work in the backlog, though I bet over the course of this week you’ll experience both.
My suggestion is to go ahead and put aside some time to read some materials and watch some videos that might help you avoid a lousy compromise in favor of collaboration that leads to a creative solution of value to everyone. Here are some links to get you started:
- Orange Quarrel short version (YouTube Video)
- William Ury: Getting to Yes (Another YouTube Video)
- Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Amazon.com)
- Chapter 1 of the above book ‘Getting to Yes’ for free (a PDF)
- The Harvard Negotiation Project (full-blown website)
- Book Notes on Getting to Yes (a GitHub project)
- To Get To The Root Of A Hard Problem, Just Ask “Why” Five Times (FastCompany article)
- Don’t build that feature! How to use the 5 Why’s to learn what your customer really is saying (blog post)
And as always, if you have your own ‘software hostage negotiation’ stories you’d like to share or discuss, feel free to share with us via a comment.