In biology, there’s a concept called homeostasis: Living systems seem to effortlessly balance differences between internal and external conditions in order to remain within their existential boundaries. The human body for example maintains an almost constant core temperature through sophisticated heating and cooling processes, and thus manages to keep us alive and flourishing in a wide range of environments.
Social systems on the other hand don’t come with such built-in regulatory mechanism. Tensions between individual employees, different teams, or entire companies and their shareholders, partners, and customers, rarely resolve on their own. Much rather, deliberate effort has to be invested so that the forces at play don’t pull an organization apart. And that, in my view, is one of the key elements of leadership, regardless whether that’s formal or informal, and independent of the hierarchical level at which it occurs.
As product managers, we spend most of our time at the nexus of a complex web of different stakeholders with conflicting interests: The marketing team constantly demands new features they can promote, while the engineers want as much time as possible to build a great product. Shareholders look for ways to increase profit margins, but sales needs to be able to offer a competitive price to our customers. User A wants functionality X, but user B wants functionality Y. Investors demand long-term predictability regarding what we plan to develop, when it’ll be ready, and how much it’ll cost. But we strive to be agile and able to respond quickly to changing market trends and needs.
For a long time, I’ve personally struggled under the pressure of these, often diametrically opposed, demands. I was under the impression that it was my job as a PM to meet all of them, all of the time, and all at the same time. I tried hard to keep everyone happy and often ended up striking disappointing compromises that satisfied no one. Or, I would (unconsciously) favor requests raised by the loudest voices, thus stifling equally valid concerns only because they were presented in a more cautious manner. That sometimes meant sacrificing important long-term considerations, such as maintainability, quality, or scalability, for the immediate benefit of winning another customer or gaining a new, shiny feature to showcase at a conference.
Most worryingly though, I ended up feeling as if the the very existence of these tensions was a sign of me failing as a PM. That through some shortcoming of my own, some negligence or lack of oversight or miscommunication on my part, I had caused them in the first place. That if I were a “better” PM in some vague, undefined regard, they would go away and that me and all my stakeholders would then finally achieve a happy equilibrium heralded by rainbow-puking unicorns.
That, of course, is complete bullshit.
Tension exists always and everywhere. Many of the conflicts which we as PMs have to negotiate are even laughably stereotypical: Every shareholder wants as much return on their investment as they can get while every customers want to pay as little as possible while every employee wants to make more money. There is no, nor can there ever be, a self-sustaining mechanism that ensures homeostasis between these interests in any organization, let alone in product-driven ones. Quite the contrary, the way we compensate and incentivize behavior of individuals and teams often guarantees that their interests will clash eventually. That’s not the PMs fault.
What’s interesting therefore is not how we avoid these types of conflict. Not only is that impossible, the mere attempt often causes more harm than good—as I’ve had to accept myself, despite my inbred desire for a state of permanent harmony. Much rather, I suggest that we as product managers in particular, and as leaders in general, tackle these tensions head-on and try to leverage them for better business outcomes as well as personal growth.
Rather than nudging your engineers to sacrifice quality in order to rush a new feature to the market, can you harness the sales team’s energy to learn more deeply about your customers’ needs? Can you turn the ongoing feud between marketers and business developers over whose fault last quarter’s disappointing pipeline was into a source for concrete steps to improve in the future? Instead of lowering your price due to competitive pressure, can you pinpoint for which features your customers would willingly accept to pay a premium?
Tensions and conflicting interests exist. That’s neither your fault as the PM, nor is it your job to make everyone happy all of the time. For me, consciously accepting this as a fact came with a surprising sense of liberation and a renewal of the joy I receive from my work. But tensions, and wisely navigating them whenever possible, also hold an immense potential for creative solutions. Growth after all happens at the edge, and not at the center, of one’s comfort zone. Some people even thrive and deliberately seek out particularly challenging circumstances and would quickly be bored if all went according to plan all of the time. Take Winston Churchill for example. At the brink of World War I, when he served as First Lord of the Admiralty, risk and uncertainty was abundant. No one knew what was about to happen, except that it would provide ample opportunity to distinguish oneself. But instead of balking at the challenge, he wrote a beautiful little line in a letter to his wife:
Everything tends towards catastrophe, & collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy.
Winston Churchill, 1914