Dear Gib: As a PM, how do I best work with other department's bosses? Sometimes, they'll push the decision based on their "power/ego" and not "data/objective" thinking.

Short answer: Assume the best in people and ask questions to uncover the assumptions and intent behind the disagreement. Then learn to debate, decide, and do.

My first tip: Seek to understand. Which of these three sources of data motivate the boss’ thinking:

  • Existing business or customer data?

  • Qualitative data (focus groups, usability, survey)?

  • AB test results?

Even if the boss’s decision feels ego or power-based, something drives their thinking. What is it? What data or assumptions drive this person’s point of view?

Occasionally the person will steamroll you to save time. But highly effective leaders hit the pause button to help you understand; they’ll lead through context, not control. If this doesn’t happen, see if you can discover the missing context yourself:

  • Is there a strategic component to their decision?  A high-level company or organizational strategy? 

  • Are there specific goals or objectives they seek to achieve for the company, their organization, their team, or themselves? Are both of you putting the company first?

  • Do you prioritize company growth, engagement (product quality), and monetization the same? (This is a major source of misalignment across companies.)

You’ll likely discover what causes this person to have a different perspective.

Healthy debate

Continue the conversation using these tactics:

  • Disagree without being disagreeable.  Stay focused on the issues behind the conflict. Be careful not to make the debate feel personal.

  • Provide your context. Describe your organization’s goals, objectives, and strategies, as well as the data sources and assumptions behind your thinking.

  • Establish whose decision it is. The concept of “tight alignment and loose coupling” helps keep organizations aligned via strategy and reduces the need for coupling — checking in with other organizations for every decision. At Netflix, for instance, the content team did not weigh in on website interface decisions, nor did they engage the product organization in decisions about content investment. Are the right people in the room for this decision? If not, fix it.

  • Switch roles. Playback the person’s point of view and ask them to do the same. Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix) would ask executives to switch sides as they debated.  This forced each person to listen to the other, knowing they might need to switch positions at a moment’s notice.

  • Debate, decide, and do.  Ask questions to decide what you think, engage in debate, then make a decision together. Then commit to the decision— that’s the “do” part —even if you disagree. Don’t say “yes,” then try to undo the decision. The opportunity cost of delay is too high. Wait to see the results — at the least, you’ll both learn a lot about each other’s judgment.

Amazon calls this last tactic “disagree and commit,” and it’s a highly effective tactic for moving on.

How long should you continue the debate?

Ask yourself: Is this a high or low stakes decision?  

  • If it’s low stakes -- a low impact, small-dollar amount, or an easy-to-reverse decision -- it’s better to let it go. Execute, then see what happens.  

  • If it’s high stakes -- a high potential magnitude or dollar amount -- it’s worth discussing the issue with your boss. Try to reset the debate for later when you have the right people in the room.

Another reason to push the decision to a different forum is to force alignment between the two organizations’ heads.  For instance, if marketing prioritizes company growth and product wants to put product quality first across the enterprise, then the two organizations are not aligned. It’s your job to point this out. Force the exec team to build high-level alignment so you can do your job effectively.

Below are two examples of putting these ideas into action.

Netflix: Who chooses the shade of red?

I joined Netflix in 2005 as VP of Product.  On my first day of work, Russ, my head of design, came to me and said, “Leslie (the CMO) won’t let us use the shade of red we want for the site.”  When I asked him why, he said, “I’m not sure.” Russ clearly hadn’t spent enough time to seek to understand. (To be fair, Leslie was on maternity leave at the time.)

When I asked Leslie the question, she said, “The design team wants to use a red gradient. If I say “yes,” it will bleed to pink.  I want to own one shade of red.” 

A couple of issues at play here:

  • To my mind, marketing owns the brand, and an essential part of its definition is the color. It also felt like a low-stake decision, so I was happy to let Leslie choose. I wanted to “decide and do” and move on to more pressing issues.

When Leslie returned from maternity, we spent time teasing out the roles of marketing and product in building a world-class brand and product so Russ would know which decisions he owned and which were made by marketing.

Lack of high-level alignment at Chegg

In 2010 I joined Chegg as CPO. During my first week, the head of product, Ciaran, who now worked for me, was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The CEO, Dan, encouraged growth at all costs, while the CFO, Greg, wanted to slow growth to deliver profits. This led to lots of debate over which projects were most important.

I pointed out to Ciaran that the CEO and CFO were fundamentally misaligned, and it was his job to point this out, which he did.  After a week of debate, the two decided to prioritize growth, followed by engagement (product quality) and monetization (profit).  Prioritization became much easier.

Han, thank you for the question, and I am glad that you dare to speak “truth to power.” In the long-term, ask lots of questions, then learn to “debate, decide, and do” to help improve the quality of your company’s decision-making.

Best,

Gib

Gibson Biddle

gibsonbiddle.com

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PS. I wrote a Medium essay, "Ten Habits for Making Wicked Hard Decisions,” which is highly relevant to this question.

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