As product manager, how do you take your plans from theory to action? Simple: Tell the right story.
Making change is hard.
Even harder is making change while projects are in motion. As a product manager, though, this is the job. Remember, as a PdM, you are judged on how you improve the decision fitness of the team you are on. Just thinking about better decisions isn’t enough, though. You have to make them happen.
Turning plans into reality isn’t as easy as simply putting an idea on the table. Humans don’t work that way. Sure, you can try to force your agenda on people. Unlike other disciplines, however, product management works by influence, not brute force.
That’s because, while brute force may work, it won’t work for long. PdM’s thrive on influence without control. Using the stick instead of the carrot gets old fast.
But don’t take that lack of control as a license to not act. PdMs who let inertia take over hoping people just get it on their own don’t last long. Playing tattletale isn’t a winning strategy either. Whispering in the CEO’s ear, much like the proverbial stick, may work in the short term since the CEO has the power to make things happen. Thing is, though, people start to realize that you have no actual influence yourself, and they start to find ways to work around you.
No one respects the PdM who can’t influence change without relying on outside help.
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Storytelling as Product Tool
So, what should you do if plan alone isn’t enough, but you can’t use brute force to accomplish your goals? In order to turn plans into action, what you need is a good story.
Why a story? Human nature means that stories captivate our brains. As you’re reading this, think about the last three things you’ve remembered for any stretch of time. I’m going to bet at least two out of those three were attached to a story that triggered some emotion in you.
As PdMs, we need to be storytellers. Our influence takes hold through the stories we choose to tell and the way we construct those narratives.
That’s all well and good, but how do you know what you need to include in a story? Well, let’s bring back an old friend: survival metrics. We’ll look at my personal principles of storytelling: leading with proof, repeating the story, and then iterating it inside of your culture. We’ll then explore how to use your story to turn survival metrics into action for your organization.
3 KEYS TO A GOOD STORY
- Lead With Social Proof.
- Repeat the Story.
- Iterate Within Your Culture
What Are Survival Metrics?
Before we begin, let’s have a quick refresher on survival metrics, which help a product team determine if an initiative is worth investing in more, pivoting or stopping completely. They are a forcing function that prevent product teams from suffering due to the sunk cost fallacy. Survival metrics put resource allocation and company incentives, both implied (think politics) and direct (think data), in front of the team before a project begins and again at regular intervals, giving everyone permission to act quickly.
Survival metrics create a clear picture of what can go wrong while a project is in motion. By spelling out potential limitations early, you’ve created a warning system for both the team and the company that will make any necessary pivots more effective since you won’t spend time convincing the organization to get on board with necessary changes.
Survival metrics have three levels, each based on the information you’ll get from answering questions about the project. If something is worth stopping the project for, the metrics are STOP statements. Those that lead us to reconsider the direction we’re going in are PIVOT statements. Anything that signals you to lean into the initiative as you build, even if things are a little rocky, is an INVEST statement.
We Have the Metrics. Now What?
So, you’ve put together a great batch of survival metrics. What happens next?
You need to create a story that can help sustain the metrics and keep them fresh in people’s minds. To do so, employ the three concepts we mentioned above: leading with proof, repeating the story, and then iterating.
Survival metrics’ underlying benefit is that they’re iterative. Every time you launch a project with survival metrics, you’ll notice some metrics go away and a few stick around. Those that you keep returning to are a clear measure of what your company cares most about. As you get survival metrics closer to reality through each iteration, the process you build will grow with your company.
Leading With Social Proof
People don’t just accept ideas out of thin air. Concepts need some proof to show that they work before anyone listens.
This is why conference talks work. The people onstage have been vetted. They are real experts who have some social proof supporting their arguments. The idea here, in short, is that people believe an idea is trustworthy because it has been verified by another source that they trust. The psychologist Robert Cialdini described this phenomenon in his book, Influence.
Trustworthiness can come in many forms: Conferences, articles and books can all provide social proof for an idea. This is true for survival metrics, but also for any popular concept. For example, I love opportunity solution trees. Teresa Torres has plenty of social proof, as you can see by typing her name into Google and perusing the pages and pages of results that attest to her expertise.
The trouble is, even if you have social proof, that’s not enough by itself. Social proof helps people see you aren’t just creating something out of thin air. There is more to the story, however.
If you’re focused on social proof by itself, you’ll notice new concepts start strong but never stick. When it comes to survival metrics, you’ll notice a team starts using the concept, but usage fades during release.
Let’s consider an example. A BobCo product leader, Jill, saw someone reference survival metrics in a tweet and began to read about them. She liked the idea and decided to introduce the product team to the concept.
Her two product managers, Alex and Erica, took on the task of implementing them with their respective teams.
Alex simply introduced the premise of survival metrics to the team. Everyone thought it was a concept that he had created himself. Lacking any broader context, the team just waited to see what was next rather than taking action.
Erica, before introducing the new paradigm to her team, read the article herself. To better understand survival metrics, she also watched a video from a conference talk and learned that other companies, such as Mailchimp, had used them. She added that background information in her presentation to the team, explaining where survival metrics come from and how other well-known companies had used them. Rather than just mentioning this new concept, she earned some buy-in by telling a comprehensive narrative about it. Thanks to the additional information, people on the team were curious about how they could use survival metrics themselves.
So, now that you have a story supported by proof, you need to keep telling it.
Repeating the Story
You’ve used social proof to demonstrate the validity of your metrics. Now, though, people keep forgetting that they’re supposed to rely on them during projects. How do you keep things on people’s minds?
Simple: You keep telling the team. Repeat the concept. Repeat the metrics. Repeat their value. In this case, you’ll repeat survival metrics in meetings, in documents and during standups. Say it over and over.
Repeat it until people get tired of hearing it, and then repeat it again. You’re fighting inertia. Since inertia is difficult to overcome when people are settled, you’ll have to continue to sell your work over and over again.
The story that you’re telling about survival metrics is a story of change. Survival metrics are crucial for an agile organization and its commitment to the Agile Manifesto. Specifically, they allow your organization to “practice responding to change over following a plan.” Keep that principle top of mind and reiterate it along with the survival metrics. Using the agile angle to explain why survival metrics work is the winning move when fighting inertia.
When you’re doing this, try repeating yourself in different ways. Build a slide that finds its way into every presentation. Write a note at the top of the sprint review to review every week. Make a video that appears with every demo. Just keep talking about survival metrics in a bunch of different ways.
In marketing, this approach is called the rule of seven, and you’ll hear it every time you listen to a podcast ad. The name of the product and the company will come up at least seven times, implanting the memory in your head.
Returning to our example, Alex simply said the words “survival metrics” once or twice during the meeting. He never mentioned them explicitly again, instead expecting the rest of the team to remember to use them. Because they were still waiting for more information, though, the team never did anything.
After the first meeting, Erica added the survival metrics and the relevant storytelling elements into all of the templates the team used. That way, everyone would see them again when they started something new. She also added it to the previous project to bookmark it. When the team saw the updated templates, she took the opportunity to tell a story about the metrics again, segueing into the specific metrics they were using.
Of course, repeating the story over and over again will get old, and people will eventually tune you out. This is why the story has to evolve.
Retrospect Into Evolution
So, you’re repeating the point and referencing social proof for support. That is all well and good, but if you do something long enough without adjustment, it becomes white noise.
Let’s be honest: As good as any tactic is, your mileage may vary since every framework you bring in was made elsewhere. Your company’s culture is unique, so a new framework won’t necessarily land right away. Survival metrics are no different. In my experience, it takes at least six months for a product team to take on a new framework as its own.
You have to build your own culture into survival metrics and then let them evolve within your organization’s culture. That’s why you’ll need to have some way to see the continuing validity of the framework and adjust accordingly.
This is where team retrospectives come into play. In those meetings, you can adjust the tactics you’re using by asking pointed questions and investigating, with your peers, how you can make your procedures better.
After introducing survival metrics to his team, Alex only talked about them in one more retro during the quarter. Soon, survival metrics disappeared, becoming just another tool that Alex talked about that never brought any real value to the team.
Erica noticed the new tool wasn’t inspiring action when she first used them with her team, so she took the time to talk to everyone about why the metrics weren’t guiding action and how to better implement them. They created check-ins to talk about the metrics regularly. The metrics started to improve thanks to having dedicated discussions every few weeks. By the end of the initiative, the team got to a point where they felt very confident in the metrics they selected.
Remember, frameworks evolve in the team retro. You and the team are the secret sauce for anything to work.
Frameworks Are Great, but Action Is Better
Changing is hard. Changing in action is harder. You are confronting the idea that you were wrong. That is hard to deal with, no matter who you are.
This is why story is important. Putting survival metrics in action with a story by leveraging social proof, repeating it, and using retrospectives to evolve the concept to fit your culture will maximize what you get out of it.