“Don’t Freak Out!” Product Management & Emotion Management

As a product manager, some days it seems like half of my time is spent calming down team members who are freaking out about the project. And on those days, most of the other half seems to be spent re-establishing and maintaining team alignment on a product release. (Usually this is because the people who need to calm down have spread their uncertainty around to others.)

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(image via pixabay)

I used to feel side tracked because I felt that I should be spending my time on market research, helping with monetization plans, supporting sales and marketing, planning and prioritizing features and helping make a decision on a UX improvement or to help the team re-prioritize a feature because of some unforeseen event. I didn’t expect to spend so much time helping keep people calm, and repeating the product vision, priorities and keeping the team on track. I’m a collaborative person, so I always have buy-in before proceeding. Why then, do some days seem like most of what I do is listen, talk, repeat myself, listen, talk and repeat myself some more? Didn’t we all agree on this stuff? What’s going on?

At first, when someone freaked out over something we had settled on and agreed to as a team, it was tempting to just point them the product vision statement written in huge letters and posted above our development board. Or opening a product roadmap, and pointing at it as the person ranting to me insisted we should be doing something else. What happened to the agreement that we had as a team, and more importantly, your agreement and endorsement? What happened?

What I learned is, a lot of times people are just freaking out. Some people freak out more than others, and we all freak out in different ways. As a product manager, I am often the first person they come to when they are freaking out. And, an important part of my job is to deal with freak outs. If I can keep people calm, focused and productive, that helps us reach our shipping targets.

The truth is, we are all emotional creatures and software development projects are incredibly difficult. We all freak out a bit on projects from time to time if we look at the big picture and think of all the work we have to do in such a short time. At any point in time during a software development project, it can be overwhelming if you think about it too much. However, people sometimes also freak out for good reasons.

Techies may get worried that we can’t meet commitments, or implementing a new technology isn’t going as well as planned. Or we may just get bored of the technology, learn about something new, and feel that there is a better way to move ahead than our current roadmap and plan. As business people, we get all kinds of tantalizing offers from potential customers, and we are very swayed by the people who are willing to spend money. It can take what seems like forever for a technical team to deliver a release (because it is so labour intensive), so we may get distracted away from the current release, and start talking about an idea for some time down the road. To be honest, I get freaked out a bit too. Here are some recent minor freakouts:

  • Did we pick the correct web framework? What if it doesn’t support the browser that our first client uses in their organization!??
  • Did I do enough research with our monetization model? What if my research and recommendations and my interpretations of consultations with experts are wrong?
  • Did I misinterpret the usage statistics and engagement metrics from our apps which could potentially mess up our priorities for the next release? At worst, what if we change something that the majority of people are using and annoy our best customers?

See? I can be as neurotic as the next person. I deal with my own freakouts by having my own personal support network. Sometimes I just need to vent to someone else who isn’t directly involved with the team. Other times, I need to bounce ideas off of senior team members to re-evaluate our current path. What if I am missing something important? I also research any freakouts when others agree. And sometimes, we just have to find out and adjust accordingly when we release. If I guided us towards the wrong monetization model and the wrong priorities, we just need to be on top of it and adjust based on market feedback.

Once in a while, someone is right to freak out and disrupt our current path. They had some doubts, researched and realized we are off track and we need to change now. How do I tell the difference between someone who is freaking out and needs a bit of reassurance, and a real issue we need to deal with right now?

Usually, we get unsettled due to reasons that we can’t explain. Some people say our subconscious or our intuition are at work here. When someone brings up an issue but they can’t provide you with a clear explanation of what is wrong, let alone an alternate solution, it is important not to dismiss it. So I always ask for proof driven by research. Can you spend some time looking into the problem to see if it’s a real issue, or just a minor freakout? If we need to change, why? What is the business case? Where is the evidence I could use to show stakeholders we are off track? Once a team member starts to make their freak out defensible, two things usually happen:

  1. once they start to research, they realize their freak out is unfounded, and they calm down by looking at evidence that supports that we are on the right track)
  2. as they gather evidence, they are able to reinforce their misgivings by forming a better idea of what the problem is, and are able to communicate it much more convincingly

In the first case, we just let it go and move forward. In the second case, the freakout turns into a strategic business or technical decision.

Sometimes, freakouts are symptoms of communication problems, poor tools (or poor use of tools) or other issues unrelated to the project itself. These are important to watch for too, because even simple issues can cause people to spend time freaking out instead of working because something is wrong.

As my colleague Aaron West points out, it’s important to provide a safe environment and provide permission for people to freak out. If I am the person they feel safe freaking out to, and we can deal with their feelings in a healthy way, that minimizes them having to go to others and sidetracking them. If the environment is repressive, and there aren’t healthy outlets, people will undermine the mission of the project by releasing that tension in other ways.

When I presented for the first time at a large international software development conference, I was really nervous. The facilitator could tell, and tried to calm me down with a little pep talk. She told me about her office, how outnumbered the technical IT members were, and how they had insane deadlines with multimillion dollar projects all the time. The projects were heavily publicized, so any delay brought embarrassment to the company, as well as the potential to lose money. It sounded like a very stressful environment to work in, but she said she had learned to thrive there. It was a really easy place to get freaked out in, and a small team could waste time and effort if they got freaked out over the wrong things. So, she printed out a huge poster that said DON’T FREAK OUT! and hung it in the development team bullpen. That didn’t stop people from freaking out, but it helped calm people down, and reduced the freakouts over trivial issues. If someone came to her freaking out, they were freaking out for the right reasons. The message was that I really didn’t need to freak out about presenting my talk, there are a lot more important things in life to freak out over than public speaking.

Sometimes I have to tell myself not to freak out and I remember that pep talk and that DON’T FREAK OUT! poster. Is it really worth freaking out, or am I just stressed and worried? Late at night on a stressful project, all kinds of problems seem large and insurmountable. I have to ask myself, is this worth being freaked out over? Do I need to ask for another opinion? When others come to me freaking out, I need to help them either channel that energy into something productive, or decide that they are freaking out about something important, and we do need to change what we are doing.

Different projects have different levels of freak outs, and they occur during more stressful times on a project. I have to remember that helping people navigate freak outs is just as important as the cool tasks in my job description.

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