Playbooks from Politics for Product Management
Last week, we lost power at our house for over 48 hours, thanks to the combination of a bomb cyclone and atmospheric river that brought some much needed rain to the San Francisco Bay Area. There wasn’t much to do those two nights. Without TV or internet and worried about running down my phone battery, I started reading Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.”
Now, in full disclosure, I’m not all the way through the book, but I was struck in the early chapters by how Obama rose from being an outsider looking in at the 2000 Democratic National Convention to being elected President in 2008. How did he catapult from a relatively unknown state senator from Illinois to the national stage? How did he captivate the country’s attention in 17 minutes at the 2004 Democratic National Convention? How did he sell his vision?
Prior to reading the book, I was one of those who felt like he had a meteoric rise from obscurity, but as I dove into the pages, I learned about all of the work he had been putting in for years to lay the groundwork. Obama was ready when he got the opportunity to address the nation to inspire millions of Americans to believe in his vision because of all of the preparation that went into the moment. That same playbook is what we, as Product Managers, need to be able to sell our product vision too.
Playbook Tactic #1: Listen
Obama moved to Chicago after graduating from college to work as a community organizer. In that role, he learned an important lesson in how to build trust with local groups and advocate for them, which he didn’t forget even as he continued in his career. When he became a state legislator, Obama spent a few days each summer driving to meet with other state senators in their home districts. He carried this idea forward into his presidential campaign. “Talking to voters in the early days of the campaign, I tended to address the issues I was running on… Over time, though, I focused more on listening. And the more I listened, the more people opened up.” The more that he listened, the more that he realized that people share the same values, hopes, and dreams, no matter how different those districts appeared at the outset. Tapping into the audacity of hope and the American dream became a key theme in Obama’s presidential campaign.
Like Obama, product managers need to listen to users and stakeholders in order to develop user empathy and insights that form your product vision. Building and selling your vision starts with listening to your stakeholders.
Playbook Tactic #2: Launch, learn, and iterate
Obama didn’t come out of nowhere to deliver an amazing speech to accept the presidential nomination. He had lots of practice. During his campaign, he was on the road meeting with people and giving his stump speech everyday, several times a day. His first stump speeches were “stiff, heavy on policy speak, short on inspiration and humor.” With practice, his speeches became better and more relaxed, which helped him gain more supporters.
Don’t expect that everyone will fall in love with your product vision the first time that you present it. Instead, take a similar approach. Pitch your vision early and often, and use these audiences to workshop your ideas and make it better. Think of your product vision in terms of agile, not waterfall, delivery.
Playbook Tactic #3: Tailor your message to your audience
After Bobby Rush defeated Obama to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, Obama realized that he needed to learn how to interact more effectively with the media. That meant restructuring his communication style to get his ideas across in pithy sound bites, and building a campaign that was “less about policy papers and more about connecting one-one-one with voters.”
Similarly, when you sell your product vision, think about who your audience is. Some of the different audiences may include a casual user of your product, an executive, or a partner in UX design. The way that you communicate your vision to each of those audiences should be reflective of the level of detail that they need to know and make it clear why your product vision is relevant to them.
Playbook Tactic #4: Invest in relationships
During Obama’s rise in the early 2000’s, one of the headwinds that his political career faced was how his name rhymed with that of wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden. He was able to overcome that challenge by investing in relationships. He notes, “Some of my colleagues were suspicious of my odd name and Harvard pedigree, but I did my homework and helped raise money for other senators’ campaigns. I got to know my fellow legislators and their staffers not just in the senate chamber but also on the basketball court and at golf outings and during the weekly bipartisan poker games we organized.” Obama got to know his coworkers outside of work and helped them out with things that they cared about.
Having a strong relationship with someone doesn’t mean that they will automatically support your product vision. However, having shared trust means that you will get honest feedback on what objections they have. And once you know their objections, you can problem solve together on how to work through them. That’s much more valuable than getting that polite, noncommittal “maybe” from someone that you don’t really know and lands you nowhere.
Playbook Tactic #5: Don’t give up
The most incredible part of Obama’s journey is the juxtaposition of his experiences at the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Democratic National Conventions. In 2000, he was invited by a friend to fly out to Los Angeles for the convention. Everything went wrong. He couldn’t rent a car because his credit card was maxed out. He couldn’t get into the convention floor because the credential his friend secured for him didn’t work. He ended up sleeping on his friend’s couch and flying home before Al Gore even accepted the nomination. He could have left the convention dejected and humiliated and let his ego get the best of him, but instead, he chose not to give up. Only four years later, he was selected to give a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Another four years later, he accepted the presidential nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. What a turn of events!
Obama shows us the power of not giving up. You may present your product vision once, twice, three times,… and walk away in defeat. If you believe in your product vision, then learn from each encounter. Use the feedback to make your product vision better and stronger. Then, try again.
I picked up “A Promised Land” because I was curious about what Obama had to say, but I ended up learning his playbook for selling a vision. Politicians have to convince constituents to buy into their vision and vote them into office to make that vision a reality. As product managers, many of us do not aspire to the political stage, but like politicians, we have to convince stakeholders to buy into our product vision and allocate budget and resources to make that vision a reality. When you’re trying to sell your product vision, try following in Obama’s footsteps to bring your audience along.
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