Adam Juras

@jurasadam

The concerning trend of facilitator PMs

Dilbert already knew it in 1994

You’re probably well-aware of the trend that the product manager’s role is shifting from being a decision-maker to a facilitator.

It’s annoying to say the least, but when taken to the extreme it can lead to a culture that lacks decisions, which is actually taking a decision to not decide. This paralysis is a recipe for failure.

But before crying wolf, let me go back one step.

My voice may not be popular in this matter. People more knowledgeable than me write about how the modern PM’s role should shift to “serve and catalyze” instead of “own and manage”. “Facilitate and build frameworks” instead of “decide”. You’ve probably heard it yourself.

John Cutler wrote an interesting story about it and although I do agree with most of his points, the “facilitator” part is worrying.

Yes, but

I do see the need and huge leverage of a skilled facilitator in every team. It’s part of our job. I also get that the shift comes as a reaction to the times when the PM was an authoritarian decision-maker. But let’s not fall into extremes and go all the way to a situation where everyone is happily distributing the responsibility of making decisions, or in this case the lack thereof.

Yes, the PM’s job is to involve the whole team and find solutions together, but she also needs to show responsibility and sometimes take over the lead.

When group decisions can be a bad idea

Here’s my shortlist:

1. High complexity

There are tons of factors to be considered simultaneously. Not everyone can wrap their heads around all of them while working on tasks that require deep focus, like coding.

2. Picking the option that sucks the least

A group usually doesn’t decide for the best option, but for the one that has the least opposers. Great products are not born out of compromises.

3. Specialization

Every team-member should understand the business behind the product and is expected to contribute to shaping it, but as a product manager you invest far more time into strategy and monetization than anyone else.

If you wish, UI design is a good analogy. Everyone should pitch in, especially the developers so that they can point out technical constraints, but in the end the designer is responsible to deliver a great UI. To take the analogy further, the PM is the ultimate Product Designer.

4. Smart people find lots of problems

Most unicorns started as ideas that sounded terrible at the beginning. A highly smart team is very good to point out 10 reasons why it won’t work. This can be a safety-net, but it can be a blocker too.

5. Speed

The more people are in a decision-making team, the more time it takes to get to a consensus.

It’s not either-or.
For every situation the PM should decide when to be firm and hold on to an idea, when to empower a single individual to take the lead, and when to stay back and let the team decide. This is much more than facilitating.

“Why you should believe me”

PMs tend to have a diverse past. At some point in their careers they might have been engineers, designers, marketeers, sales agents, project managers, business analysts or even bankers and lawyers. They got into Product Management as their second role the soonest, but it’s more commonly their fourth or fifth role.

They often co-founded at least one startup and got their hands dirty on every part of a business.

Yes, this diversity puts them into a spot that is best-suited to facilitate whatever needs to be facilitated. But it also makes product managers the ones you can rely on to define strategies and to make hard calls. They are the ones who have the whole picture for taking decisions: from stakeholders to users, from “NPS” goals to revenue targets.

Sometimes someone has to make a gut call. Someone needs to come up with that long-term vision. Someone has to “sell” this vision to the whole team.

Sometimes someone has to step up.

And the person who is expected to do this is the Product Manager.

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