How do you ensure alignment when you have two senior executive stakeholders who disagree with each other on the proposed strategy and you are stuck in the middle?
Oftentimes, disagreements are simply differences of opinion, which exist because there is a lack of data.
In this case, PMMs are great neutral third-parties who are well-positioned to close that data gap. Listen carefully to what the execs are saying, and understand the WHY behind their disagreement. Are they disagreeing on strategy because one of them believes that the decision will make you uncompetitive in the market? As a PMM, you can bring competitive intelligence and customer insights to bear here. Are they disagreeing on a decision that impacts the customer experience? As a PMM, put on your customer hat and bring some customer insights (maybe pull in a customer marketing friend to help). Do they think that the decision will impact profitability? Bring in your finance counterparts to weigh in and model out a few scenarios.
All decisions should be grounded in business impact. As a PMM, you might not hold all the data that are necessary to come to a decision, but you can (and should) be able to get data to ensure that the decision is made with the business in mind.
Startups are unique because (virtually) every employee is also a shareholder. Which means that every internal meeting is also a shareholders' meeting.
Now, unlike companies where you are a passive shareholder (Grandma bought you 10 shares of McDonald's, for example) but have no way to influence day-to-day decisions, you get to make a big difference at the company where you work. Every day at a startup is a chance for you to make an impact that will increase the value of your (and your colleagues') shares. It's a meaningful opportunity.
What does all this have to do with ensuring alignment amidst disagreement? Well, it can help for Product Marketing to be the "voice of the long-term shareholder" in situations where there is disagreement (and where the decision you all make together is meaningful to the company's future prospects). This way, you are no longer "in the middle", you are adding a unique perspective to the discussion and helping frame the issue in a better way. Here are some suggestions when you get into a situation where there is strategic disagreement.
1. Acknowledge that there is disagreement. I think this is a critical first step that often gets missed in the heat of the moment. It relieves some of the pent-up tension to just say out loud that we disagree.
2. Lean into the disagreement
3. List out the assumptions behind each position - i.e., what would have to be true about the world in order for each of your executive stakeholders to be "right"? Does one view of the world seem more plausible than the other?
4. Make everyone argue for both answers - at the very least, this expands everyone's aperture - even if they still may disagree after.
If all else fails, and you really need to make a decision (as we always do), all parties should bring in other perspectives, or simply escalate the issue up.
This is where DACIs (or RACIs) decision-making frameworks are critical. At a projects inception, it’s important to agree with senior executives on who the single final approver should be. Who is accountable for the success of the project (ie. whose job is on the line if it succeeds/fails)? Agreeing on the one approver in the beginning should prevent downstream conflicts.
If you are stuck in the middle, the best you can do is offer objective data for both sides of the argument and leave it up to the decision-maker to understand the trade-offs being made with the decision. (In some occasions, a “test both options” solution might also be worth considering.)
But disagreement can and will happen. “Disagree and commit” is a very valid, and common outcome. If that’s the path you find yourself on, make sure both parties truly commit and move forward owning the decision, even if it wasn’t the one they wanted.
This is a tough one! It can be really difficult when you have exec stakeholders who aren't aligned. Ultimately, it's on them to get aligned and provide clear direction 'down the chain' but a few things that could help:
Understand where the misalignment is - is it the whole strategy, or specific parts of it? Is there a compromise you could propose that would help get alignment? What are the main concerns of whoever isn't on board, and can you ask questions to better understand what is driving the concerns - and can you then address those?
Provide additional research/evidence or test a proposal - if you can, try proposing a way to further validate or test out the strategy such as customer research, a/b testing etc (this will depend on what type of strategy you're working on!)
- Re-align on goals and timelines - sometimes it can be helpful to go back to the original goals and make sure everyone is still aligned on what you're trying to achieve. Re-sharing timelines, and how not making a decision by x date will impact them, can also help drive things forward when they get stuck
If one of these execs is your manager, it's also worth having an open conversation with them about the challenging position of being in the middle and asking them to take the lead on getting alignment with their peer.
Goes back to the shared goals - which at a high level, are hard to argue with - revenue, cost savings, customer success, etc. Once you get that common agreement, then it's about the strategy / the "how" to get there. If there are disagreements here, I would start with trying to understand why and seeing it from both of their vantage points. Then trying to see if you can get them 1:1 to understand the other point of view or better yet, get them to talk to each other. Ultimately though if all that doesn't work, you may need to get a tie breaker that's someone else and who they will listen to.
Getting senior alignment is a key strategic role for PMM - we can be powerful bridges and connectors. Whenever there is a clear difference of opinion the best thing I’ve found is to bring the customer more fully into the room. Bring research to bear on the problem. You can be a powerful tiebreaker if you can couple your opinion with insight and data.
This is definitely a challenge most PMMs see themselves in. I typically find success when I work the challenge from both ends. If the executives cannot disagree and committ while in the same room, spend time with each one individually. Understand their concerns, their perspective, and their reservations on an indiviudual level. I find that often many people are speaking "different languages" and the disagreement is somewhat superficial. It's your job to frame the strategy in a way that appeals to both. It's not easy but it's possible. Good luck!