Anyone with a bit of skin in the game knows that it’s just about impossible to balance the needs of all relevant stakeholders when you’re coming up with a new product or service. The backlog is *always* growing beyond your capacity, and deciding what trade-offs are worth making is probably the most important aspect of your job description as a founder.

Roman Pilcher is someone who’s given this a lot of thought. He’s coming at the problem from the angle of product management, a discipline which has developed a rich toolbox that is highly relevant to entrepreneurs.

In his latest book, he’s musing on the strong urge to avoid tension by either letting go – becoming no more than a “feature broker” – or tighten the grip in the belief that only you know where the product should really go.

The zone in between these two modes will always be uncomfortable. We’re  not programmed to deal well with conflict and Roman identifies four common  ways in which we tend to mitigate the unsolvable equation that a product manager comes up against daily:

  1. the competitive confrontation (protect your product)
  2. the passive aggressive (“I’ll have to see what I can do”, then burying the request at the bottom of the backlog)
  3. the conflict avoidance (“let’s be constructive, maybe we can do a partial implementation.”)
  4. passivity (essentially letting the stakeholders do your job).

How do we avoid these patterns and what would be a better option? Roman finds inspiration in “the Behavioural Change Stairway Model”, a method developed by the FBI and popularised by author Chris Voss in his book Never Split the Difference.

The FBI has a lot of experience on how *not* to deal with hostage situations and has learned that it’s seldom successful to use brute force, but also that you don’t get anywhere by “being nice”.

The model they came up with instead starts with building empathy, which creates meaningful emotional connection, whereby you can realistically start to influence each other. This leads to the last step of the stairway, which is behavioural change.

The active ingredients to make this work: Time, plus deeply attentive listening.

Seems easy? After spending just short of a decade working with conflict resolution (in the Balkans, the Middle east and Northern Ireland) I know for a fact that it’s not. 

But easy isn’t the point, what’s important is the mindset. Product management, as entrepreneurship, is about listening. In a really profound way. Because if you can unpack the unrelenting stream of incoming feature requests and reach a deeper implied level, that’s when you can build a product that doesn’t just give people what they think they want, but what they really need.

It’s funny how FBI keeps coming to our rescue when it comes to useful methodology. In his excellent book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Jeff Sutherland describes how he essentially invented the scrum methodology when he was recruited by FBI to do disaster recovery after the gigantic failure of developing a system that was meant to replace all previous IT infrastructure. If you only want to read one book on the art of getting things done, I dearly recommend this one.