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Product Roadmaps Relaunched by Michael Connors, Evan Ryan, Bruce McCarthy, C. Todd Lombardo

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Shuttle Diplomacy

Greg [product manager] had been there for two years before me when I took over product. He had been struggling with that team for ages, because they could never come to a consensus on anything.

Timing was on my side: the executives had just been to a board meeting and presented their goals for the next year to the investors where they had four very crisp business-outcome goals clarified. Two were product oriented—the two essential ingredients to differentiation of our product. The other two were business objectives.

For one, the CEO had said, “I want disruption. I want game changing.” And the way I ended up translating that was “future potential revenue,” as we knew for sure we weren’t going to get revenue this year, but it was worth investing in because we might realize that [higher revenue] in the future. I was then able to do my prioritization matrix and sort everything in terms of things that looked like they had a high ROI to low ROI.

I went to each of the executives individually, and initially when I asked the executives about the goals they agreed, “Yes. Those are the goals.” We actually managed to skip past the usually difficult phase of just agreeing on the goals. The prior meeting set up the goals conversation for success.

During each of those meetings, I got out my spreadsheet—my scorecard with the goals at the top and all the ideas—and made sure all their ideas were on the spreadsheet. We discussed each and scored the ones that they cared about. I made sure that they felt like they were heard and had a chance to contribute.

Finally, we sat the whole group down in the room, and we came up with a roadmap in about an hour and a half. Greg came out of that room, astonished, “How did you do that? That was magic. I’ve never gotten those guys to agree on anything.” I replied, “It wasn’t magic. It was shuttle diplomacy.”

—Bruce McCarthy, 2011

Bruce’s story is straight from the playbook of Henry Kissinger when he “shuttled” between Middle East capitals as he sought to ease negotiations in the fallout of the October 1973 war.

Kissinger leveraged international toll lines, the White House’s hotline to Moscow, telegrams, couriers, recorded messages, transatlantic flights, and any other means of communication he could get his hands on. Because the parties could not—or more likely would not—speak with each other, Kissinger spoke to each of them individually. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Kissinger could cut through any emotionally charged interactions and talk about things with them sympathetically and pragmatically. By acting as an intermediary and peace broker between the two sides, he appeared neutral and worked to incrementally improve the situation, rather than attempt a full-blown resolution.

There’s a lot of debate about the long-term outcomes of the situation; however, the tactic proved very useful in highlighting stakeholder needs in the negotiation process. For years after the ceasefire, Kissinger continued shuttling between the major players, and his efforts culminated in the 1979 Camp David Accords, considered the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state.

Shuttle Diplomacy for Product People

Shuttle diplomacy involves meeting with each party individually to reach decisions that require compromise and trade-offs. This approach can help manage and coordinate stakeholders to reach agreement on what the current and future product will be.

Political negotiators employ shuttle diplomacy when one or more of the parties refuse to recognize another party involved in the decision. For product professionals, this won’t likely be the case, although we’ve all had our share of teams where the friction is high. As a product person, you may find that (unlike some heads of state) your stakeholders are willing to meet together. However, we’ve found it’s often better if they don’t—at least at first.

Have you ever been in an executive meeting where each attendee is there just there to prove how smart they are? Or have you experienced it when the stronger voices in the room end up belittling or intimidating others? These political machinations can ruin your attempts at alignment. We’ve found the politics are much more manageable in one-on-one settings. Like Kissinger, you can focus the conversation on common goals if it’s just you and them, with nobody else in the room for them to answer to or try to impress.

Why Does Shuttle Diplomacy Work?

At each meeting, identifying the individual’s goals, priorities, and other considerations is the key to managing by shuttle diplomacy. These one-on-one meetings offer a feedback loop not only about the person’s thinking, but also whether it is in line with the organization’s goals and vision (see Chapter 4 on guiding principles). You build trust and rapport with each of these stakeholders, because you’re listening to them and asking them why and how things are important to them. If they keep pushing for something that doesn’t make sense in terms of the larger goals, that’s a hint that there’s an unwritten goal that needs to be discussed.

In addition, if there are any politics (or hidden agendas), an individual stakeholder is likely to reveal them to you if you’re receptive and able to build a close rapport, whereas they might not in a larger group meeting. You take all of the office politics out of it, because it’s just you and them talking about what’s best for the company, and not them trying to sound smart in front of the CEO, team, or board.

Finally, by giving each stakeholder the opportunity to have input early on (i.e., while the product roadmap is still a work in progress), the shuttle diplomacy process gives them authorship of the plan too. It’s not your plan anymore—it’s our plan. The co-creative nature of the roadmap process cannot be understated.

How to Engage in Shuttle Diplomacy

As we’ve mentioned, when engaging in shuttle diplomacy, you should entice your stakeholders with a draft of your roadmap and ask for their input. In the first part of your meeting, always tie it to the goals and objectives. You can use the simple acronym GROW to guide your conversation:

Goals

What are they trying to accomplish in the next X months?

Reality

What’s on their plate now? What’s recent?

Options

What do they think will help them achieve those goals?

What options have you already discussed that need to be revisited?

Way forward

Which of the options helps them achieve the goals they described earlier in the conversation? Which options are at the top of their list and why?

Shuttle Diplomacy Canvas

If GROW helps guide your conversation, the shuttle diplomacy canvas in Table 8-1 can help you track the meetings and move you toward final alignment and buy-in for your roadmap.

Here’s how it works:

For each stakeholder, track their desired outcomes, why they have those objectives, what metrics they use in achieving those outcomes, and what their top product priorities are. Also be sure to make a note of any additional considerations, such as office politics. This canvas is not intended for you to share across your team; rather, it is a useful guide for you to track your one-on-one conversations.

Table 8-1. Shuttle diplomacy canvas
Stakeholder
Joan, CEOMark, SalesJen, Engineering

Goals:
What are their desired outcomes (objectives) for next 3 months?
Why do they have those objectives?
What metrics are they using to achieve those outcomes?

15% y/y growth in profit
She’s accountable to shareholders
% Revenue increase and EBITDA

Hit $24MM in revenue in Q1 2017
Revenue keeps the company in business
Revenue, average deal size

Grow team to meet new capacity, improve sprint velocity
Need to optimize team productivity

Reality:
What’s currently on their plate?

Setting up company for scale

Missed last quarter’s target and scrambling to make up

Three teams each with differing velocity, demands for multiple feature delivery faster

Options:
What do they think needs to be on the roadmap?

Platform stability
New features sales requested
Better onboarding experience

Client ABC, Inc requested new features and possibility of closing a deal

Platform stability
Bug fixes
Sales feature request

Way forward:
Which of their product priorities for the next 3 months are they in agreement with?

Platform stability
Better onboarding experience

Better onboarding

Platform stability

What’s Difficult About Shuttle Diplomacy?

So what’s the downside to shuttle diplomacy? Simply put: the time it takes. Many consider meetings the bane of their existence and to add yet another one-on-one meeting may elicit an allergic response. The answer is to keep the meetings short and informal. Focus only on the issues a particular stakeholder cares about in the meeting with them, and ignore the rest of your list. Sometimes, a bunch of small meetings is actually easier to schedule than a big one with a lot of busy executives, but not always. Consider your organization and use your judgment.

Other potential challenges of shuttle diplomacy meetings include rapport and location.

Rapport

Some people you will get along with better than others. This is normal and natural. Your mileage may vary.

Location

One-to-one meetings are always better when you’re in person than when you’re remote. Sure, we all love (and/or hate) Google Hangouts, Go-to-Meeting, Join.me, Skype, WebEx, and Zoom, but there’s no substitute for an in-person meeting, as you’ll better build rapport with each stakeholder.

Even when you’ve met with each stakeholder one-on-one, you still may need to hold a meeting that brings everyone together. In fact, we recommend that you do this on a regular basis, perhaps every quarter or every year depending on the velocity of change in your business.

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