The top-down trap

In my last article, I’ve discussed the differences between problem solver teams and solution implementer teams, why these teams yield better results, and how to build them.

Top-down solutions

When discussing these types of teams, I normally hear things like “we want to be a problem solver team but in my company all solutions are top-down, and the only thing we can do is to implement them”.

These situations get aggravated when under pressure came. The most recent pressure many companies are under is the COVID-19 crisis. In the urge to solve the problems as fast as possible, managers ask teams to implement this or that solution fast, super fast.

The trap

Let me now tackle the elephant in the room, the top-down decision-making environment. This has a huge impact on any team since in this type of environment. Without being part of the decision about this solution, the people that implement the solution will eventually get demotivated.

Why am I calling it the top-down trap? Because many of the so perceived top-down decision-making environments are what I just wrote, a perception.

Let’s use the main characteristic that every product manager must have, empathy. The ability someone has to walk on someone else’s shoes in order to understand her aspirations, motivations, needs, and problems. People to whom I had the opportunity to talk about the essential characteristics of a product manager, know how important I consider empathy as a critical trait for successful PMs.

Here are 2 tips to help product team members empathize with the so-called top-down decision-makers and escape the top-down trap:

  • Understanding the situation: put yourself in the solution implementation requester shoes. People are problem solvers, it’s people’s nature. Whenever faced with a problem, people jump to solution mode and try to find and implement solutions as fast as possible. Under increased pressure, like the COVID-19 crisis we are facing now, the urge to find and implement solutions is exacerbated. In the majority of cases, people don’t want to be top-down decision-makers, they simply have an urge to solve the problem as fast as possible.
  • Changing the status quo: ask questions about the solution implementation request. What problem is it solving? For whom? Why is it important to solve this problem? Why now? Why do we need to deliver something fast, even jeopardizing quality? If you are asked why so many questions, explain that you are trying to better understand the problem to see if there are other cheaper and faster solutions.

These tips will help everyone in the product team to make the change to a more collaborative decision-making process.

More often than not, people understand the benefits of a collaborative decision-making process. Even under pressure, collaborative solutions will yield better results. Solutions devised in a collaborative process are normally cheaper and faster to implement because more people got a chance to discuss solution options and the team who will implement the selected solution will be truly committed to its success.

In order to build, maintain and improve problem solver teams, and avoid turning them into solution implementers teams, especially when under increased pressure, it is paramount to avoid the top-down trap.

Heads of product have the role and responsibility to foster these behavior changes to help build a more collaborative and, consequently, more effective decision-making process.

Summing up

  • The top-down trap is the perception of the decision-making process being done in a top-down manner.
  • This perception is exacerbated when a company faces increased pressure, such as the COVID-19 crisis we are in now.
  • People are solution-oriented and the bigger the pressure, the faster people want solutions to be implemented.
  • To help cope with this situation, use empathy to understand the solution implementation requester point of view and ask her why there’s a need to implement the requested solution.
  • Heads of product have the role and responsibility to foster these behavior changes to help build a more collaborative decision-making process.

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