What does politics have to do with product management? Actually, a lot! I realize that most people view “office politics” as a negative activity that involves shameless manipulation and occasional back stabbing. I shared similar views of office politics myself. But that changed after I attended a presentation at the Silicon Valley Product Management Association (www.spvpma.org).

When the presenter got on stage, his first question to the audience was: “who amongst you likes office politics?” Hardly anyone raised their hand. He then asked the opposite question: “who amongst you dislikes office politics?” And the whole room was filled with hands in the air.

“Well, I’ve got news for you” said the speaker, “wherever there are two or more people – there’s politics”. He paused for us to absorb the news, and added: “Your only real choice is either to participate in the political process or to become a victim of it”. This was a moment of epiphany, and not just for me. I realized the speaker was right.

But wait, I am not suggesting that as a product manager you should engage in negative practices, start manipulating others, or back stab colleagues – just to promote yourself. I do however suggest that you become aware of the political processes around you, get familiar with the “rules of the game”, study the political power landscape and plan your moves accordingly.

Let’s take an example: suppose you realized that the product you’re responsible for needs a new feature urgently. Your key competitor just introduced a similar feature, and your customers give you clear indications that without this capability, your company will likely lose against its competition. The engineering team is hard at work implementing the set of requirements you’ve all previously agreed to, and the release date is quickly approaching. What do you do?

One option is to step into your weekly project team meeting and announce that the release plan must be changed to accommodate the new critical feature. Most likely, all hell will break loose as soon as you make this announcement. Fierce arguments will ensue, and chances of arriving at a decision to change the release plan are slim.

The other option is to assess who the key stake holders are, and devise a plan to get them on your side – before the critical project meeting. Let’s assume that your engineering manager is one of those stake holders. Sure, he is committed to the success of the product, but he is personally held accountable against key performance indicators (KPIs) such as delivering releases on schedule, within budget and of high quality. Changing the release plan will likely to impact some or even all these KPIs. In your discussion with the engineering manager, you reiterate the business motivation, but you also acknowledge the potential impact to the KPIs. You may propose to personally present to upper management the new market drivers for the release plan change, and ask for “readjustment” of the aforementioned KPIs. This one-on-one conversation is likely to put the engineering manager on your side. And when the subject of modifying the release plan is brought up in the project team meeting, you will have a strong supporter to back you up.

This was a fairly simple example. In reality, the political scene is often more complex, and so are the motivations of people involved. You could start feeling your way around by answering the following questions:

–       Who are the key stake holders whose support I need to gain?

–       What are their organizational objectives?

–       What are their personal objectives?

–       What objections might they have to my proposal?

–       What can they potentially gain from supporting my proposal?

Once you have mapped your key “targets”, schedule one-on-one session with each one. Come prepared with the background work you’ve done, and do your best to convince them to support you. Be fully prepared to listen, as you may uncover motivations and objectives quite different from what you envisioned. Where needed, negotiate a “win-win” agreement that addresses both their objectives and yours.

Granted, not all scenarios can be planned ahead. You are likely to run into situations or meetings where the political dynamics happen in real time. As you become more proficient in the “political process”, you will be able to handle the dynamics as they unfold.  Don’t just wait for the next political conflict – spend time regularly with other stake holders, understand their motivations and invest in building rapport.  The more you do it, the more you succeed in steering decisions your way.

As a product manager you simply cannot afford becoming a “victim” of office politics. Your ability to influence key product decisions depends on how politically savvy you are. So rather than trying to “avoid” office politics, make it part of the skills you acquire. There are plenty of books and websites that offer advice on office politics. Take the time to read about the subject, pick those tips that resonate with you, and start practicing…