#PMSkillsAreLifeSkills: The Power of Values and Principles in Life and in Product Management

Editor’s note: This week, Terhi Hänninen continues our series entitled #PMSkillsAreLifeSkills by sharing just how powerful Values and Principles can be for PMs and parents alike.

Photo by @InstaCPTguy via Twenty20

Answer from Terhi Hänninen

Terhi Hänninen is a Senior Product Manager at Zalando SE. You can find her on Twitter at @thanninen

If I had to pick the most useful lesson I’ve learned from parenting that applies just as much to product management, it would have to be the importance of principles and values.

Early in my career, I had the illusion that I would be the one calling all the shots when it came to my product. I soon realized that this mode of working would only overwhelm me: I became the bottleneck on most tasks. I struggled to keep up with the stream of questions from my development team. And when my stakeholders asked me to explain the “why” of my decisions, I would have no clear answer. I eventually realized that, because I had become the bottleneck, I was working almost entirely in reactive mode — making decisions on-the-fly, answering questions in the heat of the moment, focusing so much on the what that I had lost sight of the why.

Values and Principles in Parenting

When my husband and I began planning to grow our family, most of our early discussions revolved around the question, “What kind of person do we want our kids to be?”

  • Principles are jointly defined and adopted. To arrive at the answer, we agreed on a set of principles that we would follow, then discussed the personal, core values we also wanted our children to internalise. Intuitively, we knew it would be much harder to have these high-level conversations once our first child was there.
  • Principles simplify decision-making. Over the years, these pre-agreed values and principles have greatly simplified many of our day-to-day decisions. For example, the principle “We want our family to lead a healthy, active, and balanced lifestyle” has simplified on-the-spot restaurant choices when we’re on the road. The same principle also gets us to agreement much more quickly on what types of vacations we will take, or even deciding on job offers. The principle “We don’t believe in early specialisation, but rather in curiosity and general education across a variety of topics” has taken so much stress out of decisions related to school and hobbies.
  • Explicitly-stated principles can be shared, learned, passed on. Life with the children becomes much easier if you frequently and consistently discuss the values and principles of the family, and base your decisions on them in a predictable way. The children learn pretty quickly to make their own decisions based on those values and principles too.
  • Principles evolve to reflect changing priorities. While consistency is key — we use the principles in our discussions and decisions and never stop — we’re also willing to evolve our principles and values when needed. As the kids grow up, their needs and concerns start to have an impact on the values and principles that are important to us as a family. For example, sustainability has a much higher priority now than before, because the kids are worried about environmental issues and want to be part of the solution.

For sure, it has not always been easy to stick with the values and principles, but that is the test of character you inevitably will go through as a parent. The ultimate goal is that your children grow to become independent, thinking adults, who will make good choices even when you are not there.

Values and Principles in Product Management

As Product Managers, we hopefully work in an empowered team. We want everyone to be moving fast, and that is only possible if we allow decisions to be made where the most knowledge resides, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to lose the feeling of full control.

If we delegate authority to our team and empower them, how do we equip our team members with a framework for decision-making? My experience and learnings from parenting have convinced me that we should invest time to define our product values and principles, then make sure that they’re owned and internalised by everyone in our team, ideally even by our stakeholders.

  • Use the product strategy to define our product values and principles. We can use the company’s values and strategy as a starting point, but we should create values and principles with our product and team too, with the goal of making them actionable. Using the product strategy, the North Star metric, mottos, and slogans, we can define and communicate the values and principles until everyone knows them by heart, and every new team member can internalize them.
  • Adopt your principles early. You might think, “We’re chasing a deadline, we don’t have time to go through this process of defining principles and getting everyone to internalize them. We’ll figure it out as we go along.” In reality, not having principles defined ahead of time will actually slow you down, because each time you’re faced with a product decision, the people on your team will be debating the decision with different — and unspoken! — principles in their own minds. It’s far better to get the principles out in the open early on so you can discuss them, debate them, and agree to adopt them. As a team, the earlier we set some — even a few — principles in place, the easier the work becomes down the road.
  • Good principles are directly usable in practice. We should use the values and principles to argue for the decisions we make. We should “show and tell” the results of the decisions. For example, if you have a product principle that states “We believe simplicity in everything will make us faster,” then you create an environment where engineers can ask of each other: “How can we make it simpler? We want to try it out first with something much simpler.
  • Consistent application is key. We should be consistent in the way we apply our principles. Our questions and feedback should be based on the principles and values we have as a team. And we should be willing to hold one another accountable when we don’t live up to them, otherwise the principles lose their power and will be nothing more than empty words on the page.
  • Know when to revisit the principles. We should be willing to evaluate the values and principles we have and change, add, or remove them if needed. Circumstances change; the market, the ecosystem, the company strategy, and even the team itself is constantly evolving (or transforming). In some cases, the changes are significant enough that our established principles no longer fit the need and strict adherence to them may actually hinder rather than help us.

Forget about babysitting adults. We can’t be there for every single decision, but we can equip people with a framework to make good product decisions on their own and trust their capabilities and motivation to do so (that is why they were hired, right?).

Conclusion

Both at work and in life, we have to know what we stand for, what we believe in, what we value. These convictions are most simply expressed as statements of principles and values that serve as guideposts to keep us on track in our day-to-day activities.

Invest the time to define the life and product principles and values that matter to you, share them with your family and team, repeatedly cite them as you make decisions, but be willing to evolve them when your life or your product situation has changed.

Further Reading

More on Product Principles

Examples

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