Why Product Managers need to embrace Lateral Leadership

Product Managers lateral leadership organizations

I‘m writing a book about lateral leadership for product managers. If you find this article useful, you should check it out!

I recently got some food for thought for relevant challenges in product management from a fellow product owner who reported on the following situation:

‘The development team didn’t accept the problem I gave them to find a solution for.’
While I wouldn’t say that that’s a very common challenge for product people, the skill it requires to solve is among the top 3 qualifications it takes to succeed as a product manager: Lateral Leadership.

What is Lateral Leadership?

In short, lateral leadership means leading other people without having hierarchical power. As mentioned, it’s the exact opposite of hierarchical or top-down leadership which is (unfortunately) the most common way of managing.
And even though lateral leadership was by no means originally developed to fit the leadership position product managers are in, it’s exactly what you need to embrace if you want to lead team members and stakeholders which don’t report to you.

Why is Lateral Leadership relevant and how to apply it?

To understand why product managers are lateral leaders instead of hierarchical leaders, I want to emphasize how the company structure around product managers is usually structured:

Product Managers lateral leadership organizations

What you see here, is the result of a so-called ‘matrix organization.’ Even though (SCRUM) teams are intended to work as a unit by itself, the team members taking care of engineering and design are most often only ‘led’ to the product owner within the construct of a development team.
They all have other people managers who are overseeing the respective departments across multiple development teams and sometimes even business units.

What that means is that your team needs to accept you as the one who defined what is done, but someone else is responsible for the how.
And that’s where the point of lateral leadership comes in. While the heads of department have managerial tools to lead people (even though that should be the exception), you have to convince your team members to follow you without administrative ‘super powers’

Quite the contrary, key factors for achieving lateral leadership are furthermore things like:

  • Strong and explicit communication
  • A clear vision
  • Empathy
  • Passion
  • Trust

There’s an excellent book by Daniel Pink called ‘To sell is Human.’ In it, Pink even refers to this skill as the ability to “move” people from one mindset to another.
Successful product people need to spend time and effort on these ‘moving’ activities, bringing everyone together around a shared understanding of the customer or business problem so that everyone can be involved in helping solve it to further the business goals.

Sounds familiar? Good, then you recognized the pattern of alignment. Closing the loop on the fundamental challenge the product owner faced, a likely reason for a development team not accepting a task is the lack of context. More precisely the context around why this task matters in the greater scheme of things and how it’s execution moves the needle.

Even though you may have paid attention to alignment using one of the several available tools, I highly recommend either revisiting the initial alignment document with the team or even going back to the drawing board to get everyone’s motivational drivers considered.

What to do when Lateral Leadership tools fail?

Of course, alignment and other lateral leadership techniques can only do so much. If everything fails, I recommend 1:1 discussions with the individual team members to get to the bottom of what’s causing the resistance.
Maybe you get a handle on individual factors (e.g. an unresolved conflict from a personal situation), or you simply have to involve the respective heads of department for advice or even escalation.