How to Turn Product Disagreements With CEOs Into Productive Discussions

Saying ‘no’ to your manager is a must-have skill for a product leader. But leaving the ‘no’ just with that would often lead to counterproductive communication and lack of trust. Whether you avoid saying ‘no’ altogether because of that, or say too many ‘no’s, here is how to turn a disagreement into an opportunity for better solutions.

M. is one of the best product leaders I ever hired. He has a sharp mind, visionary thinking, flawless large-scale execution management, always sees the strategy and bigger picture, and is also meticulous with the details. Truly a rare product leader, one that you know you can count on to help you take the entire company to the next level.

But managing him wasn’t always easy. True to his mission to make sure we were doing the right thing, he often challenged me on why we decided on a certain path and wouldn’t let go until he got a solid answer that made sense to him.

On one hand — that’s what a good product leader does. M. saw himself — and rightfully so — as the gatekeeper, ensuring we are taking the entire company in the right direction.

On the other hand — I kept hearing “no” time and again from my most prominent leader in the team, and nothing I said made a difference. The conversation was often in a deadlock, and too many times I reverted to what I hate doing which is asking him to move forward without really enrolling him in the mission.

There were many “let’s agree to disagree” statements, and a lot of frustration on both sides.

One day, I realized what was it that made it so difficult for me to have a productive discussion with M.: the conversation always stopped at “I don’t see it the same way as you are” (on either side). We didn’t get to actually discuss solutions and alternatives and were instead stuck on the disagreement itself.

Now, disagreements exist. You will not always agree with your boss, and your team will not always agree with you. But just leaving it at that does not help

Here is what I learned and what worked for me eventually. You can use it both with your boss and your employees and honestly in any other relationship where you have conflicts.

Disagreements Are Good

The mere fact that someone disagrees with you isn’t a problem. That’s why you are both on the team – to help one another see things from a broader perspective. To be able to deal with disagreements, you must acknowledge them when they arise.

As you can see, M. and I didn’t have a problem acknowledging disagreements, but we didn’t take it to the next level of making it a starting point and not the end of the discussion. 

To be able to go beyond “we disagree with each other”, you must trust yourself that this is temporary and that there could be a solution that would satisfy everyone. Another way to look at it is as an opportunity. Do you know how some people say that a crisis is actually a good thing? It sometimes is because it forces you to both deal with the problem and seek new ways of thinking because the old ones didn’t get you to where you needed to be.

It’s the same thing here. 

To start going beyond the disagreement itself and into a more productive discussion that will eventually get you to a solid solution, I always ask “Why?”. It’s the ultimate product management question, and it’s important to use it with your peers and not just with your customers.

Try to get to the root cause of the disagreement. What is it that you disagree about?

If you feel stuck in this part, because some people have a hard time answering such questions in the proper depth, you can start by asking what you do agree about. It will help you create a common ground as well as distinguish the areas that still need to be addressed.

Ideas Are Even Better

With M., the “Why?” question didn’t work. He kept repeating a high-level answer that didn’t really hit the nail on the head. 

Once I realized that, I decided there must be a new way out: whenever we couldn’t get beyond the “no”, I asked him to come up with an alternative suggestion.

It did a few things for us:

First, it is often much easier to discuss a specific alternative than the big theoretical discussion of whether we should do something or not. It is more concrete and allows both sides to look at the practice rather than the principles we each believe in.

Sometimes, I would see a solution I could agree to which I didn’t think of myself (and is often better than the one I had in mind since in most cases M.’s concerns were valid ones). In other cases, I could better understand what is it that I don’t feel comfortable with regarding the suggested solution, and with this new understanding, we kept the discussion going.

The more important thing was that it required M. to see things in a more holistic way. One can always say “no”, but having to actually think of a concrete solution required him to see my side of things as well.

And last but not least, it reestablished the partnership between us. When you just say “no” and leave it at that, you and the other person are now on opposite sides of something. By seeking an alternative that both of you are happy with, you are on the same side with the same goals.

Imagine my relief when I had my strongest team member back as a partner. As it often happens, it actually made it easier for me to give up and let M. lead in the direction that he believed was the right path.

Do It Yourself

I have to admit that I was quite committed to making this relationship work. I’m not sure any boss would have gone this far in trying to understand what bothers their employee before just telling him to do as they are told (disagree and commit). 

Your boss might be different, but it shouldn’t matter.

You are a product leader, you don’t need to wait for them to lead the way. Lead it yourself.

Whenever you think your manager or your CEO is leading in the wrong direction, don’t respond to them with just a “no”. There is not much they can do with that.

Try to understand where they are trying to get to and seek to understand their point of view. What might they see that would lead them in the direction that you think is wrong? Could they be concerned about things that you didn’t think of?

Once you understand that, devise an alternative suggestion that answers everyone’s concerns. It will keep the discussion going and will also help them know you are with them as a leader.

From my experience both as a manager and in working with many CEOs and senior managers, all of us are much more willing to change our minds if we see a solution that makes sense and satisfies our needs. It doesn’t have to be the initial solution we began with.

Don’t wait for them to come and ask for an alternative, they won’t always know that this is what‘s missing.

And whenever someone you depend on (your team, your colleagues, R&D leads) is telling you ‘no’, and you feel the discussion is stuck, ask them to come up with a suggestion. I found it a super effective tool to move things forward and used it successfully numerous times — both for myself and for my customers — whether they were the CEOs or the people having to tell them ‘no’.

Our free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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