03016 Soft Skills: Practice Factuality

One thing that gets clearer with every new discussion I have with a Product Manager is that there may be nothing more important than your soft skills. You may find they’re the only tool you can rely on to create change, improve coordination between Marketing and Engineering, prepare the sales force to effectively sell the product, or speed up the pace of new features and capabilities.

In an earlier topic called “Why is the Soft Stuff So Darn Hard?” I mentioned a concept for approaching teammates with problems and sticky issues in an effective way. I call it practice factuality.

So here’s a little more guidance to help you practice factuality. Use the nine rules below to make critical progress that is so hard to measure but so necessary if you want to reach the goals and aspirations you have for the product.


Some Bedtime Reading

There’s a world of guidance waiting to be discovered beyond the walls of this newsletter. The list below can get you pointed toward useful material.

    Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator – this system for describing personality preferences, and the guidance that goes along with it, is great for elevating interpersonal communication above the fog of blaming and judging and into the clear light of factual, observant, practical methods for effective discussions.
    LIFO(r) (Life Orientations) – a system that focuses solely on communication styles rather than personality to further tighten the focus and simplify the issues to be considered compared to the wide ranging scope of Myers-Briggs.
    The Dance of Anger, and other books by Harriet Lerner, PhD. Dr. Lerner explains how to break out of the triangles that form naturally in our interpersonal dealings and which serve as stable structures that resist change.
    The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. Yes, you’ve all heard of this one. The material on Empathic Listening under Habit 5 is particularly useful for this.
    Seven Years of Highly Defective People, a Dilbert book, when you need a break from the previous book.
    The 12 Bad Habits that Hold Good People Back. Overcoming the Behavior Patterns That Keep You from Getting Ahead, By Waldroop and Butler. This book goes WAY beyond interpersonal communication, but Chapter 13, Taking Others’ Perspectives, couldn’t get more detailed about how to approach your teammates, bosses, managers, and staff.

Nine Rules to Practicing Factuality

Follow the guidelines below to practice factuality like a pro.

First Count to Ten

Before you go marching off to someone’s office, grab the phone, or start madly typing an email, stop and think about the issue. Think about it until you know how you feel, have a decent idea why you feel that way, clarify what you want, and can express an objective, business-focused reason for what you want.

Here’s an example. The planned quarterly sales meeting does not include any training on the product positioning. Count to ten. You realize that you’re mad and that you’re insulted that they aren’t calling upon your guidance. Some of this is simply your own insecurity and pride (I, for one, love to be the center of attention).

But you also really want to have all the sales reps up to speed on the positioning. It’s important for the company’s sales force to be able to articulate to prospects why they should choose your product over a competitor, and the quarterly meeting is the only opportunity to train all the reps and resolve their questions.

The second paragraph in this example is the one that gets you to the business-focused justification for putting you on the agenda.

Take a Deep Breath

This is more than a patience thing. It’s more than a calming mechanism. When you take in deep breaths, the sentences that come out after each breath are slower, calmer, and longer. You bypass the desire to talk in soundbites.

When you breeze in and say “The report writer is unusable!” don’t blame me if the sparks fly. If you take a deep breath – physically and mentally – you’ve got the wind to say: “I’ve been using the report writer, and I’m struggling with the Redo and Commit buttons. (breath) I find that I end up undoing my hard work by accident, and am never sure when I’ve actually saved the changes I wanted.”

Break It Up

It’s like how you eat a big meal: one bite at a time (just don’t spit out sound bites). Try to take a complex topic and break it into digestible pieces, served in an orderly way. This part of practicing factuality isn’t about what you say, but what the other person hears. When facts come flying at your listener too fast to be absorbed, you will wind up competing with a swirl of increasingly emotional thoughts in your listener’s head as their confusion, and therefore their anxiety, increases.

Overcome the Fear

I was once told “You’re writing will scare the students” when they read my training guide. It turns out that what my client meant is that I was using words with emotional associations, such as “must”. There’s a lot of “musts” in software. But instead of saying “You must first complete all master part records before receiving inventory”, try something like “Completing a master part record is required before you can receive the part into stock.”

Avoid words like “must”, “should”, “have to”, “can’t”, and “won’t”. Review what you want to say, and keep an eye out for words like these that are judgmental or charged with emotion.

Be a Reporter

When talking to the head of Development, or to a programmer, your job is not to create an editorial. You want to be a news reporter. “The way the receiving screens looks makes for poor interface design and users won’t be able to tell how to enter quantities and costs” is an editorial.

“When we were testing the receiving screens we found it difficult to tell which cost was associated with which quantity, because the quantity and costs fields don’t align” is a news report. It covers Who, What, When, Where and How, just like a newspaper article.

To Be or to Do? That Is the Question

Try not to focus on what something is, but on what it does. It’s a whole lot less threatening to tell the Marketing Manager that “the collateral doesn’t seem to present the information about executive reporting in a way that emphasizes that reports can quickly be developed from templates” as opposed to saying that “the collateral is confusing” (sound bite, too!), or that “the collateral on executive reporting isn’t good enough.”

When you talk about what something is, your listeners conclude that you are talking about the whole thing. When you talk about what something does, your listeners limit their attention to one specific action.

Also, people don’t necessarily believe they can change the way they are. But they’ll be willing to change a specific action that they do.

Just the Facts, Not the Hype

One way to stick to the facts is to try to limit yourself to nouns and verbs, things and actions. Explain who does what, not why or how well they do it.

It’s particularly important to weed out adjectives. When you talk about a “problem”, drop the word “major” or “serious” before it. Just explain what is happening. Let your teammates draw their own conclusions as to how serious it is, and most of the time they will see its importance.

No Blame, No Shame, No Game(s)

Avoid discussing who is at fault, or speculating on the cause of a problem, not to mention expressing sweeping judgments like “unacceptable”, “offensive”, “bad”, or even “good.” If something is “bad”, explain the negative effects it leads to. For that matter, if something’s “good”, detail why people value it, instead of just calling it “good.”

And definitely no games. You will undermine your whole effectiveness if your patient and objective explanation is merely a buildup for telling someone that they messed something up and should be ashamed of themselves. We’re all pretty good at mustering up convincing and rational arguments and then using them as cannon fodder for sweeping emotional conclusions in order to win the discussion. But once you bring in games, trust, and even listening, goes out the window.

Crawl, Walk, Run

Like all skills, the ability to practice factuality is developed in baby steps, slowly at first, then faster and more ambitiously, until it becomes a habit. Don’t expect to be perfect right out of the gate.

The more you practice factuality, the better you get at it, and as you progress you have the opportunity to focus on the finer details.

Pretty soon you’ll be doing it without skipping a beat, and your colleagues and bosses will wonder how you manage to convince some of your teammates to cooperate, when everyone else seems to get nowhere with them. And the returns keep on coming in as people start to approach you, and others, as you have approached them.

The kind of interpersonal momentum, the responsiveness, cooperation and problem solving, that results when you practice factuality will be a key element to the achievement of important goals you set for product design, development and success in the market.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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