03029 That Sisyphean Task of Change

Some of you may be familiar with Sisyphus, the Greek king who was punished in the afterlife by being condemned to roll a boulder up a hill. Whenever he neared the top of the hill, the stone would roll all the way back down to the bottom again.

For those Product Managers who are only just now learning about Sisyphus, you’ve probably bonded with him already, right? Sometimes it seems like product management amounts to pushing a boulder uphill, only to find you’re back where you started.

Today’s topic is designed to be a little encouragement to Product Managers who are dealing with the tough task of getting things to change – because that’s their job, basically – in a world that doesn’t want change.

It’s always so much easier to provide advice and encouragement from the sidelines than to stay enthusiastic when you’re knee deep in the mud and trying to slog ahead.

So take a look at the words of wisdom below every now and then when you need a little cheering on.


It Takes Time

Like to see things happen fast, especially new, exciting things? So do I. But everything has its own natural rhythm and cycle. One of the problems with the dotcoms is that they tried to defy that rhythm. A tree can’t grow in just one year. It just can’t. That doesn’t make the effort to nurture it useless. In its own time, the tree will be strong and solid.

Chances are that the change you are trying to implement will take longer than you thought. Because it takes time to build the vision, and bring people around, even when they are not hostile.

This extra time, at least “extra” from your perspective, is all that much harder to bear because you see the change in your head today, clear as day. But others won’t necessarily get it at first.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Maybe you’ve got tons of ideas for fixing things and lots of improvements you want to make to the product. Let’s face it, you’re not going to be able to get everything you want.

Change and growth is difficult, and you’re dealing with a whole organization, with different departments, team members, agendas, and perspectives. Ideas will flow in from all these people, so it’s only natural that the final outcome will reflect more ideas – and different ones – than what you cooked up initially.

But You Have to Try Anyway

But not getting it all is no reason not to try. It’s easy to get discouraged about the difficulty of change and just take the easy way out: giving up and going along.

In the end, you will accomplish change. Not all of it, but some. So keep trying.

Choose Your Battles

Since you can’t get everything you want, make sure you select the most important items on your list of goals. Then focus on them and them alone.

Engage all your resources in changing the things that count most to you. Yes, as Product Manager you’ll have tons of other things that still need to be taken care of. But a lot of them can be left to function in their normally messy fashion.

Plus, once you win one battle, you have more resources and energy to devote to the next one.

The Serenity Prayer

Along those lines, it’s not for nothing that the Serenity Prayer is cited so often. Basically it asks to:

“… give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other.”

Somebody sure got that right!

It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Take some comfort in the fact that, in many cases, the progress you are making will not be clear to you until you get all the way to your goal.

Just think about how people mull over decisions. The point of greatest indecision, fear, doubt, and questioning is right before the scales tip and a decision is taken.

Tell and Show, Then Show and Tell

It helps to talk up an idea first, with people on all levels. This serves to build a vision in people’s minds of how things would be if your company was already on the other side of the change you are proposing.

For major changes, define small scale pilot efforts wherever possible. Once you have a little example to show others, they get it a lot faster. When your teammates see that is works, it does its own selling (or telling) to the doubters. And coworkers who are involved in the pilot effort do a lot of the telling for you, which is good, because their word probably carries more weight inside their own departments.

Babies Learning to Walk Are Really Cute!

Stumbling, tripping, falling, and taking baby steps really isn’t all that bad once you get a little perspective on it. Like all new endeavors, you have to walk before you run. I’ve never heard anyone be critical of a baby learning to walk. It’s just that as adults, we feel like fools when we don’t have solid mastery of a situation. But practice, and practice alone, makes perfect.

Momentum Is an Amazing Thing

Change may be slower and harder than you expect, but it’s incredible how, after a period of patient changemongering, unexpectedly momentum builds. Suddenly people are delighted with the results. And you can use the momentum from one change to speed up the next.

Sisyphus Had Some Fun, Too

Yep, change can be tough.

But don’t be too disheartened. What many people don’t learn is that Sisyphus was a consummate trickster. He even tricked Death once and wound up living a good many years longer than he ought to have. Sound like a Product Manager to you? I thought so, too.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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