04001 Influence: It’s Under Your Control

It seems that one of the quintessential traits of most Product Manager positions is that you are required to manage by influence. You’re trying to make things happen through people who don’t report to you and don’t have to do what you want.

Product Managers end up using a combination of charm, psychology and prodding to get developers, sales reps, and marketers to follow them based on respect, logic, affection, and pride in the product. Oh, yeah, and guilt, too.

Read on for an interesting discussion of how you can increase your ability to influence others for the good of the product, using invaluable insight on the topic from one of today’s most respected authors of self-help books.

Concerned With Influence

Steven Covey, in the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, discusses the difference between your Circle of Concern and your Circle of Influence. Your Circle of Concern includes all things that are of concern to you: your loved ones, their lives, your job, the economy, the lawn. It includes both things you can and things you cannot control.

Contrast this with your Circle of Influence. It contains things that you can affect or take action to change. It’s smaller than your Circle of Concern. You can influence fewer things than there are things of concern to you.

Influence versus concern. You can influence your job, but not the economy. You can influence your lawn (if you’re lucky), but not the weather.

When you focus on your Circle of Influence, limiting your actions to only those things you can do something about, you expand your influence. But when you focus on your Circle of Concern, you spend precious time trying to change things you cannot control, and your Circle of Influence shrinks.

It’s In Your Hands

To effectively increase your power to influence, you need to figure out what kinds of things benefit from influence.

There’s control and control. Some things you have direct control over, like the Requirements documents that only a Product Manager produces. To change these things, change your habits. If something you produce needs to be done better, change your habits relative to planning, scheduling, and delivering it.

(One important background note is that Steven Covey advocates basing all your actions on principles. Therefore the assumption here is that the things you decide to change have a basis in principles such as the common good, kindness, or progress.)

It’s Under the Influence

Next are the things that are not under your direct, but indirect, control. This is where you focus your influence. To change these things, you need to change your methods of influence. To change the output, contribution or cooperation of a colleague, you need to change how you influence them.

It’s Out of Your Control

Finally, there are those things that are out of your hands. The weather. The fact that the software engineers are located in three different places. The lousy economy causing businesses to focus on cost savings above all. (Here’s crossing our fingers that all that’s gonna change soon!)

For these things, you need to take the decision to live peacefully with them, even though you don’t like them. Your energy is only wasted if you try to change them.

Expanding Your Circle of Influence

To expand your Circle of Influence, use empathy to understand what makes people tick, and especially what their underlying concerns are about a matter you want to influence. When presenting your ideas, ones that you hope they will adopt, frame your concepts in terms of their deepest concerns.

Is the Vice President of Engineering afraid that if there are two releases a year, instead of one, he’ll lose two additional months of development time to pre-release testing? You’ll never get anywhere with your two-releases-per-year idea if you don’t address this.

Sometimes it’s a matter of showing people that you can take care of things and do it right, then they relax and let you do more of what you’re asking for. If you can relieve them of a problem, they’ll be all too happy to focus on their other worries.

(This touches upon a principle which Covey calls The Law of the Farm, which goes basically like this: You can’t plant a seed today and expect it to bear fruit tomorrow. Every outcome has its own cycle of steady nurturing and growth. It can’t happen overnight. In other words, you’ll need to steadily build up trust a little bit at a time before others relax their grip and open up to your influence.)

Focus On the Right Influence

There’s an added twist. After you narrow your efforts down to things you can influence, you must take the further step of focusing on those things that matter the most to you.

This concept is presented in First Things First by Steven Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill. The Circle of Focus falls within your Circle of Influence. It consists of the things that you can influence that also align with your mission and goals.

This is where the concept of the good being the enemy of the best applies. If you spend your limited time on a good idea at the expense of something that’s even better, you’re ultimately working against your own interest, even though what you are doing is a “good” thing.

So What Can You Influence?

So as a Product Manager, what can you influence, and where should you focus your influence? Not, for instance, simply providing sales support (a common heartache among Product Managers, apparently), but providing training and coaching so that sales can stand on its own a little better.

Focus on implementing a better, more regular release schedule. But the Law of the Farm tells us that it make take a period of constant nurturing before the seeds you have planted bear fruit. You may have to exhort the team to give you the chance to prove that the release can work like you say it will. It may take a couple of successful releases before people really believe you and follow you willingly. At that point, you have expanded your influence to encompass the release cycle.

Perhaps a valuable area to focus is on finding creative ways for Engineering to develop more software, using a combination of outsourcing, temporary use of resources from outside the department, and simplifying requirements and breaking them into phases.

Six Guidelines to Influence

Use these six guidelines when there is an objective you wish to influence:

  1. Determine whether something is in your direct control, and if it is, change your habits in order to effectively reach your goal.
  2. Determine whether you can realistically influence the goal, meaning it’s under your indirect control, but not out of your control entirely.
  3. Determine whether the goal is consistent with your overall mission and goals, meaning it’s in your Circle of Focus.
  4. Understand and address the concerns of those you want to influence, and present your case in those terms.
  5. Realize that the Law of the Farm requires that you’ll need to make steady progress over the appropriate length of time (which is almost always longer than you thought it would take, even on a bad day).
  6. Don’t be surprised if the results weren’t quite what you had dreamed up at the beginning. But this means that often the results are better than what you thought up on your own.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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