The first time I was responsible for product reviews was 2012. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I’d been in lots of product reviews and run lots of meetings as an engineering leader. How hard could it be?
Well, my leadership team and I soon learned that people hated our reviews. Folks who hadn’t even been to one feared them by reputation. Why? We were overzealous about our own contributions and under-appreciative of the presenting team, which was disrespectful. Luckily, several regular attendees gave us that feedback and we were able to turn things around with what I call “The P Rules,” which I left written on our whiteboard for years.
- No Piling On. When one person finds a weakness in an argument, others often feel the need to form a chorus around it. But there’s almost no value beyond the initial observation and pursuing it further only makes the presenter defensive. Once a point has been made, move on.
- No Pedantry. Spotting typos on slides or correcting misspoken words isn’t helpful. It’s best to ignore small mistakes unless you think people might be genuinely confused. Calling them out interrupts the pace and gives the impression you’re hunting for mistakes rather than ways to help. Focus on the big picture instead.
- No Pontification. I often see senior leaders explore some tangential topic to satisfy their own intellectual curiosity. This wastes time and gives the impression of self-importance. Spend your personal time chasing down errant thoughts. During meetings, stay focused on the matter at hand.
- No Prescription. The most damaging mistake I see leaders make after they identify problems is to propose solutions. Giving teams that much direction limits their ability to find the best solution and feel in control. Instead, provide guidelines for what an acceptable solution might look like, and let the team fully own it.
- No Permission. When teams ask for permission, they’re subtly trying to move the responsibility to you. Don’t let them. You can frame up the risk and reward trade-offs, but they have to be responsible for the decision.
- No Pessimism. With limited time, it’s tempting to shut down what seem like obviously bad ideas. It’s much more valuable to react with curiosity. If an idea is truly off the mark, it’s an opportunity to identify and correct a deeper misunderstanding between you and the team, which will speed things up. Of course, it’s equally likely that the mistake lies with you. This approach makes it possible for dialogue and a greater diversity of ideas to be entertained.
- Let Presenters Present. People go to a lot of effort to prepare content and it can be demoralizing to get derailed without being able to finish. Likewise, if presenters are asked a question, they need to be given the opportunity to fully respond before more questions are raised. Interruptions leave people feeling powerless. Rather than interrupting, to keep things moving I limit the number of slides (6 per 30 minutes) and insist that they’re numbered (X out of Y) so everyone can track progress. Pre-reads can also help ensure the discussion is well informed.
These are the rules of decorum I ask of the presenting team, and there are additional standards I hold myself to as the leader. My goal is for every person to feel seen and heard, even in the face of disagreement. For some, this may be the only review they have for months, and each minute informs their trust in the entire organization. Being aware of the power gradient is also key, as a mild interjection from me could feel like a shout to the person hearing it.
Much more than the topic at hand, I feel my biggest responsibility is to stay mindful of the people in the room with me. To accomplish this, I employ a few techniques:
- Sit in a position that maximizes eye contact and keeps my body engaged.
- Only ask questions if my mind is open to different answers.
- Try to specifically reference both people and ideas.
- If I sense conflict, I try to remind everyone of our shared goals.
- If I sense concern, I try to name it and bring it into the discussion, so people’s feelings are given the same level of importance as their work.
- And as often as I can, I try to use humor to keep things on the lighter side and remind us that we’re lucky to be here.
These days, at the end of every day, I still take stock of how I could have better-handled the time I spent with people. Using these steps during meetings to manage presenters and my own presence have made a world of difference in the relationships I have with my teams, and consequently, the results we’ve been able to achieve together.