Conversations, Conflict and Leadership – Roman Pichler on The Product Experience

Throughout their careers, whatever question either Lily or Randy has had, Roman Pichler’s probably had some great advice on the topic! A longtime consultant, author and teacher, we grabbed him for a chat focusing on some of the lessons contained in his fourth book, How to Lead in Product Management.

Quote of the Episode

A successful outcome for a negotiation is finding a solution that is mutually agreeable and sustainable and addresses the needs of the two parties. Models like the Behavioural Change Stairway model or the model that was developed at Harvard, they both assume that negotiation isn’t a fight where we try and win and get the better of the other person, but it’s really a conversation… and it requires the willingness of both parties to open up

Listen if you’d like to learn more about

  • How to be a good leader
  • Creating goals and objectives
  • Component teams vs Feature teams
  • How to deal with conflict and build trust
  • Being empathetic

Links mentioned in this episode


The Product Experience is hosted by Lily Smith and Randy Silver.

Lily enjoys working as a consultant product manager with early-stage and growing startups and as a mentor to other product managers. Lily has spent 13 years in the tech industry working mainly with startups in the SaaS and mobile space. She has worked on a diverse range of products – leading the product teams through discovery, prototyping, testing and delivery. Lily also founded ProductTank in Bristol, the Product Managers’ meetup with regular events and talks on Product now with 800+ members and growing. Now the Product Director at Symec, Lily also runs ProductCamp in Bristol and Bath.

A recovering music journalist and editor, Randy has been working as an interactive producer and product manager across the US and UK for nearly 20 years. After launching Amazon’s music stores in the US and UK, Randy has worked with museums and arts groups, online education, media and entertainment, retail and financial services. He’s held Head of Product roles at HSBC and Sainsbury’s, where he also directed their 100+-person product community. Now a trainer, Discovery and Leadership consultant, he’s spoken at Mind the Product Engage (Hamburg and Manchester), the Business of Software, Turing Festival, a number of ProductTanks (London, Zurich, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford, and Brighton… so far!) and at conferences across the US and Europe.

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Our theme music is from Hamburg-based Pau, featuring ProductTank Hamburg’s own Arne Kittler on bass. Listen to more on their Facebook page

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The post Conversations, Conflict and Leadership – Roman Pichler on The Product Experience appeared first on Mind the Product.

Emotional Intelligence and Product By Darren Gavigan

In this ProductTank London talk, Product Consultant, Darren Gavigan explains the importance of emotional intelligence and how it can make you a better product manager.

His key points include:

  • The emotional intelligence umbrella
  • Empathy
  • Curiosity and adaptability
  • Passion and belief

Watch the video to see Darren’s talk in full. Or read on for an overview of his key points.

The emotional intelligence umbrella

Upon joining a new company as a consultant, Darren was told he would be ok because he had good emotional intelligence. The umbrella of things that encompasses what emotional intelligence is can be large, as emotional intelligence can be defined differently for everyone. Darren provides five areas to focus on that will help product managers to improve their working day, deliver successful products, enable their teams and further their product careers.


Empathy is the most valuable component of emotional intelligence. It underpins everything and is the biggest point of anything to do with emotional intelligence. It refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Some ways to showcase empathy are to build relationships, say hi to colleagues, make small connections and make people feel valued. Product managers are in the middle of teams and it is the product manager’s job to connect the team together.

Curiosity and adaptability

Two other areas of focus Darren mentions are curiosity and adaptability. Product managers need to be willing to learn and become knowledgeable sponges. They must also be flexible and recognize when to continue a course of action and when it’s time for a change.

Passion and belief

Finally, passion and belief are two areas that are inherently linked. Product managers need to be passionate about the work they are doing. It’s infectious. If the product manager is passionate then their team will be also. They must also be able to show that they believe. They must have trust, faith, and confidence in their people and their products.

The key takeaway from this talk is that it doesn’t matter where we work, emotional intelligence is important.

You might also like:

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Develop Your Empathy and Create Better Products

We all know that empathy is a key ingredient in developing lovable products, so what can product managers do to cultivate it?

I had a relatively unusual upbringing, and because of my father’s profession, we moved around every couple of years when I was a child. I attended international schools in Yemen, Thailand and Finland, learning in classrooms with kids from all over the globe. While we all came from different backgrounds, we had one thing in common: open-mindedness. We had to be open-minded, as we wanted a sense of belonging. Learning the local language (or trying to anyway) and seeing different religions and values made you reflect on your own.

This open-mindedness has evolved into empathy as a product manager, which I believe is a key ingredient in developing lovable products. So what does empathy actually look like in product management and how do you and others around you become more empathetic?

Educate yourself on the different types of customers using your product (Image: Shutterstock)

Empathy and Product Management

Empathy in product management can best be described as the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your customer.  “Customer first” or “customer focused” are buzzwords that are thrown around a lot, but what does being customer first mean in practice? For me, it means stepping away from your own needs and experiences, and the assumption that every customer has the same needs. We are all different and our products should reflect that. You should get out of your “bubble” and educate yourself on the different types of customers that are using your product.

I worked in product management in financial services in London for a couple of years. Although the UK is one of the richest countries in the world, I learned that half of the UK’s 22 to 29-year-olds have no savings, and that the UK has an estimated 14.2 million people living in poverty. I also learned that 7.1 million English people are considered functionally illiterate.

As a product manager, it was my job to consider financially vulnerable customers and to ensure we provided them with the appropriate level of information and support to make the right financial choices. For instance, I would reflect on the following: Is this product easily understood if I were to apply for it for the first time? Are we catering to different types of learning by using video, images and text? Are the risks written in plain English and are they easily accessible?

Tools to Become More Empathetic

Fortunately, there are tools and frameworks available to help you and those around you to become more empathetic. Below are some that I’ve found to be the most effective.

1. Get Early Customer Input, Listen and Iterate

Customer testing is a great way to gain insight into what your customers really think of your product. I have always booked in regular customer testing (often once a month aligned to the sprint cycle) and invited my entire team to attend – and I mean business analysts, developers, testers, copywriters and designers. While it’s important for a product manager to be empathetic, getting the team who designs and develops the product to be more empathetic ultimately results in an even better product.

I remember when we carried out usability testing on a prototype from a new design lead. The design lead had created an aesthetically pleasing design but clearly hadn’t considered accessibility and usability. During customer testing comments like “What does this say? Let me put on my glasses”, were common or customers would try to pinch to zoom in. This was a big learning for the team and especially for the design lead. Both accessibility and usability were center of mind in future designs and ultimately the product that was developed.

2. Create and use Personas

Personas can be a powerful tool to remind you of the diversity of your customer base. Personas represent different types of customers and allow your team to think about their perspective. But they need to be visible to add value. In my experience, they too often get lost on someone’s Mac and no one talks about them again. Stick them up on a wall, refer back to them when preparing for customer testing. That way you ensure you’ve considered all your different types of customers and you get a balanced view when you overlay your customer testing results with your personas.

3. Users Versus Customers Versus Humans

The language we use can make such a difference. Sitting a corporate office away from “our users” can create an unconscious distance. I remember being in a high-profile meeting with business stakeholders who knew our credit card offering inside out and were convinced everyone knew what a balance transfer and a money transfer was. Showing videos of humans struggling with our marketing pages made them realise that their assumptions were misguided. Qualitative data can be a powerful tool to create empathy.

Qualitative data can be a powerful tool to create empathy (Image: Shutterstock)

They say travel is the best education. If you travel outside your office and speak to potential or existing customers, you may be surprised by what people have to say. Visit a physical store (if you have this luxury), sit and listen to calls, interact with customers through your live chat or simply scroll through the app store comments. And don’t be afraid to take rough sketches or the minimum amount you can do to get customer feedback and refine your thinking.

You will go on to build better products, and your customers will thank you for it.

The post Develop Your Empathy and Create Better Products appeared first on Mind the Product.

Empathizing with Engineers

One of the most critical value multipliers that a product manager can bring to the table is the ability to empathize with their engineers.  A product manager who deeply understands their engineers can unlock value in so many ways: Ensure that the highest-value functionality is built in the most effective way Unblock and accelerate engineers in their day-to-day work Provide ... Read More

The post Empathizing with Engineers appeared first on Product Manager HQ.

Stuck in the Middle With Product Managers

Clowns to the left of me,

Jokers to the right, here I am,

Stuck in the middle with you

Stealers Wheel, 1973

Martin Eriksson made famous the diagram below, showing how product managers are at the cross-section of business, tech, and UX (by the way, I’m not implying any of these groups are clowns or jokers).

The first time I saw this diagram I thought: “That’s awesome, it shows product right at the heart of everything, the lynchpin of the whole organisation.” My chest puffed up, my arrogance increased (one of my many fundamental character flaws that I’m trying to work on) and I felt really excited for the days that lay ahead.

Like every story that starts with a nice rosy beginning, it didn’t work out that way. Most organisations have at least some level of dysfunction, and, try as I might to overcome this, it never seems to go away.

Over time, this diagram has become more like the map of the disputed territories in a war zone, with product management at the heart of the worst fighting.

Not quite so exciting or confidence building after all. We product managers are normally the people who get the heat when things go wrong. We’re consistently exposed to the competing and conflicting demands of the three areas of the Venn diagram.

I had thought that Product was supposed to be all about testing with users, coming up with amazing ideas, and having the freedom to execute them. But that just doesn’t cover the full reality that most of us are faced with.

The business wants more of everything: more products, better uptime, better performance, fewer bugs, and all with the same amount of resource. The sales and upsell teams are screaming at you to give them a cast-iron, guaranteed launch date. The tech team wants to focus on big technical projects. They want all products to be technically perfect before release and they point-blank refuse to even give an indication of an estimate of when something may be ready for launch. The UX team wants to spend weeks going back to fundamentals to understand the users more deeply and to test every single piece of the UI with users in real-life, face-to-face testing.

Did I mention that you also have an extremely tight budget and the ever-present threat that the business is going to pull the funding for the product in favour of something a client has told the sales team they want?

This is obviously a caricature of reality, but it can often feel like this when you’re at the heart of the battle.

Total Meltdown

It’s at this point that you become vulnerable to a complete meltdown. No one told you it would be so tough. The job did not come with a health warning (full disclosure, I moved from running my own business to being a head of product, making this journey even more jarring).

With each week that goes by you can sink further and further. You become no longer able to move in any direction as you simply don’t have the respect of the other teams.

I reached this point at one time in my career. Fortunately I realised that I had to do something radical. If my job felt like a war zone it wasn’t because of the environment. It wasn’t because the tech team was shortsighted, it wasn’t because the sales team was selfish, and it wasn’t because the UX team was too unrealistic.


Yep. When you keep having similar problems with lots of different people then the only ego-shattering conclusion you can make is that it’s your fault.

OK, so what do I do now? How do I deal with this new bombshell? Am I completely useless?

Side Note – if you are looking for easy solutions neatly packaged into simple tips, this article is not for you

I had a short moment of panic, but then I realised that, if it was my fault that things were so bad, then surely it was in my power to fix it. It should therefore become my sole purpose to bring peace to this war-torn disaster zone.

I realised that if I wanted to get to that idyllic meadow of idea generation and autonomy for teams of tech, product and UX working together, I first had to build trust from every area of the business. There’s no point moaning that “it’s not the way things should be done” when you haven’t yet built confidence from all three circles in the Venn diagram.

Empathy and Understanding

This is why my personal journey to – I hope – at least an approximation of competency, travelled through the terrifying lands and rocky terrain of empathy and understanding.

This journey must start with the mantra “assume positive intent”. This means that, no matter what, you always assume that every person you work with is doing their best (please read Brene Brown’s opinions on this in her book Dare to Lead, it can be life-changing). How can you remain angry at someone who is only doing what they do because it’s the best or the only way they know? It can be very humbling when you acknowledge that the person who’s the target of your anger is actually doing the very best they can.

With that mindset in place I had to go through the long and arduous journey of putting myself in the place of the person I was failing. This could involve asking them for more information about what’s happening in their world, spending a day in their life and effectively doing their job for a day, or simply just spending some time thinking through what motivates them.

Just performing these acts can be enough to significantly increase trust, because that person then knows you care. When it comes to it, caring for others, and showing that you care for them, will solve more problems than you can imagine.

What I’ve just described sounds easy, but it is extremely hard. The truth is, we all care more about a tiny spot our face than we do about a million deaths in some faraway country. We are evolved to be naturally and inherently selfish, and overcoming this takes a lot of work.

The Empathy Trap

Empathy is the process of understanding what someone else thinks and feels and adjusting the way you behave as a result.

You may think that this all sounds great, but if I assume positive intent does that then mean that I accept their poor behaviour and allow them to treat me poorly?

And, if I’m changing my behaviour after thinking about the other person, will I just be trampled on and spend my time dancing to someone else’s tune? Does it mean I always say yes as I want to help that person?

This is what I’ve termed the empathy trap  – essentially it is to assume and believe that empathy is weakness.

To answer the questions above, accepting poor behaviour or always saying yes is not empathy but self-interest. If you truly care for and understand the other person you will be willing to take the difficult step of explaining why something will not go their way or addressing any of their behaviour that falls below what you consider fair or reasonable.

True empathy also involves the real strength to put yourself in an awkward position if it is the best thing for that situation and it is what the other person needs to hear (but don’t go too far, of course).

The Road to Peace

If you have genuine empathy and understanding for all the people you work with and who are affected by your products, then you are on the right road. If you continue to show people that you care then they will work with you in a positive way.

A note of warning here. There are many many different factions involved in most of these internal company wars and the best you can realistically hope for is an uneasy ceasefire. That is, everyone still has their own agenda and they are just a couple of months of being ignored away from going right back into an all-out attack.

You can only maintain peace by continuing to embrace empathy with everyone involved in or affected by your project at every point along the journey.

The goal isn’t to make everyone happy. You will have to disappoint people. The goal should be that everyone agrees with the final decision made, even if it means their personal project won’t be done soon. Exercising real empathy should make that process much easier.

If you work hard on understanding your colleagues and avoid blaming the other person when things go awry and instead blame yourself, then you may be closer to harmony than you realise.

The post Stuck in the Middle With Product Managers appeared first on Mind the Product.

The key to having impact as an engineer? Empathy

As product engineers, we like to build things, we like to solve problems, and we also want to have impact, right?

But in order to have maximum impact, you need to build things that solve the right problems. How do we do that? By cultivating a deep sense of empathy for our customers.

At our event Building Intercom in Dublin, I discussed how this empathetic approach can play out even on a small scale, using the example of a seemingly simple feature I was working on.

Introducing Snooze

It all began with a small feature in our Inbox, which looks like this:


Customers write in and this opens a conversation with a customer support agent. Over time, the number of Intercom customers increased exponentially, and with this came an increase in the number of incoming conversations. So there was a lot going on in the Inbox, and our customer support agents were constantly under pressure.

To get conversations out of the way, they just closed them when a customer didn’t respond. But this behavior was screwing things like reports on who was resolving the most customer issues.

At that time, a conversation could be in two states – it could either be open or it could be closed. And not having a third state was really blocking us on other major features that we were working on at the time. So we started designing a new state that would allow our customers to put conversations on hold, and we called that state Snooze.

Managing legacy systems

We all know that when you are dealing with a legacy system, there’s a bit of work involved under the hood to add a new feature, especially when it affects one of the core parts of our product, in this case conversations. We needed to:

  1. Update and extend our conversations database table and do this without disrupting existing behavior for our customers or making the life of our infrastructure engineers miserable.
  2. Keep the UI consistent. We all know how great it feels to have the same behavior on mobile as on web.
  3. Make sure that everything is backwards compatible, because we cannot just change our API for every new feature we’re adding.

So we navigated these challenges, and we quickly shipped Snooze so we could unblock our other work. I was proud and happy about the elegance of the solution. I couldn’t wait to see it in action. But of course, it turned out that people didn’t use Snooze the way we thought they would.

The black hole of Snooze

It turned out that the customer support agents that managed the inbox were constantly snoozing their conversations, and this resulted in a large backlog of snoozed conversations. And given the way we had built this feature, conversations never reopened if nobody replied.

From an engineer’s point of view, my work was done, right? I mean, I shipped what I was asked to build. It worked as it was supposed to. But in effect, all we had done was copy the previous state of closed. Our analysts termed this the “black hole of Snooze”.


In effect, we had actually created a new problem, and let me tell you, it’s really shit knowing that the thing you’re building doesn’t actually solve a problem. In this case, it felt even worse because it created a new problem. And for someone like me who likes to build things to have a positive impact, that felt like a real kick in the guts.

“We needed to go from just building things to actually solving the right problem”

I had to go into my cave and do some reflection time. And I realized one thing. I realized we had built this feature in isolation and with the wrong motivation. We were so busy and focused on wanting to unplug other Intercom features that we just completely forgot what problem we were looking at and why we were building it. We lacked context around the interaction between the people in the inbox and their customers when we added this new state. So we needed to go from just building things to actually solving the right problem in order to have the impact we needed.

Empathy engineering

Okay, that makes sense, but how do I as an engineer make sure that this time around I’m not just blindly building things again? Actually, Tom Kelley from the Californian design company IDEO has something to say about that: “Empathy means challenging your preconceived ideas and setting aside your sense of what you think is true in order to learn what is actually true.” That’s exactly what we were missing. Having empathy for the users of our product, in this case people managing the Inbox, is what we were missing.

How, then, do I go about challenging my preconceived notions? As a first step, I sat down with our Customer Success team and literally looked over their shoulder as I checked how they use Snooze to find out what works and what doesn’t work when they have a large backlog of snoozed conversations. Then, I gathered every bit of feedback there was from customers to really understand their pain point. And lastly, we as engineers got together with designers, analysts, researchers and PMs, and we did a post-mortem of our first solution and discussed solutions and ideas for the next iteration.

We decided that we always had to force a snoozed conversation to reopen, and we added a scheduled job that would check when a conversation needs to be reopened. This conversation would then be put on an SQS queue and workers would take this conversation from the queue and would change its state.


And it’s so obvious, right? A lot of you will say, “Yes, Serena. Like, of course!” We were so focused on unblocking future work that we didn’t take some time to really consider how Snooze should function. And of course, this time around, it worked.

You need empathy to have maximum impact

So let me get back to the question at the beginning of the talk. How do we have maximum impact as engineers? We need to build things with real people in mind in order to solve the right problem. And the key to this is empathy.

Why you’re solving a problem is more important than how. Neither versions of Snooze we were building were flawed from a technical level, but that’s actually not the point. In the end, we spent weeks building a technically great solution that was wrong for our users, instead of building a solution that was right for our users.

“When you build product, you always create new contexts and new ways for people to relate each other”

We could have saved a lot of time by just trying to understand better the interaction between people that manage the Inbox and their customers. When you build product, you always create new contexts and new ways for people to relate to each other, and we as product engineers need to be mindful of this. So my closing message is, don’t hit snooze on the empathy button.

The post The key to having impact as an engineer? Empathy appeared first on Inside Intercom.