The need to lead without authority is one of the biggest challenges in product management. Not many aspiring PMs know about that unfortunate state of affairs. Partly due to the harmful ideas such as the CEO of the product. Partly because decision-making is the core PM responsibility. But how can one make a decision without authority?
It's fair to start by pointing out that not all PMs are having authority problems. Lots of our colleagues work in functional, efficient setups. Having full responsibility but also full decision power over a product or a subset of a product. You wouldn't normally find those folks at the forums moaning about their jobs. They're way too busy creating some of the best products out there.
Less fortunate PMs fight every day to do their jobs. They fight for the access to customers. Fight for resources. Fight over the roadmap. Those battles are exhausting and often lead to burnout. However, it doesn't need to be this way.
Stop fighting - start adaptingAn ability to adapt is one the strongest competitive advantage of humans. Instead of wasting your finite energy fighting to do your job, maybe try to adapt to your circumstances and work within the constraints.
You aren’t going to change the power dynamics of the corporate hierarchy. Don’t waste time trying to change it. Accept it as reality and work within those constraints.
You decided to adaptSo you haven't left yet and decided to work within your constraints. What could you do to make your life as PM easier?
You're not allowed to talk to customers directly. That sucks. But it's not the end of the world. You could try instead to get data on what customers are doing. Most products would have at least some data about the behaviour of their customers. Could you look into it and find some problems? Trends? Leads? You could try some of the numerous solutions on the market to capture user behaviour. Most of those tools have free plans or trials. You need to start collecting facts.
Another way is to look for the second-hand customer's feedback. Talk to your support team, sales, accounts managers, marketing. Anyone who talks to customers. Their credibility would boost the credibility of the facts you've collected. However, be careful and take second-hand feedback with a pinch of salt. Or two. There are plenty of biases when you directly talk to customers, even more, when somebody else did that.
Don't underestimate open sources. Nowadays, if people feel strong emotions about a product (about anything really) - they would find a way to express it on the Internet. Your job is to find places your customers voice their opinions. Review sites, comments, forums, meetups... If you absolutely cannot find anyone talking about your product - you either haven't searched enough, or your product is boring. Which is valuable information in itself.
Inception as a servant leadership toolSo you've collected some facts about your product. You have a pretty good idea of how to address those facts to improve your product. How do you pitch that? Well, you don't. Don't pitch your ideas. Present facts. In a way that would lead your audience to the conclusions you need. In other words, incept your idea into their brains using facts.
The trick is to make people believe it's they who came up with an idea. If people think it's their idea - they will do much more to make it happen. So when you pitch - avoid expressing your opinion. Show what you've learnt, but keep conclusions to yourself. Ask people who have the decision power for help, make them feel comfortable making a decision and you'd achieve your objectives.
PM's job is a tough one. Often we are responsible but not empowered. However, we can work around it and still achieve our goals. Even when we don't have access to customers, or can't make the necessary decisions. We could find alternative ways to get feedback on our products. And we could incept right ideas to the heads of decision makers using facts. At the end of the day, if we managed to improve our product - we did our job well.