The trope of influence-without-authority

One of the tropes of product management is that you have influence without authority. Say that out loud to a group of PMs and you’ll be rewarded with vehement nods of agreement.

The juxtaposition of one with the other is what I see early-career PMs struggle with. Sometimes it makes people shy away from the role entirely. When no one reports to you, how can you bring them to do what you need. The dilemma quickly multiplies with the many disparate functions PMs need to work with. This post offers a way of thinking about influence vs authority in practice.

“A ruler must learn to persuade and not to compel. She must lay the best coffee hearth to attract the finest people.” —The Bene Gesserit (Dune)

The reason I call “influence without authority” a trope is because it is thrown about as an absolute truth when you ask someone what it means to be a PM. Neither is it entirely true nor should it be a defining characteristic of product management because:

  1. Firstly, PMs have more authority than they are led to believe.
  2. Secondly, authority is far less effective than influence — in any role.

A common miscalculation many product managers make is assuming that having people report to you means you can tell them what to do. It is not a surprising mistake, as product management does not get a lot of reps at building the people management muscle.

Influence is not manipulation

A PM I once worked with had a whole set of tactics to get their team to do what they wanted. Things like running brainstorming meetings where they had pre-determined the features they wanted the team to build and would manipulate these meetings to lead to that outcome. This is not influence.

People invariably do what they want to do. This is good, because most often what they want to do is what they believe is the right thing to do. This is also good because to have them do something different has extreme friction — not only would you end up having to know how to do their job and supervise them, but would have to also face increasing apathy.

A better way to direct someone’s output is to give them goals and give them leeway on how they accomplish those goals. Building on this, an even better way to direct their output is letting them set their own goals. That requires you and them to be aligned on the spirit of those goals, not just the letter — it results in an intrinsic motivation. No goal is so perfect that it cannot be bent and intrinsic motivation is the most effective way to stay true to the intent behind the goal.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery says this eloquently:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

“Influence” is an inadequate word to encapsulate the ideas of leadership that have existed throughout history. Whether you are a product manager, a people manager, a general or a president, the principles of organizing a group of individuals and directing their efforts collectively in a single direction are the same.

Authority is costly to use

Sometimes you need to override decisions (where you do have that authority). This is effectively asking someone to do a thing different from what they believe they should be doing. It is not sustainable.

Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify, has a great framework around this: the trust battery. The idea is exactly what it sounds like (read that link for more). Every time you use your capital-A Authority, you drain from your trust battery. You never want to deplete that trust battery too much.

The Bene Gesserit know this.

There is lowercase-a authority too, resulting from people sometimes not questioning their leaders and simply doing what was asked. While it may be instinctive to do what your manager asks, it consumes the trust battery too and has lower intrinsic motivation. As a manager, this is a very important thing to keep tabs on — was your suggestion interpreted as a directive? Good managers know to preface their ideas with “this is just illustrative” or “this is probably a bad idea but what if” or “this is entirely your decision” or some such socially acceptable way to not be heard as a commander while proffering a serious suggestion.

So, for a product manager, having more authority is not going to make the job easier by much, and knowing how to build influence is not a requirement unique only to their role. This is why I consider “influence-without-authority” a platitude when it comes to understanding the role of product management.

In practice

All that said, the role does come with significant authority, which can be converted into influence. This is an important element of the meta-game of product management.

Authority for PMs stems partly from the product culture at the company (i.e. what the rest of the organization has come to look to product management for) and partly from PMs being at the center of information flows and the operational cadence. Simple things like being the one setting meeting agendas, asking for updates, sharing updates, being the de jure representative of one function to another functions, being in front of customers — all result in implicit authority.

And yet, so often I see PMs trying to offload taking notes or doing weekly updates to someone else because they consider it grunt work.

Influence is built by building trust and credibility. Product managers can build both through:

  1. Creating transparency,
  2. Elevating the work of others,
  3. Developing deep knowledge yourself,
  4. Helping others succeed, and
  5. Proving to be right.

Typically, you start with (1) and work your way to (5) over time.

While it is hard to offer actionable advice without specific situational context, here is some meta-advice that can help start the (1)-(5) flywheel spinning:

There is no prescriptive solution in building influence. Tactics that I have seen work well I have also seen fail spectacularly when applied in a different situation. This is one of the most valuable areas to exchange notes about with other PMs. As the saying goes — “art critics discuss Form and Structure, artists discuss where to buy cheap turpentine.”