Leadership Needs a Redesign: Here’s How Product Principles Can Help


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Leadership should be equal parts art and science. There’s the art of understanding your employees and customers—the empathy so often suggested to understand their motivations, needs, and best ways to encourage productivity. Once combined with the science with data and feedback loops, you’re ideally able to generate not just outputs, but better outcomes, for everyone. Yet, art often takes a back seat to science—a recent study found that 79% of CEOs find empathy to be a struggle — and we’re often guilty of giving into the needs of the few over the many.

The genesis of Agile and Design Thinking methodologies were rooted in challenging this tendency to remove empathy from the equation. Yes, it’s difficult to meet the needs of every stakeholder, but with a better understanding of their pain points you can quickly adapt and provide the best outcomes possible. Yet, today’s leadership methods appear to be in conflict with what we know as the tenets of building great products. We’re not spending enough time embedded with the two most important target audiences: our employees and customers.

Companies have long removed humanity from leadership foundations through methodologies like the 80/20 rule, which says that 80% of outputs result from 20% of all inputs for any given event. While the goal is to prioritize the most productive inputs, it forces us to miss a vital piece in the formula for success — the people. Without empathy and creativity that go into building great products, we’re closing ourselves off to the answers that will unlock business success.

Leadership, unlike the forces at play above, is firmly within our control. First, it requires a hard look at ourselves, but also using empathy to our advantage. By not doing so, we risk product failure and its implicit and explicit costs to our businesses. The good news is that the path to non-linear leadership has been in front of us all along in the form of product and design thinking.

Leadership in crises isn’t a new phenomenon

This isn’t the first time that product-led companies have faced a crisis of confidence. At our recent company conference, I made it a point to restate an evident truth: uncertainty is nothing new to any of us, least of all leaders.

An annual survey of more than 1,400 product professionals echoes the sentiment — only 88 out of 1400 PMs (6%) “strongly agreed” that they have visibility into whether planned product work really aligns with our product objectives and strategy.

When faced with challenges, we tend to be far too rigid. We tend to look backwards and forget that past performance is not indicative of future results. What we’re doing instead is seeking silver bullets to solve development or productivity hurdles, while closing ourselves off to the internal and external insights and feedback that is critical to business success.

The tenets of some of the greatest leaders out there is that they have incredible empathy for their customers. Non-linear thinkers understand that innovation does not exist in a vacuum, but rather comes with an understanding of your users and their needs over time. Using that information, you can become more flexible, adapting your behavior as your understanding of customer pain points or the barriers to shipping great products deepens over time.

Strong leadership and greater empathy are intertwined

Great leaders — think Steve Jobs of Apple or 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki — found success working tirelessly to represent their teams and customers. High empathy leadership rewards the people that are curious to know more and empathize with changing needs of our audiences. In its absence, we’re making snap judgements without context and a small (if any) margin to adapt to changing conditions.

At the core of Agile methodology is greater human collaboration, keeping stakeholders connected and aligned throughout the product lifecycle. In fact, 64% of software employees said that Agile methodologies enhanced their ability to manage rapidly changing priorities, something we’re all too familiar with today.

Similarly, non-linear leadership can draw a line to design thinking through its focus on placing humanity at the center of outcomes. When Dave Gray of XPLANE created the Empathy Map as part of a “gamestorming” exercise for his designers, human connections were at the forefront. “This particular tool helps teams develop deep, shared understanding and empathy for other people. People use it to help them improve customer experience, to navigate organizational politics, to design better work environments, and a host of other things,” he said in 2017.

Applying non-linear leadership IRL

Applying the principles of Agile and Design Thinking as leaders isn’t an abstract concept. At its core, it’s about bringing empathy into the workplace to support our most important stakeholders – our employees and customers. Here’s a few ways you can put it into practice today.

Be customer-centric. A customer-centric approach isn’t about simply giving the most vocal customers every feature they ask for, but rather built on the appreciation that getting to know the internal and external stakeholders around you is paramount to seeing through the noise to create better business outcomes.

Be open to feedback. Take the temperature of your customers through systematic NPS measurements, ensuring or challenging your perception that you’re meeting their needs in reality.

Don’t hide behind a virtual Zoom screen. See your employees and customers face-to-face, listen to their challenges and encourage them — highs and lows are just part of the process, but acknowledging them is an important step to learning, adapting, and improving outcomes.

Bring more flexibility, open-mindedness, and agility to your work. Great ideas can come from anywhere, but if we’re closed off to other points of view, we’ll miss massive opportunities to grow as leaders and help our products stand apart. Make sure that your company is bringing diverse perspectives into important conversations.

Leverage resources around you. Agile and Design Thinking aren’t black boxes. Organizations such as IDEO have actionable frameworks of empathetic leadership that you can put into practice right away.

Challenging our tendency to focus on the immediate outputs we believe our stakeholders want, rather than giving ourselves the space to consider the best outcomes for them, is hurting our businesses. It makes sense, we’re in uncertain times. People are more likely to adjust their behaviors because they’re questioning everything. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be non-linear in our thinking, which comes down to reinvesting time into people and human experiences.

The needs of our employees and customers evolve, and we need to be sensitive to different perspectives rather than singularly frame decisions through our own personal experiences. At the end of day, a winning approach is centered around customers and a non-linear understanding of everyone involved in making your business successful — customers, peers, employees, other stakeholders.

Hubert Palan
I am the founder and CEO of Productboard, the leading product management system that enables product teams to get the right products to market, faster. I am a product maker by heart and my passion is everything related to product management and product strategy. I got an MBA at Haas, UC Berkeley, and a MSc. in CS at the Czech Technical University in Prague. I live in the San Francisco Bay area with my wife and two sons.


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