Taming the dangerous animals of product management—a discussion with Dean Peters and Stephen Walker
As a product manager, you will often field urgent requests from stakeholders. “This must be built,” they insist, “and right away.”
Meet the dangerous animals of product management. Left untamed, these (usually) well-intentioned stakeholders and situations can get in the way of your careful product plans.
To avoid being devoured, product managers must master influence without authority—an art that includes a mix of hard and soft skills. And while each animal requires a different approach, there are skills and tactics that apply to all.
In a recent webinar, our host Scott Baldwin moderated a discussion between Dean Peters, an experienced agile product manager and dangerous animal “zookeeper,” and Stephen Walker, a product lead here at Productboard. They discussed how they’ve encountered these dangerous animals in the wild and shared some effective strategies for taming them.
In case you missed it, here’s a lightly edited version of the conversation.
Can you give us a quick overview of the dangerous animals?
Dean: Keep in mind that these animals are based on personas and not meant as a slight to anyone; they’re more of a teaching tool.
The HiPPO is the highest-paid person’s opinion and that could be founders, CEOs, or leaders who come charging in with great intentions. And if there’s no data, they’ll assert their opinion. The Really High-Value New Opportunity brought in from sales and marketing is known as the RHiNO, and that’s sometimes followed up with the always-annoying ZEbRA, people who have Zero Evidence but are Really Arrogant. And of course, the Seagull Manager comes swooping in with good intentions, makes a lot of noise, squawks a bit — if you’re on the boardwalk they steal your french fries — and then flies away, leaving you to clean up the mess. And finally the WoLF stands for “Working on the Latest Fire,” and that’s usually in the form of unattended technical debt.
Which one do you run into most in your day-to-day work?
Dean: It depends where you are in the software development phase. Early on, you run into a lot of HiPPOs and Seagull Managers, but that’s usually because you don’t have a lot of data and you are running on a lot of assumptions. Sometimes it’s driven by monetary initiatives, so you might have a RHiNO as well. Usually it starts with a lot of assumptions and it’s not just CEOs or VPs, it could be people on your team or yourself.
Stephen: I think the Seagull Manager is really common. People are busy and they mean well, but with their limited bandwidth, they swoop in with their requirements and then take off. This is one I’ve experienced a lot, especially in founder-led organizations. You get HiPPOs because past success reinforces these biases.
In your work as a product team leader overseeing a team of PMs, what are the ones you tend to see PMs be guilty of?
Stephen: The really common one is the Seagull Manager because people get busy, realize they need something done, and they don’t share context or bring people along for the journey. If you’ve gone away as a PM and you’re not spending that time with cross-functional teams, when you do come back around, there’s going to be some pushback because you haven’t brought people along on the journey with you.
Dean: You often see that in software. There will be a senior person who will come to the team and say, “I wrote up some code for you over the weekend. You should be able to incorporate it into your next sprint.” They bring a cognitive bias and they don’t necessarily have the full picture in terms of the scale, viability, and other things. Unless you’ve made sure you’ve had prior conversations, working in a vacuum means HiPPOs and Seagulls are going to show up.
We often think about other people as being these animals, but we can be guilty of it as well.
Dean: You often see that with a person who came into product from an SME role or came in from another function like customer enablement or customer service. They bring a lot of experience and cognitive bias. As Stephen said, your past success doesn’t guarantee future results. We need to make sure that the conversations are done through acts of validation to help move us to quantitative and qualitative methods.
These animals are a great way to represent some of the stakeholders we deal with in product, but I’ve seen some conversations focusing too much on “us vs. them.” How do you feel product makers can bring people in and make them feel part of this journey together?
Dean: I really enjoy introducing tiny acts of discovery. With each of these opinions we may have expertise, experience — what is a way to have a conversation with them without them losing their energy and sense of agency?
One of the ways is to draw a hypothesis and find some quick validations you can do, whether it’s with early adopters, different types of experimentation, or maybe it’s just going out there with napkin sketches and saying, “here are four mockups of the same thing, let’s have a conversation.”
It’s all about bringing additional information in that will help move along the conversation in a positive way that will get you to a value proposition for the problem and outcome you’re trying to solve for now rather than focusing on solutioning. who has the most eloquent and clever argument, or who’s throwing around the most weight in terms of experience.
Stephen: You want to bring people on the journey with you, whether it’s executives — HiPPOs, RHiNOs — or the typical stakeholders. If you can include them, especially as you’re narrowing ideas, they’ll be bought in. Especially with addressing the RHiNO scenarios, do the homework. Break down the scenario and show them the data. Ask them to confirm that you’re looking at the right things.
Dean: You’ll also need to have conversations with them about scale and what’s going to happen down the road. I had an experience on day 1 with a company where someone came up to me and said, “I just need this one button in order to make a sale.” And I said, “What happens to this button now that it’s out there? How do we care for it and report on it?” We can’t just put something out there and forget about it. As the proud parent of a new feature, we need to think through its entire lifecycle and its value-add.
Both of you work with distributed teams — how do you deal with distant animals now that you can’t just tap them on the shoulder to check in with them?
Dean: Collaborative tools have really come in handy. You have tools like Miro where you can create videos to walk someone through something. The issue is not that people don’t want to communicate, it’s just that we need to communicate a little differently.
Stephen: Depending on where you’re at in the organization, you need to figure out how you’re passing that baton. Some teams do a sprint review as a video and send it over for commentary. It’s important to think about putting the content in a format that people want to consume. Some people are very visual, some are very analytical, so it’s important to tailor the message that way.
Dean: Having a consistent vision and strategy for communication is helpful. Focus on the outcomes. You can start from the outside in — start with the persona and their outcomes to keep the conversation more humanized and focused on what the customer is trying to achieve rather than “Let’s put this widget here.” It may help to have conversations outside of the product itself.
It’s also helpful to recognize cognitive bias. Somewhere between 75–80% of our ideas either have no lift or a negative lift on overall outcome. So how do we get out in front of that? There’s tiny acts of experimentation, gathering analytics, gathering qualitative data. Then it’s about helping the organization prioritize. It’s not necessarily the tools, but facilitating a conversation like “buy a feature.” Then you bring in the stakeholders and give them budget so they can start to see things in a broader context.
Can you share an anecdote of a time you’ve failed to manage a dangerous animal?
Stephen: In a previous organization, I encountered a HiPPO. The big takeaway is that as organizations become more risk-averse, you have to figure out a way to break things down and make them smaller and easier for people to place bets on and make incremental progress.
We wanted to shift the funnel we were bringing prospects into and encountered some bumps along the way. The way that we were able to navigate it was to set aside a budget for learning. You leave the existing business where it is and learn how to grow the business somewhere else. You allocate a small amount of budget tso if it doesn’t grow, it’s not a big deal. It’s about minimizing risk. But there was a lot of stumbling along the way. And if you have a HiPPO, you need strong evidence.
Dean: It’s not the tools themselves, it’s the ability to drive those conversations. I realized I myself might turn into the HiPPO or ZEbRA and that people were losing their sense of agency. My technical background could sometimes get in the way. Early on in my career I’d show up with code, which is a really fast way to annoy the engineers who are making things happen. I was lucky to work with someone who reeled me in and made me realize I needed to back down. You need to empower your teams to own the how and do so in a sustainable way.
What is the best way of involving the animals in your product vision and strategy?
Stephen: We give local ownership to the product groups we call “tribes.” On a quarterly basis we have two points. One is mid-quarter, where we talk about what we’ve learned so far, what’s been shipped, and what’s happening on the market. The second is when we review with leadership before the quarter ends. We try to have as many conversations as possible.
From OKRs, there’s this idea of the W shape where you want to ping-pong between the levels so it’s not just a one-way conversation or worst-case scenario when you get left alone and start working on something that’s not connected with strategy at all. It’s important to know that the strategy is set and you’re going in the right direction. If you’re a leader it’s your opportunity to provide clarity around the context of what’s happening on the market.
Dean: You need to have those conversations between the team, the stakeholders, the customers, and you might want to bring people into various conversations. You might want to invite someone upstream.
Colin Eden and Fran Ackermann came up with a framework for getting stakeholder engagement right. There are four quadrants: you have context, the crowd, the subjects, and the players. The “players” are the stakeholders who have a strong sense of agency and strong opinions (whether they’re founded or not). It takes several iterations with those player stakeholders to show them where you are with the vision.
Another common situation you’ll encounter is needing to hold off on the outputs people are demanding. Sometimes you’re saying “not yet” and sometimes you’re saying “no.” And you have to be careful because going from “not yet” to “no” can come across as a broken promise or neglecting something.
Once you figure out the outcomes, you break it out into a multi-part strategy. In doing that, you can think of each one in a tactical sense, working with the team, the engineers, the discovery or incubator group who can suss them out first and then come back. You may have a go-to-market person or a designer who could be a good ally and collaborator. Once the strategy and outcomes are figured out, the outcomes are much easier to figure out with the team members.
And this puts you in a really good position to do “buy a feature” scoring. If things are really muddy, walk them through some other clarifying acts through online collaboration. It’s doable, but you need to spend time alone working on the messaging. The results are awesome when you take more time on the messaging.
Let’s jump into the handler’s toolkit — we talk about six techniques you can use to tame the animals. Can you share a story about one of these?
Dean: I walked into an organization at one point and there was a backlog of feature requests from customers that was 6,000 Jira tickets deep. We eventually got it down to a few hundred so we could talk about how to prioritize. We also had to work with the customers to get them out of the habit of putting tickets in the black hole. As I mentioned earlier, this is where saying “maybe” or “down the road” can come back to hurt you.
Sometimes you just have to rip the Band-Aid and tell people it’s not going to work that way. We found a way to run something behind a feature flag, collect data, and run some analytics on it. You could sometimes show people what the users actually did vs. what the assumptions were. Explain that you want to get to their pain points but there’s a better way to get to those outcomes.
Stephen: It’s about really listening to your stakeholders and customers and demonstrating that you have been listening to them. My favorite one is the empathy piece. It helps to turn it inwards. If you have a HiPPO, consider what it is about their world that’s generating these perspectives. What is their schedule like on a weekly basis? What are the conversations they’re having? Who are they talking to? And that helps you frame their world.
Then you can sit down with them and talk to them about the delta between how they’re seeing it and how you are. Typically the HiPPOs are operating at a much higher level. They’re looking at a portfolio of things or how the market is trending rather than individual customers and features. Spend a bit of time yourself to get that perspective and get that shared vocabulary to translate what you’re thinking into language they care about. You can’t expect them to have empathy for you if you don’t have it for them.
Growing your soft skill set as a product manager is critical. What kind of resources, approaches, or techniques have you used to develop yourself or your teams?
Dean: I’ve always found people in my organization who are willing to be frank in a constructive way. Let them know you want them to help you be aware of certain areas. Being human with them goes a long way. In a team meeting, take some time to chit chat and learn about each other outside of work. That doesn’t work as well upstream, but with your team and peers, creating that environment where it’s okay to share makes it easier for them to give feedback.
Stephen: One of the tools that was most effective with me was learning the vocabulary for self-reflection, whether it’s StrengthsFinder or Enneagram. Enneagram is very abstract and points you in a direction of how you show up. With every strength, there’s usually a side effect. And going through an assessment like this helps people to self-reflect. Then they’re more open about sharing their strengths and the side effects. They might say something like, “I’m really good at making decisions and charging forward, but people say the side effect of that is I leave them behind.” You can demonstrate that openness and candor so your team does as well. You can encourage them to talk about how they show up today and what they’d like to work on.