Handling Subjective Opinions from Executives

Karthik Lakshminarayanan
3 min readNov 1, 2021

As product managers, we aspire to become masters of negotiation, persuasion and influence. This skill is particularly tested when conducting product reviews with executives. Executives have the power and standing in the organization, and can derail your plans with subjective opinions or hunches on product design which may or may not be the right thing to do.

This can be frustrating — it is not easy to ignore this feedback, and following up on their “hunches” ends up wasting your time and does not actually make you learn anything new.

Unless you plan to ask someone else to present in these executive meetings, dealing with HiPPOs (Highly Paid Person’s Opinion) is a core skill that each PM has to master. PMs are going to be in front of decision makers and more powerful people all the time — internal executives or external stakeholders like customers.

Photo Credit: Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

Here is an example. Maggie is a PM for a wireless carrier, and is responsible for the phone catalog they support. She recently conducted a review recommending the addition of certain phone models, as well as phone models to skip or not support in the catalog. During the review, one of the executives proposed that they should only add support for 5G devices moving forward. Someone else said that they should look at adding devices that preserves or grows their ARPU. Maggie was flustered. Each of these suggestions made sense, but picking one recommendation (e.g. 5G only devices) would contradict another goal (e.g. add or grow current ARPU). Maggie had her own opinions, but they were just that — opinions. When her opinions clashed with the executives opinions, there was no way to tie break and move forward. She lost control of the review and no decisions were made. Some even remarked that this was a waste of the executives time.

There is a path forward, and that is by negotiating the decision framework in advance, and leading with principles. Invite feedback on the principles and framework, before showing the open issues or design considerations, and your recommendation. It is critical that you get signoff on the principles before you show your recommendations. If the executive has a different recommendation, use the agreed upon principles to evaluate if the recommendation fits the framework, else point out which principle is not met or contradicted, by pursuing that recommendation.

Maggie came back with a follow up review, and opened the review with a list of principles. They looked something like this.

  1. Our primary goal is to acquire customer in our target segments. Device choice is a big reason for users to sign up for our plans. We will support as many devices to ensure customers can sign up for our service.
  2. We will build a sorting and filtering system, so users can quickly refine the device list and ensure excessive choice does not lead to increased drop off during customer signup.
  3. When there is a tradeoff between acquiring a customer and lowering ARPU, we will prioritize customer acquisition over ARPU.
  4. and so on

Maggie got positive feedback on the principles, and then she outlined her recommendations backed by these principles. When executives disagreed with her recommendation, she got help from other executives that pointed them back to the principles and helped steer the decisions that were in line with the principles. When there was a disagreement in the recommendation, it led to a gap in the principles and she ended up tightening the principles as well. Overall she is now in a much stronger position for future device additions, because she has a well vetted framework.

So try this out next time, it helps you get control and power back, protecting you from hunches and HiPPOs. Good luck!

--

--

Karthik Lakshminarayanan

Product Executive, focused on turning great products into great businesses. Current: Google. Previous: VMware, AppSense and Microsoft. All views are my own.