Helping, Power, and Product Management
I’m about halfway thru reading Helping, by Ed Schein. It’s a bit dry, but a thought provoking read - it’s about the power dynamics inherent in helping relationships, and the team dynamics that emerge from good, strong professional helping relationships. Schein’s view is that strong teams continually help one another with little to no formal prompting. It’s an interesting recast of a concept I’d never considered deeply.
One of Schein’s recurring themes is that asking for help necessarily creates a power imbalance: if you’re asking for help, you’re showing vulnerability, and are “one down” to the person you ask for help.
I find this fascinating in the context of product managers: where I work, PMs have no actual power over engineering resources. A PM can’t order a group of engineers to drop what they’re doing and work on the PM’s hot new feature. As a result, they have to ask for help on realizing a product. According to Schein’s book, that inherently projects vulnerability.
At the same time, I perceive product managers at my job as projecting great power to make shit happen. I would not characterize an effective PM at Sonos as “vulnerable”.
What’s the right read on this? I see a real big natural tension in this arrangement, but I don’t have enough context to resolve it.
Shout out to John Cutler for seeding this thought - both through his own writing, and for inspiring me to read Helping.