Why Politics in Product Isn't a Dirty Word—It's a Reality You Must Master
Why is politics often considered a "dirty word" in product circles?
It's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The ticking time bomb that could detonate your feature any second. Every Product Manager (PM) and leader faces it, yet most shy away. Why?
My Political Awakening
Let me take you back.
When I was a PM at Google, I had a project to improve our enterprise readiness for the Job Search API. It wasn’t just any project; it was THE project.
The numbers were spot-on.
User testing was through the roof.
Every indicator screamed 'Go!'
And yet, we never built it.
One of the most influential adjacent Engineering Managers felt threatened. He had a competing project, you see. So behind closed doors, strings were pulled.
I later learned one meeting was all it took. And just like that, my project was canned.
This wasn’t a setback. It was an enlightenment.
It dawned on me: no amount of data or strategy could have saved me. Because I had ignored the political landscape.
Enough Waiting, It’s Time for Tactical Action
You can be the smartest person in the room. You can draft the most beautiful roadmap. All your KPIs could be green. But none of it matters if you don’t factor in politics.
I’ve had to learn this every few years in my career. Like you, I just dislike this part of the job:
But we both ignore politics at our own peril. Features don’t just get delayed; they die. Teams don’t just disengage; they revolt. And you? You don’t just receive bad performance ratings. You’re out. Period.
Politics Isn't Just a Game, It's THE Game
Politics in product management and leadership isn’t a footnote. It's the headline.
We often relegate it to hushed DMs, or veiled comments in meetings.
The reason? Fear. We don’t want to be known for politics. We want to be known for our products and their results.
But here's the thing:
Politics doesn't just happen in the corridors of power or behind closed doors. It happens in Slack channels. In team standups. During product reviews.
So we, PMs and product leaders, face a choice. We can continue to tiptoe around the subject - or, we can tackle it head-on.
Get Started Today
This isn’t a drill. This is your wake-up call. If you’ve been skirting around politics, stop. Right now. This conversation is overdue.
Enough with the avoidance. It's time for confrontation.
Product Management is Inherently Political
—Rich Mironov, in 2004
Today's Deep Dive: Your PM Political Playbook
I’ve dealt with politics for over 15 years in my PM career. Along the way, I’ve developed a sort of utilitarian, out-of-your-face style to it.
In this piece, we’ll go super deep - over 5,000 words - on:
The Invisible Org Chart: Mapping Unseen Power
Office Politics: The Main Players
The Art of Building Alliances
Reverse Conway's Law
Pitfalls, Traps to Avoid
The Ethical Dilemma
Case Study in Power
1. The Invisible Org Chart
You can stare at your company's org chart all day, but here's the catch:
It won't show you the real power dynamics at play.
Sure, you'll see who reports to whom. But you're missing the nuances, the favors, the alliances. The org chart captures titles, not influence.
Map the Influencers: This Isn't High School, But It's Close
Here’s the people I would actually look out for:
The informal leaders
The power brokers
The gate keepers
Let’s break down who these people tend to be in a product context.
Influencer 1 - The informal leaders
These are the people who tend to lead product decisions, but may not have product titles.
The most common source of informal leaders is, obviously from my example at the beginning, engineering. In most great tech companies, engineers are the most well-paid function - for good reason. So their leadership has an inordinate sway on the product decisions.
I often encourage PMs on my team to not consider their EM’s managers as key stakeholders.
Another source of informal leadership often comes from the most senior engineers. Think people who have a title like, “senior staff engineer.” Engineers at the highest levels will always have a voice in tech companies. That’s how they earn their hefty paychecks.
Another common source of informal leaders for product managers come from design. Just like engineering, this discipline is crucial to the delivery of products. So its leaders are crucial to the plans for those products.
When you’re working as a PM on the front-lines, you can’t expect your EM and designer to manage these folks for you. You have to actively engage these informal leaders.
Influencer 2 - The power brokers
The power brokers are the people who hold the keys to power. You’ll most often find these people with titles like ‘ops’ or ‘chief of staff.’
For instance, a few power brokers I commonly look out for:
Chief of Staff to the CEO: this person can tell you where the CEO is focused on at any time so you can drive business improvements in that area; then, as your projects make impact, they can help you get the wins in front of the CEO
Head of Product Operations: this person spends a lot of time with the head of product, and they guide a lot of the key planning and review cadences. They have the unique vantage point of how all the other PMs at your company are behaving
If you’re a certain type of driven person, you might give more effort to the CEO or head of product. But their right hand people also deserve focus. The work they are organizing tends to be highly strategic.
Then, there’s the cross-functional power brokers:
The Strategic Finance Lead: You ever wonder who really knows where the money flows? It’s not the CFO; it's often their strategic finance lead. This person can give you critical insights into the business' financial health and strategy. Want to know if your pet project is likely to get the budget? Check in with them.
The HR Business Partner: You might wonder, "HR? Really?" Absolutely. This person often knows more about team dynamics, growth plans, and upcoming organizational shifts than anyone else. They're invaluable for understanding the human element of power dynamics.
The Sales Enablement Lead: Think you’re product-driven? Try telling that to Sales. Sales Enablement ensures that the sales team has all the tools they need to succeed, including excellent product knowledge. Their understanding of customer pain points and what features resonate in the market can often point you in the right direction for your product strategy.
As you can see, the list of people is expanding fast. It’s not so much that you need to always meet with these power brokers. But know who they are, work with them a few times a year, and gain leverage from those relationships.
And certainly don’t tick them off!
Influencer 3 - The gate keepers
Gatekeepers: They don't create. They don't innovate. But they control access - access to data, to people, to decision-making forums.
Who are they in a product landscape? Often, it's folks in legal and compliance, maybe someone senior in data security.
Their job? Mitigate risk.
How do they fit into our story? Simple. Before you launch anything, they've got to give the thumbs-up. Don’t move so fast, you forget about them.
You might also find gatekeepers in data analytics teams. They’re the ones you need to pull the insights that fuel your product strategies. If they're on your side, you get data fast. If not, you're last in the queue.
It's essential to befriend the gatekeepers. If you’re launching a new feature that needs quick legal approval, having an ally in legal can speed up that timeline from weeks to days.
Work With Influencers, Don’t Antagonize Them
For all three of the influencer groups, you don’t need to become a political player and send them happy birthday messages. This is about professional politics.
Work with them occasionally, make sure they know you exist. Be on good terms with them.
And that’s basically the extent of the politicking you want to do: Make sure they consider themselves them members of your political party - not the other side.
Where We Go From Here
So you’ve identified the positive people. What about the potentially negative one’s? And how do you deal with them?
2. Types of Office Politics Players
You won't find these people tied to any specific function or title; instead, they are defined by their actions and tactics. Let's deep-dive into a few archetypes:
Here’s who they are, how to sniff them out, and what to do.