Coaching for Style vs. Substance

During my time at Kickstarter, I worked on a project called the “Play” page. It allowed people to buy games funded on Kickstarter off of Steam. The people working on the project were our Games community rep, and two engineers working on the page. Another PM was also in the meeting because he’d done a similar project and had some thoughts for beginning the new one.

We set up a kickoff meeting to talk about the project.

There are (at least) two different styles to have these meetings in: one more open-ended, one more focused.

They each require equal amount of preparation, but both have unique advantages and disadvantages. The open-ended meeting lets everyone have a say. It can seem unfocused and wander through a variety of topics. It takes longer. It does allow everyone to feel involved, and sometimes results in surfacing previously unvisited ideas. The solution feels co-created.

The focused meeting can be quick. Fifteen minutes — in out, here’s what we’re doing. It’s efficient. People may not feel as involved in the early stage of the process, but they know their role going forward. The solution feels planned and organized.

The output of the meetings are likely to be the same:

  • Here is what we are building.
  • Here is how we will build it.
  • Here are the next steps.

This list is the substance of the PM role. You need to walk out of the meeting with those items. How you get there is the style. Either of the two I mention can work well. I’m sure there are others. In the play page meeting in particular because I saw both of these styles.

I’d opted for the open-ended style to start the meeting. I had an idea of where we’d end up (X) but I wanted to see if the team landed in the same place, and make sure we all felt bought in that it was the right direction.

We were midway through a discussion (community had set a lofty vision, engineering had explained some constraints) and were moving towards middle ground — the X I had expected. Around that point in time, the other PM jumped to the fast style of meeting — “why don’t we do X?”

Since all three were the same (my original expectation X, the team conclusion X, and the other PM’s suggestion X) this didn’t end up having an impact on the project. The meeting concluded, we built as planned.

Seeing the two styles contrasted in one meeting had an impact on how I think about style vs. substance when managing PMs. Kickoff meetings are an easy example of a PM skill that has a clearly differentiated “style” and “substance” but this bleeds into all PM work.

When you are managing new PMs, it can be tempting to give them the template of what made you successful (the style).

“The way you run a kickoff meeting is…”

It’s tempting to do this because then you can just write down what you did last time (and the time before, and the time before).

Unfortunately for you, the new PM is unlikely to do it exactly the way you imagine it. You have practice refining your style over time, and this new PM is trying to adapt to it. They won’t have identical underlying skills to yours. It won’t go as well as it would if you did it yourself.

You’ll be tempted to coach based on your own experience — to get them to do it just the way you’d do it. This is coaching on style. While that style make work for you, it might not feel authentic to the PM you are managing or align to their strengths. Coaching on style will eventually impact the substance (output) but it might be inefficient.

In contrast, if you say “You need to walk out of a kickoff meeting with…”

This specifies the substance. The PM knows the expectation of the output of the kickoff meeting (or whatever technique you are getting them to do):

For instance in the kickoff case, you might want the outputs of:

  • Here is what we are building.
  • Here is how we will build it.
  • Here are the next steps.

Then, the PM is free to develop their own style of how to get to the result. This also gives them a way to ask you for more information without it appearing as you critiquing every detail.

“In my kickoff meetings, I’m having trouble getting everyone to agree on a set of next steps that is tangible — how have you done that before?” In this way, the PM can pull style advice out of you and incorporate it as it’s needed vs. you asking them to emulate a specific style.

When managing, I ask myself “am I asking for an output, or am I asking them to do it the way I’d do it?”