Why product managers need to join a debating club

Including a nifty Miro Icebreaker game

Cover Image for the article

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate

Margaret Heffernan

It must now have been 7 years ago when I joined the Leiden Debating Union, got inducted into the fascinating world of debating, and enjoyed some great debates. 

It was my wife, (shoutout here you’re the best, ❤️) who encouraged me to join, to try out a new hobby next to boxing. 

Thinking of it, I must have come home too often with a black eye from sparring, which didn’t help professionally, needing to go to work in a suit to look representable. 

As I am working in product management, it was a great decision. Debating bringing many ways to improve product management skills.

The art of debating in a nutshell

Welcome to a crash course into competitive debating, using the British Parliamentary format. 

If you like movies, the trailer capturing the essence of debating will sound something like this: “One crushing topic that impacts the future of the world greatly. Two teams will sway you to go their way. You have to decide, and you better not get it wrong!”

Giving it a bit more depth, it works as follows.

The debate starts with a topic, the so-called “motion”. The motion allows for interesting argumentation on either side and is formulated almost like how one would formulate a hypothesis, meaning “This house believes/ would/should do (…)”. 

For example: “This house believes that children should not visit convicts in prison”.

Teams are formed to either be on the government or on the opposition. They battle each other, through a few “rounds”, with arguments. The government is in favor of the motion and the opposition is against it. The government will present the case for the government, after which the opening opposition tries to show the flaws of the opening government and present its arguments. The second (and third) government rebuts the opposition argument, after which the second (and third) opposition gets a go as well. The last speeches present a summary explaining why their side won.

Read fun, inspiring and thought-provoking, product management stories.

Image showing the two teams, roles and sequence of debating

How to win as a team? To provide the best logical argumentation! Whether it is phrased eloquently is unimportant to judges. Judges take an impartial role, meaning that their own views do not matter (I wished we’d somehow be able to make this a human default). The judges choose the team that they believe would be able to persuade the average person with their arguments.

How debating savviness helps you in product management?

There are a couple of things how great product managers benefit from practicing debating, besides having a lot of fun, that is.

  • Understanding the challenge
  • Reframing, and critical and outside-the-box thinking
  • Public speaking, convincing and persuading others

Understanding the challenge

In British Parliamentary debating, teams have 15 minutes of preparation time to form their arguments. To create compelling, strong arguments, teams need to understand the challenge. This entails, researching topics, and asking each other questions to understand the broadness of the problem. Analyze what is powerful to solve for, and narrow it down to the key issues to argue for. Coming up with argumentation ideas, then prioritizing those that establish the strongest argument, and building a compelling story.

Image showing the similarities between the product discovery double diamond and forming the best arguments when debating

For a product manager, this is daily business. To deeply understand the issue customers are facing, through research. To brainstorm ideas on how to resolve them, and build compelling arguments and stories to bring stakeholders along and sway them to champion the way forward. 

A reading recommendation here is Continuous Discovery Habit by Teresa Torres

Reframing, and critical and outside-the-box thinking 

During debating, teams will have several opportunities for rebuttal. 

The second (and third) speakers have the opportunity to rebut the previous speakers and present new ideas. Powerful rebuts follow up on the previously presented and provide new insights. Quick-witted and outside-the-box thinking are great skills to possess.

Teams also have the opportunity to “interfere” during speeches, offering short points of rebuttal or questions to the speaker. This is known as points of information. 

Image showing the process and benefits of debating for product managers

For a product manager, this translates into a couple of things. The most important ones? Listening and gathering data. Successful product managers research topics, listens to the customer, ask questions to understand what customers try to tell them, and gather data to prove they understand, to deliver products customers need and love to use. 

A recommendation here is Think out of the Box by Som Bathla

Public speaking, and convincing and persuading others

Debaters need to feel comfortable speaking publicly, having to deliver their argument in the most effective way to an audience. The team to win it all is the team to provide the most convincing logical arguments. Thinking and persuading skills.

Great products are being built in great coherence with stakeholders. This means that product managers need to be comfortable talking, and convincing, and persuading others. Great arguments as to why items are essential, and why now are key, as well as being able to rebut counter-arguments. Telling stakeholders straight out NO should be the last resort.

A nice book here to check is Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini

Debating inspired icebreaker for Product Managers

If you like the article and want to have some quick fun with your teams and show them how debating improves their critical thinking, argumentation, and presentation skills? 

Image of the Miro Icebreak game Our Yeah is better than your Nah

Try out this 15 min icebreaker game I created for Miro: Our Yeah is better than your Nah!

In Summary

Debating is a great way to perk up and keep your product management skills sharp. Use the debating icebreaker game in your product team and go join your local debating club!

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