How to tap Into the Collective Wisdom of a Team

BY ROBERT CHOKR ON JULY 25, 2018

I’ve always been keen on learning from other people. And one way of doing this is by interviewing professionals and experts and asking them about their experiences. This year, I travelled from Berlin to Silicon Valley and interviewed 15 product management experts from Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce, eBay, and other companies, to learn about how they build successful products that serve millions of people every day.

One prevalent theme that came up in all the interviews was how, when trying to find a solution to a challenging problem, you should try to leverage all the diverse skills available in the team. If you’ve worked in tech long enough, you’ve probably noticed how people often jump on the first and most obvious solution to a problem. That’s to say, once a team of people come up with a solution that is likely to work, they don’t keep looking for an even better one, but instead tend to go straight to the planning stage.

This trigger-happy behaviour often leads to suboptimal outcomes, causing teams to miss out on opportunities to make a big impact on their organisation and their customers.

There’s a way around this, but you need the right environment and work culture to make it happen.

1. Lateral Thinking – Don’t Jump on the First Solution

It starts with the willingness and ability to think laterally. Horizontal or lateral thinking is a technique for coming up with creative solutions that are not immediately obvious and which are generally not obtainable using critical thinking or step-by-step logic (i.e. vertical thinking).

Edward de Bono, who made the term widely known, uses the following example from the “Judgement of Solomon” to illustrate what lateral thinking is:

“When the two women, each claiming to be the mother of an infant, were brought before King Solomon, he ordered the baby to be cut in half and half given to each woman. Since his chief concern was presumably to see that justice was done and to save the baby, this order in directly the opposite direction. Yet the ultimate effect was to discover the real mother, who preferred to let the other woman have the baby rather than see it killed.”

It sounds simple, but you need the discipline to stop yourself from jumping on the first solution that comes to mind. Encourage the team to think of at least four solutions to the problem being presented, if not more. And gently nudge other people to share their ideas, no matter how crazy or unfeasible they might be.

You want to steer the team into the greenfield area where big ideas live. That’s where breakthrough solutions are found.

Man on a computer with a potted basil plant on the desk
I would have never thought of basil as a desk plant… maybe they use it when they have pasta for lunch?

Another good tip for doing this is to ask yourself and the team: Rather than a 10% improvement on XYZ dimension, how might we make it 10 times better? Known as the 10x principle, this different way of framing the problem will force you to rethink your solution space entirely, it will help you break beyond existing mental models, getting to that greenfield area where more innovative ideas are. Ken Norton, from Google Ventures, speaks at length about this principle in his 10x Not 10% post.

Daniel Holle, product manager at Google X working on Project Loon, has one piece of advice for product managers:

“Be broad and develop yourself horizontally. Try different technologies and gadgets, play with a VR headset, fly a drone, and show an interest in other products and business models. And then combine ideas and frameworks from other products you’ve seen or tried.”

Lateral thinking lends itself very well to generating new ideas with cross-functional teams (i.e. engineering, commercial, design etc.) as well as multicultural teams, where  people have different backgrounds. The more diverse the set of people in a team, the more diverse the set of solutions and the better the outcome will be.

Now the premise is established – you want to encourage people to share their ideas freely, even their “huge” or “unfeasible” ideas, which, in turn, will spur constructive discussions and lead to better solutions. How do you actually achieve this?

2. Create a Psychologically Safe Environment

This is the single, most important aspect of high-performing teams that generate creative solutions. And there are two main points to consider regarding this:

  1. There are no stupid questions.
  2. Nobody truly believes point number 1.

The truth is that people are afraid to look stupid in front of their peers. We intrinsically know that everybody judges everyone by default (it’s built-in, even though we can try to actively guard against this type of bias). And to defend ourselves, we employ conscious and unconscious reputation management mechanisms (e.g. “You have two ears and one mouth for a good reason”).

If you want to create a high-performing team, a prerequisite is building an environment where everybody feels they can speak their mind without the fear of looking bad.

Google ran a three-year-long research project into what differentiates high-performing teams from mediocre ones, and found that one of the most important dimensions was psychological safety. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe taking risks around their peers. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a new idea.

You can encourage a psychologically safe environment by welcoming and encouraging diverse ideas and discussions. And by not dismissing or shaming people when they share ideas (or mistakes), no matter how unfeasible you think their proposals might be. You can make this openness a team principle and get everyone to adopt and act it.

Jay Hurst, senior director of product at Salesforce, offers this advice:

“A beginner’s mind will help you be open to new ideas. Don’t let your expertise block your openness. Ask yourself: ‘If there were no constraints, how would we solve this problem?’”

And as with any team culture lever, repetition is key – you will have to make openness to different ideas an official principle of working, repeating the message often such that people’s behaviour begins to conform with the cultural expectations.

3. Always Encourage People who Haven’t Spoken, to Speak

Some people are naturally introverts, while some come from a culture where the norm is to sit quietly during a meeting and never say a word unless asked. It may sound obvious, but you don’t want the loudest voice in the room to drown everything else. To get the best insights and make sure you’re not missing anything, always try to encourage people who haven’t spoken, to speak.

James Jones, a global product lead at Google, worked in China for three years, where he found that:

“…the natural inclination is to be much more reserved in meetings. So I’m constantly checking in with people to see if they have anything to share. And it’s amazing, you can talk so long, and they will patiently wait to speak, they will not interrupt you, even though they may have all the answers that you’re looking for, it’s incredible.”

In a similar note, I borrowed a principle employed by US Supreme Court of Justice. When the nine justices of the Supreme Court convene to discuss a legal case: “No one speaks twice until everyone speaks once.” It’s such a simple concept, but it’s surprisingly difficult to put in practice. I try my best actively to follow this with every team I work with.

4. Cultivate a Culture of Listening to People

Listening to other people is hard. Most of us wait for the other to finish speaking just so we can talk. Active listening is even harder. You have to concentrate and give the speaker your full attention. Do you think that colleague of yours who’s nodding their head and saying “Mhmm” whilst you speak, yet typing away on their Mac, checking some emails, is getting 100% of the information you’re trying to convey? Think again.

Having done a lot of hard work to ensure lateral thinking and openness to new and different ideas in your team, it would be a pity if people only passively pay attention to each other as this prevents constructive discussions.

Active listening is what helps here. And it starts with patience, humbleness, and mindfulness. To listen actively to someone means you give them your full and undivided attention. It means not checking your Gmail/Slack/XYZ app notifications or doing any kind of multitasking which has context-switching costs and makes you less productive than you think you are.

To truly understand what the person in front of you is trying to say also means you must ask them relevant, probing questions that help reveal more information about the thoughts behind their suggestion. And you absolutely need to understand the why behind what they’re saying, otherwise you’ll be left with an incomplete picture.

Jessica Chen Riolfi, former head of Asia, TransferWise (currently product at Earnin), has this to say:

“Knowing how to listen is tricky. Different people have different styles. I don’t have a magic “How to listen”, but I would say that it’s something to cultivate, you have to spend time figuring out and understanding the person you’re that working with and how they like to be heard. It’s different for everybody.

To give you an example, I’m American, I have a tendency to be uncomfortable with long silences. So when I started working with an engineering colleague, he spoke very slowly and would always have to think about stuff before speaking, and in the meantime I would already jump in, and cut him off, and the conversation, at least the first few times, ended up with me talking the entire meeting which wasn’t super productive.

I realised it’s a matter of  being very comfortable, sitting in a room one-on-one, and staying silent for two minutes at a time whilst he collected his thoughts and formulated his ideas. Patience in that was incredibly helpful.”

There’s no need to yell… I’m here and I’m listening

If you’re afraid that people will ramble on and on while you listen, try not to worry. As a general rule, going off on a tangent is a good thing when trying to think horizontally. It can generate more creative ideas, so you should permit this if it’s within constructive bounds. Still, using active listening, you will know when the discussion has veered way off course, and it will allow you to interject politely with a question to bring the original topic back in focus.

In Conclusion

As a product manager, you ultimately want to build products that improve the customers’ lives. And doing so requires a group of dedicated people working together to solve multiple problems, be they small or big, simple or complex.

And working with a team of gifted people doesn’t mean you will get great results automatically. Don’t waste the potential of your team by jumping on the first and most obvious solution, but listen to them, and leverage their brilliant minds to create smarter solutions and achieve better outcomes for your customers. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve. Is the solution we picked three months ago still fit for purpose? Have we explored other, less obvious solutions to the problem? Is this the best we can think of? How might we do it if there were no constraints?

Credits

This article was written based on a mix of personal experiences and learnings from interviewing 15 product leaders from Silicon Valley. I thank them for sharing some of their own professional experiences and advice with me.

Breen Baker – Product Manager, Google Analytics 360, Google

Christian Byza – Senior Product Manager, LinkedIn (and co-founder of OMR.com)

Karen Chin – Director of Product Management, Oath

Daniel Holle – Product Manager, Project Loon, Google X

Jay Hurst – Senior Director, Product Management, Salesforce

Hisham Ibrahim – Lecturer in Innovation and Design, Haas School of Business (founder of mPathic.co, formerly at Intuit, Paypal)

James Jones – Global Product Lead, Google

Peter Levinson – Head of Product, Arity

Anna Min – Group Product Manager, Box

Shirin Nikaein – Senior Product Manager (formerly at Beats by Dr. Dre)

Joff Redfern – VP of Product, Atlassian (formerly at LinkedIn, Yahoo)

Jessica Chen Riolfi – former Head of Asia, TransferWise (currently product at Earnin)

Roberto Santana – Product Manager, Google Cloud

Clémence Tiradon – Senior Manager, product management, eBay

Lisa Wang – Product Manager, Google Classroom, Google

About ROBERT CHOKR

I am a curious Sr. Product Manager working for Zalando and living in Berlin. My current work involves building large-scale infrastructure products to enable personalisation algorithms across the entire customer journey. Previously, I founded a profitable ed-tech startup in the UK called Teamedo, working with universities from across the globe. Now, I blend my entrepreneurial and B2B marketing experience with product management, to help build impactful products.