If your product managers are performing well, but not as a team, it’s a problem—a problem you need to solve fast. Here I’ll explain a few methods, tried and tested at Skyscanner, that could also help you to improve your product management culture and community.
When this issue surfaced at Skyscanner, we were a bunch of individuals in a large company, in what can already feel like an isolated role. We weren’t using each other to discuss ideas, to develop plans, or even to ask for help, and cracks had started to appear around alignment and dependencies. We knew we needed to do something and so we began taking a long hard look at ourselves to address the issues we faced.
Bill Campbell – one of Silicon Valley’s most influential and respected coaches – had a manifesto called “It’s the people”. It begins with: “People are the foundation of any company’s success.” Since people don’t exist in isolation, a strong culture makes great individuals significantly more effective. So what steps can you take if you don’t have an environment like this?
This is how we did it.
Where are Your Blind Spots?
Like all good product managers, we started with understanding the problem and generating insights. It sounds obvious, but to understand how people feel and behave, you need to talk to people (it’s surprising how many product managers don’t talk to their customers).
Since alignment and dependencies were our first warning signs, that’s where we started. We held some one-to-one conversations on how product managers make decisions on the front-line: what criteria do they use, what challenges do they face, who do they talk to, what happens when other product managers or stakeholders disagree? We ran them like user research interviews, with non-directive, open questions, and no specific agenda other than identifying pain points and blockers. Several strong themes emerged. We had expected a few of them, but having them expressed and written down for everyone to see, turned them from grapevine-grumblings into a galvanising call to action.
This is a continuous learning and adjusting cycle. The interviews led to some changes and initiatives (described below), which we reviewed a few weeks later to understand what impact they’d had, which in turn fed into the next round of initiatives, and so on.
A Weekly Poll
One of the ways we gauged our progress was with a simple weekly poll on Slack. Every Thursday the poll asked how people felt about product management at Skyscanner, so it was a basic way of tracking sentiment about our culture and community. It was a weak signal and by no means perfect, but it was a good enough indicator. It clearly showed big events (like a decrease in happiness after re-organisations, or an increase in happiness after product management off-sites) and, over time, showed an increasing trend towards overall happier product managers. The poll was anonymous and allowed anonymous comments to be added, and these were extremely valuable. The most pleasantly surprising effect it had was that people who were feeling down after a hard week found solace in the fact that someone else felt similarly, so it helped them to feel less alone. Eventually, we replaced it with a regular (but less frequent) psychological safety survey to get more targeted data. During our early forays into building a better culture, however, this simple sentiment tracker was very helpful.
In addition to getting feedback about each initiative we introduced, we also wanted a more comprehensive exploration of how the team felt. The initial research interviews were held with a cross-section of our product managers (based on years of experience, length of service, gender, office, responsibilities, and product area) but only represented around 20% of the team. To get a fuller, more nuanced picture, we held a set of retrospectives across all our offices, with all our product managers. There were between four and eight product managers in each retrospective and the format for each one was the same:
- Warm-up: state one word that describes how you feel about product management at Skyscanner
- Main exercise: write cards/Post-Its under four columns for things you Learned, Liked, Lacked, or Longed For about product management at Skyscanner. Then vote on Lacked and Longed For cards, and discuss the most pressing issues.
- Conclude: What would you change if you had a magic wand?
The results from each retrospective were combined, synthesised, and distilled. Once again, several strong themes stood out, and we had a lot of rich details to dig into. Some themes we had full control over; others were more tightly coupled with Skyscanner as a whole and had dependencies external to product management. Many of the issues raised were interrelated, and some were symptoms of more fundamental themes.
To help us understand where to start, we visualised the themes as a tree. The most fundamental issues were highlighted as roots, which needed to be addressed in order to provide a strong foundation for the other themes. The trunk was made up of more core issues, building on the root concerns. Finally, the branches showed issues that were either quick wins, or ones that should be easier to solve once the issues below them had been addressed. The results and conclusions were shared with all the product managers and we held a couple of sessions to reflect and discuss the results and proposed actions.
Turning the Ship Around
Of course, there’s no single change you can make, no silver bullet, to dramatically improve things overnight. The things you try will most likely need some refinement as you go, and they should also depend on the issues you’ve uncovered, the size of your company, its culture, and so on.
That said, here are some of the things we’ve found that have helped us build a better product management culture and community.
More Time Together
By far the most effective step we’ve taken is to spend more time together. This sounds obvious but we’re all incredibly busy, and as servant leaders we feel a strong sense of duty to our teams, so it’s easy to reduce time together in favour of day-to-day product work. But it’s important to carve out the time. Socials are one easy way to do this, although they do need some organisation. We’ve found different things work well in different offices. For example, our Barcelona office is more likely to head out for a weekly lunch (maybe thanks to the excellent food and weather 😊), while our Edinburgh office is more inclined to have less frequent but larger events like go-karting or Hunger Games-style archery tag (not sure what that says about us…).
More Knowledge Sharing
Another key improvement is more knowledge sharing sessions. These range from learning about new areas (for example: regular Asia Product Reviews, and lightning talks on topics like “less-visible product management roles”), through sessions to help us stay aligned and up-to-date (like our weekly product management stand-up), to helping each other to solve problems and learn from each other (like our product craft conversations where we deep-dive on different aspects of product management, and our product jams where a small group of us spontaneously get together to help improve another product manager’s idea or plan).
The most successful way, though, has been holding one- or two-day product management off-sites. These take a lot of planning and it’s a big investment (both in monetary terms and people’s time) but the opportunity to spend an extended period bonding and doing in-depth teamwork (especially when focused around the issues uncovered by things like the retrospectives) is invaluable.
Local Product Management Ambassadors
We’ve fostered a better sense of ownership in our product management culture and community. We created local product management ambassadors where one volunteer product manager at each office is responsible for their local product management community. They coordinate existing sessions like product management lunches, but they’re also encouraged to experiment with new ideas, which may end up working just locally or may scale to other locations. All the ambassadors meet up every fortnight to share experiences and ideas. Every four months someone else gets the chance to become an ambassador. We also introduced an initiative called “PM Trusts”. Small groups of four to six product managers take an aspect of our product management culture they want to improve (eg. some of the themes from the retrospectives) and own it. They spend time digging into the issue to get to the heart of it, then experiment with ways to improve it.
Onboarding new Product Managers
We wanted to take an important aspect of our culture and make it a stellar experience: new colleagues. Every new product manager gets a personalised on-boarding guide and product-manager buddy (in the same office). The buddy makes sure the new colleague is introduced to the relevant people (tribe and squad leads, designer, marketing manager, and so on) and is added to all the product management Slack channels, distribution lists, meetings, and socials. They also hold weekly informal catch-ups for the first couple of months, to make sure everything is going smoothly and so that the new colleague has a contact for any questions they have.
The guide contains useful links to give the new colleague a head start (a personal goal brief, company strategy, how we think about product management, some of the tools they’ll be using). After a couple of weeks they’re invited to introduce themselves to the team at our weekly all-hands via a Pecha Kucha (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, about anything that relates to you, be it where you’ve worked before or your love of throwing yourself out of planes while drinking cocktails). It’s a fun, easy way to say ‘hi’, and for everyone else to get to know you a bit better.
There are always ways we can improve our culture and community. Like doing product management, we are continuously learning, iterating, and having fun in the process. Hopefully this has given you some ideas to try out in your own company. What things have improved product management culture at your work? Let me know in the comments section below!