Laura Morgan has been working as a digital producer and product manager in media and broadcasting since 2001. She is currently Head of Product at Comic Relief, where she has been leading a team of Product Managers through a period of digital transformation, which has come with all kinds of challenges. There were problems with communication, with stakeholders who were were sceptical (particularly given that Comic Relief runs real-world events which immovable objects. Underlying it all was a general sense of dissatisfaction across the board, and so Laura started to apply active listening principles, alongside a commitment to understanding her team better.
What’s Really Wrong?
When you look at the Agile Manifesto, the first line of the Agile Manifesto is, “We value individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Paradoxically, in trying to bring her Agile expertise to bear, Laura had been trying to overlay process onto this team of people without stopping to observe the underlying dynamics of her team.
The second thing she realised was that, as the expert, she’d broadcast information and “known answers” without giving herself or her team an opportunity to get to the bottom of what was really going on. If nothing else, it made it very hard to to get input from members of her team who weren’t comfortable pushing back against strong opinions.
Every Team is Different
Leading product teams isn’t just a case of applying best practices. The real improvement happened when she realised that she’d come in with an abstract idea of “How do people work best?”, which was absolutely the wrong question. The question is, “How do these people work best?”, which means that the first thing you have to do is listen to your team.
Listen, Trust, and Devolve Responsibility
First of all, she decided to open up the decision making process. As the head of product, she clearly bears some responsibility for the outcomes of product decisions, but that doesn’t mean she already has the answers, and shouldn’t get the incredible value her team can contribute. That also means that you should respect your team’s ability to find solutions.
As a team leader, you can think of yourself as a lifeguard – a lifeguard is present, but let’s people get on with it. You only get involved when you really have to.
Nancy Kline sums this idea up neatly in ‘Time to Think’ – “The brain that contains the problem probably also contains the solution.” Not only does this empower them to find solutions that best match their challenges and context, but it means they’re much more likely to find their own solutions in the future as well (rather than constantly coming to you for answers!)
Control Your Assumptions
Although you can intellectually grasp this idea of being more open and collaborative, and recognising the value that every member of the team, it’s likely that you still have some reservations about certain members of the team. Devolving responsibility to newer members of the team, or junior members of the team can feel uncomfortable.
Illustrating the point with a story of a new Product Manager she hired, Laura points out that, overall, people will tell you or show you what it is they need from you – if you listen. The challenge here is to avoid allowing preconceptions and judgements to overly-bias our perspectives. That those judgements occur is inevitable, but the task for us is to decide if that judgement is valuable or not – if it informs the interaction that you’re about to have with that person in any meaningful way – and discard that judgment if the answer is “not really”.
Be Fully Present
Making sure that communication is valuable and actionable is at least as important as making sure that it happens, and it’s all-too-common for meetings to be coloured by external issues, or for the outcomes of those meetings to get lost in the bustle of other things. One of Laura’s ways around this is to make extra space in her day when she’s going to have important meetings with her team.
First of all, making space before the meeting allows her to clear her head of all the other issues she’s trying to balance and be fully present and unbiased during the meeting. Secondly, clearing time after the meeting allows her to turn any decisions made into action, and ensure they don’t get lost.
Some Final Pro-Tips
Laura’s presentation is full of great examples and parables of why actively listening and properly engaging with your team is hugely important and valuable, but there are four main pieces of advice she has for all of us, whether we’re leading a team or not:
- Find out what it is that people actually need, rather than making assumptions about what it is they need. Listen more, talk less
- Don’t rush in and offer solutions
- Ditch preconceptions, notice the judgements, and consciously decide if they’re useful
- Make extra time for people, be genuinely present with them, and be what they need you to be