In this column, Pendo and Mind the Product’s very own Christine Itwaru delves into how product teams can motivate themselves during turbulent times for the tech industry. Have a product problem that you would like Christine to discuss in her next column? Submit your question by filling out this quick form.
The impact on product teams during a very challenging time in tech has been significant, to say the least. On the surface we can clearly see hits in resourcing and overall budgets. But that’s not all we’re faced with. While resources may have decreased, forcing product managers to have to operate very lean, the expectations for outcome delivery have not decreased at the same rate, and they likely won’t. This is because product teams have become increasingly accountable for contributing to business metrics, especially over the last decade.
As we all work to find our way back to healthy for our companies, the pressure is even more intense on the product manager. Identifying the most complex problems, solving them while driving delight, motivating engineers, and staying motivated ourselves in an environment where we’re under pressure to deliver, grow, and retain with resource constraints can be all too much.
If product managers were not burnt out before, ask them how they’re doing now. So how can product leaders create a space for the product manager to do their very best and keep them motivated? These are some of the most critical aspects to focus on when building and maintaining healthy teams.
Define clear roles and responsibilities
Product managers have historically had a lot on their plate. Because of this, we have seen the emergence of partner roles such as user research, product operations, and product marketing. Clearly defining what each team member is responsible for and ensuring they understand what they are measured on helps minimize duplicate efforts and avoid unnecessary confusion. This is also critical when thinking about career ladders and frameworks for growth and promotion. By setting clear roles and responsibilities, leaders can help identify skill gaps that may need to be addressed through training and development.
Provide opportunities for learning and growth
Understanding budget may be a constraint, work with your HR or learning department to identify opportunities for your team that will enhance the overall skill set of the unit. Oftentimes there are great resources available for groups you may not even know about. Separately, identify areas of interest for individual team members and work with them to help them upskill as part of their growth plan and development. This often helps individuals understand how invested you are in their path at the company, and how much you value their position on the team.
Building a diverse and inclusive team
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen team members with diverse experiences, skills, and perspectives work together to solve complex problems, while learning something new from one another. If you’re in a position to hire or have internal mobility opportunities, work with your HR partner to ensure they’re targeting a broad range of candidates and coaching on unconscious bias as you build your team. This kind of learning and growth opportunity is free.
Emphasize the importance of communication and collaboration
This is essential to having a healthy product team, but even more critical during challenging times. Start by encouraging a culture of healthy communication. Regularly check in with the overall team (I suggest quarterly) to ensure the right communication channels are in place to facilitate regular progress check-ins, feedback sessions, planning, and basic team health checks. Important – always do a pulse check on screen and meeting overload. While we want to encourage communication, there is a delicate balance we have to strike in this more remote world to ensure constant meetings are not contributing to burnout.
Create a psychologically safe work environment
I can’t stress how important it is. Product managers need to influence engineers and stakeholders, and communicate effectively to partners and customers at all times. No product manager wants to always second or triple guess themselves when they’re trying to make progress on these fronts. In an environment without psychological safety, team members do not feel comfortable expressing their opinions, ideas, and thoughts when they may conflict with others’. This point is a strong partner to number three above. If we’re not creating environments where constructive feedback is encouraged, and where only a few ideas make the list of all ideas, we’re creating a world where the product manager will always doubt, never take risks, and put up walls when part of their role is to communicate and influence.
What about when all of these things exist above? Kudos to you and I’d love to chat. What do you do when the team is struggling to perform because of shifts in strategy, direction, and resourcing? When things change, people tend to react in different ways – it’s just human nature. Let’s look at how we can manage through these challenges.
- We can’t only celebrate successes. We need to set and reinforce that we learn from failures. When we celebrate success as a team, we recognize the contribution of all members of the team. Nothing in product management is done by one individual – all the way from the head of product to each individual contributor (contrary to what the role says). So when we fail we need to look at it as an opportunity to learn (fast) as a team, and improve some element(s) of the situation for when we move ahead. Working this into team culture encourages experimentation, collaboration, and progress vs. always kicking yourself for not getting it right the first time. It’s also healthy to acknowledge in periods of change we might fail a little more as we adjust, but we need to keep moving together.
- Align with your engineering partners on what success looks like for the product team and what it looks like for engineering. Make that transparent across both sides, and ensure everyone is on the same page about what the overall goals are as a combined unit. If we are not rowing in the same direction, we’ll stall or slow, and none of us need that right now.
- Set clear performance expectations. When it comes to individual contributors, ensure there are clear performance expectations to manage to. Measurable goals and objectives that align with an overall strategy help keep people on track, and are easy to point back to when things slip a bit.
- Conduct regular check-ins. I’m not talking about performance reviews that happen in a cadence determined by your HR department. Regular check-ins are a great opportunity to provide feedback and coaching, and allow the other party to bounce ideas off you, or ask for additional support when they’re struggling. Not everyone is comfortable doing this on the fly when they are struggling, so having a dedicated frequent check-in is a great way to both check health and address any needs. It also helps reduce any chance for surprise feedback at the end of a quarter or period when all along something could have been improved on.
- Finally, address any performance issues quickly. If your regular check-in is not frequent enough where you can quickly call to attention any issues you’ve noticed and their impact, add time to discuss ASAP. Be specific and clear about where there was a missed opportunity and what happened as a result of it. What we don’t want to see is performance issues that go unchecked. This often leads to frustration, a decrease in productivity, and lower morale, which trickles to the team.
It’s important to call out that it’s rare to find teams that have all of the above embedded in their day-to-day. However, there’s never a bad time to strengthen your product team, no matter the environment. Remember, we all landed in product for several shared reasons: customer love, the ability to innovate, collaboration all day every day, a chance to unleash our entrepreneurial spirit, and at the core of it, to solve real problems that drive business results and customer delight.
It’s just as (or even more) important to create a healthy supportive environment for the product team to operate in as it is to purchase the right tools for them to build.
Have a product problem that you would like Christine to discuss in her next column? Submit your question by filling out this quick form. Alternatively, email editor@mindtheproduct with the subject line ‘navigating product together’.