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Simple steps to effective collaboration "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 12 October 2022 True Collaboration, Premium Content, Product teams, Stakeholder Management, successful product management, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1931 Product Management 7.724
· 9 minute read

Simple steps to effective collaboration

In an ideal world, product management and the rest of the business work together in a spirit of constant cooperation and collaboration. There’s no friction, everyone pulls together and works towards a universally understood common goal, and everyone is listened to and treated with respect – happy days.

If that’s your reality – amazing. For the rest of us, here’s practical advice from some seasoned product people on ways to work effectively with other parts of the business.

TL;DR In an ideal world, product management and the rest of the business work together in a spirit of constant cooperation and collaboration. If that’s your reality – amazing. For the rest of us, here’s practical advice from some seasoned product people on ways to work effectively with other parts of the business.

  • Practise transparency empathy and realism
  • Involve other disciplines early
  • Learn to say no
  • Share your roadmap, and make sure it’s understood
  • Make your meetings easy
  • Share issues ahead of time
  • Build relationships, but keep it casual
  • Make sure you know enough
  • Be there to help out

It’s all about transparency, empathy, and realism

Good and consistent communication is, of course, the root of effective collaboration. As Mind the Product Managing Director Emily Tate comments product managers need to be transparent, empathetic and realistic in their communication and interaction with the rest of the business.

Being transparent means you gain credibility and trust, she says, “being open when things aren’t going well is the best thing”. Being empathetic will help you to remember that other parts of the business also have goals to accomplish, and understanding their motivations will allow you to have better conversations with them. Emily says: “Even if you can’t meet their needs immediately, it sets you up for better collaboration in the long run.”

And above all, be realistic. It does no good, for example, to beat up your engineering partners over missed estimates or to be mad at them when things are going slower than planned. “All this does is breed mistrust and create an environment where they don’t share full information with you,” says Emily. “Be understanding, ask questions to get a sense of the reality, and then be their partners and advocates to the rest of the organisation.”

What practical steps can you take?

That’s the theory, what about the practice? Arfan Ismail is Product Manager – Data and Analytics at Education Software Solutions (ESS). The company is UK market leader in management information systems for schools and school groups, it employs about 1,000 people and has recently adopted the Spotify methodology for product management. It’s very difficult, Arfan says, to influence people to get an outcome when you have no direct authority over them, adding that product managers can often focus on the “product” and forget about the “management”. “In my experience, influencing is the hardest form of management,” he says.

Involve other disciplines early on

In order to manage through influencing, Arfan tries to involve people as early as possible. He’s recently been working on adding some features to a product and has made sure he brought sales and marketing people into the discussion at its earliest stages. “Even if they’re in those early meetings and they don’t have any input they can see what it is we’re trying to do.”

Arfan has a few golden rules for influencing without authority. One is listening. He says: “You’ve got to be willing to go into a meeting and spend time listening.” Another is humility, “you’ve got to be willing to sit with people and be humble. Know that you don’t have all the solutions”. Another rule is mutual respect: “People can tell instantly whether you’re paying attention, whether you’re listening actively, whether you respect their comments.” His final one is to keep people informed. “People appreciate it when you just drop them an email and let them know what’s going on.”

His aim is to get others to understand how they’re part of the solution so that when he tries to influence and ask things of them, his requests don’t come out of the blue. Otherwise “your request becomes one of 50 requests, your meeting is unlikely to be attended, or they’re unlikely to respond kindly to what you’re saying”.

It helps that ESS has a collaborative culture, but Arfan has also used this approach in other roles where this hasn’t been the case. He would set out his stall early on so that people would see he was willing to listen. “In general, I would try to bring in people who wouldn’t expect to be invited,” he says. “For example, I once worked at a college where the academic registrar had a degree in computer science. Even though his role was academic, his computer science degree meant he could offer really valuable insight into some of the products I was working on. He could sit in meetings and, because of his background, was able to challenge some of the comments made. It meant he had input into the solution and he could then evangelise for it with customers.”

Jen Cozier is Senior Vice President, Product at pre-IPO software company CrossBorder Solutions, which aims to help multinational companies navigate the complexities of global taxation in a more efficient and cost-effective way than large accountancy firms. She says: “Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with a big four accounting firm, our clients enjoy a modern, tech-driven tax solution at a fraction of the cost.”

As you may imagine, it’s a complex business employing many subject matter experts. Jen has a team of five people – including two non-product manager subject matter experts, something she’s never had in any of her previous roles. “It’s a pretty slim, lean team,” she says. “We get a lot done, there’s no room for anyone to coast along.”

Learn how to say no

Jen underlines Emily’s point about realism. She says it’s important to be able to tell other parts of the business “this is not something we’re working on now or even soon”. “It’s okay to say no, and I think it takes a lot of courage for product people to do that,” she says.

Share your roadmap, and make sure it’s understood

Jen also says it’s vital that everyone the product team works with understands the product roadmap and that it is a living breathing thing, and therefore subject to change. She adds: “A salesperson or customer service representative may not know what ‘on the roadmap’ means, and they may not realise that the roadmap can change.”

Jen’s team time-stamps its roadmap for the current and following quarter but only outlines general themes for further out. They share the roadmap and talk about it regularly in weekly meetings with other disciplines.

Make your meetings easy

Jen and her team go out of their way to make meetings with product management easy. She says they’ll often share something for others to react to, like a mock-up, to make it easier for other departments to understand what they want to talk about. “Not everybody in the company is as much of an expert about our product as we are. We make it non-threatening so that they’re not embarrassed to say that they don’t understand or are confused by something in the product. We’ll show them something and give them time to react.”

Share issues ahead of time

People may find it hard to give off-the-cuff feedback so it can be helpful to share talking points or screenshots ahead of a meeting. “This is something that works really well for us,” says Jen. “It gives people time to think about the topic and consider their feedback.”

Build relationships, but keep it casual

Of course, there has to be some deliberate intent when you build relationships with other parts of the business. Arfan says he will spend time getting to know someone and listening to them if they’re crucial to his role. He adds that it’s important to remember that it takes time to build trust – and, as Jen says, product management is always a balance between art and science. She adds: “People feel comfortable reaching out to us because we are easy to give feedback to and we don’t criticise.”

Arfan adds that it helps to be strategic with your praise – and to praise people in other departments publicly. “Never throw anyone under the bus,” he says.

Make sure you know enough

If you don’t understand the numbers, the sales and marketing plans and at least some of the tech, then you’ll struggle to build relationships and command respect. “It’s why a lot of the big tech companies favour MBA graduates as product managers,” says Arfan, “they have a solid commercial grounding.”

Be there to help out

Jen says that the product team’s role is to support the whole organisation’s success so they make sure they are easy to work with and that they respond quickly. They’ll sit in on calls and help out whenever they can. She says: “We’re friendly, we are humble, and we’re very approachable. When you interact with and support other parts of the business every day, people see the value in your team.”

What about minimising pushback?

Pushback may well come from sales and marketing teams. They have stakeholders all across the organisation and are likely to be busy. If this is the case, then pushback may come as a lack of response or a delayed response. It may be that a product manager chooses to live with this, but Arfan says he likes to be proactive and contact people through many different avenues in order to get a response. He’ll use chat, email, and call them: “Sometimes people are just really busy. Again, all of this comes down to the relationship you have with them. You sometimes need to just call someone to tell them that you’ve sent them something that needs a response.”

You can also minimise resistance by making it easy to get feedback, says Jen. “In the past, I’ve seen product managers make someone fill out a form, log a case or whatever. We are less rigid about that and we will take feedback any way we can get it,” she says. “It might mean a quick Teams or Slack message, jumping on a quick call, sending an email, we take it however you want to send it. We don’t redirect you to a portal for you to log the comment.”

One final thought – sometimes other people, or other departments, can be just difficult to deal with, despite all your strategies and best efforts. Arfan talks about a one-time colleague who would spend their monthly meetings doing nothing but complain to him, and he grew to dread them so much that he would cancel the meetings if he possibly could. Then, when they retired they told him how much they enjoyed these meetings: “I think it was because my strategy had been just to let them talk and to listen,” he says. And that’s always good advice.

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