Any conversation regarding product management unfailingly involves these terms – communication, agile development, data, execution, and the focal point of this post…collaboration.
Interestingly, collaboration with stakeholders beyond one’s immediate engineering and design team is perhaps the one area where I have seen product managers, really good ones at that, fail most often.
But why is that the case? After all, fostering a collaborative environment with stakeholders is one of the crucial skills a product manager must possess. Regularly interacting with sales, marketing, business development, customer service as well as the product’s user community, is an absolute necessity.
Dive a little deeper, and the answers start to reveal themselves. Specifically, I believe that there are four facets every product manager must recognize and keep in check in order to make collaboration work.
Define your role
If you’ve read my previous post on The Low Down, product management is undoubtedly the most misunderstood function in technology startups. With that being the case, it’s no wonder that promoting collaboration between product and other business functions is such a daunting task. After all, would you consider yourself approachable if no one clearly understands what you do in the organization?
Some of the common misinterpretations include product managers being the ‘IT guys/girls’ or the ‘tech support’, which is quite simply way off the mark. The scope of a product manager’s work makes him/her a ‘mini-CEO’, and the only way to instill this perception in one’s team members is complete transparency regarding one’s work. Discussing what tasks you are working on, with whom you would be doing so, and the methodology you would adopt educates your colleagues regarding the sheer breadth and importance of product management. It also highlights how your role impacts their tasks, and how you may assist in addressing their concerns, thereby creating more opportunities for collaboration.
Product awareness is paramount
Any form of collaboration on product requires awareness. However, the relentless pace of startups often creates an environment where functions end up working in-silo. I believe that it is the product team’s responsibility to break this pattern, and expand each function’s perspectives beyond their immediate KPIs. To do so, the product team must ensure that colleagues in different functions must have a reasonable idea of the current market conditions, competitors, the latest user feedback, immediate roadmap, and critical pain points.
In my experience, a 20 minute weekly catch-up during an all-hands meeting or at least providing access to a general slack channel concerning critical product/market updates and documentation would go a long way in achieving this target. It also assists in developing a product mindset within the company, which helps foster a truly collaborative environment.
Recognize that collaboration is more than mere lip service
For a product team, meaningful collaboration is a lot more than the presence of a great communication channel and a constant exchange of ideas with key stakeholders. Instead, the efficacy of a collaborative ecosystem is determined by the degree of influence a stakeholder may have on the shipped product.
Therefore, becoming an effective product team entails product discussions being made accessible to the rest of the functions in the company. This allows your colleagues to a step further than merely being aware of the product to truly influencing the features shipped. To achieve this, one may begin with a simple two-step strategy:
- Allow everyone in the company to access to your product backlog to enable them to appreciate the potential product roadmap.
- Encourage colleagues from functions such as sales, marketing, customer service and QA to contribute directly to the backlog. The slight caveat here is that each suggestion must have a 1-2 line explanation, and more importantly, a solid business case to ensure accurate prioritization.
Following these two steps would also assist in engendering a product mindset, which I had touched upon earlier.
Avoid ‘death by committee’
The purpose of collaboration is informed decision-making, and therefore, while it’s essential for product teams to take the steps mentioned above to cultivate meaningful collaboration with other functions, it is also important to ensure that the process is sustainable.
I believe that a critical step to do so is to place the final decision in the hands of a single product owner, thereby avoiding a ‘death by committee’ syndrome.
Product meetings where decisions are made by multiple stakeholders often tend to meander and engender decision-making through compromise. However, for any product to be successful, it is necessary to have a single owner to consider the numerous facets to a problem (through collaboration) and have the final call on the way forward. This owner effectively closes the loop for the collaborative process, and allows it to sustain.
Successful products emerge from excellent product teams, which in turn arise due to tight communication and collaboration with the rest of the organization. It is, therefore, imperative to encourage a meaningful collaborative environment, and provide a free rein to one’s product managers to foster an ecosystem that makes this possible.