Product Managers: Collaborating towards great relationships and results

It seems intuitive that good collaboration requires collaborators to, as the popular adage goes, say what they mean and mean what they say. Unfortunately in a lot of collaborations this is exactly what doesn’t happen and these are what I call “bad collaborations.”

Think about the last time you had to deal with a complex topic at work that required collaboration (there are probably a lot of them). At any point during the collaboration did you feel like you could not say what was on your mind? Did you disagree with a direction or decision but kept it to yourself? Did you outwardly agree but internally disagree?

The likely answers are yes especially in the world of product management where collaboration is a critical part of the job. Here are a few examples of cases where bad collaboration may creep up.
  • Determining a delivery date
  • Deciding on a user experience
  • Aligning on a product strategy
  • Prioritizing a backlog or roadmap
While each example has a different audience and purpose there is one common thread—each requires collaboration on a topic where there are diverging opinions. Resolving divergence is at the heart of good collaboration and is also the primary reason good collaboration goes bad.

Moreover in the modern workplace the need for good collaboration is critical, that is people speak their minds and maintain healthy working relationships. Product managers are often at the heart of an organization's collaboration “infrastructure” and therefore must be experts at collaboration.

Why good collaboration goes bad.
To understand how to collaborate well we have to first understand why good collaboration goes bad. To do this I’m going to use the following example: We need to iron out a delivery date for a mission critical feature that the team has been actively working on for a few weeks. We will first look at the steps and decisions of this deceptively simple task, and then consider the complexities and impact of bad collaboration for each step.

Expected Result: Get a feature delivered by Q1 2018
  • (Step 1) Understand whether we on track or off track
    • If feature is on track, we are done.
    • (Decision) If features is off track, are we going to try to bring it back on track?
    • If yes, go to step 2, otherwise we are done.
  • (Step 2) If we want to bring it back on track, decide how we do it.
    • (Step 2.1) Is there a way to bring it back on track?
      • If no, then we are done.
      • If yes, then go to step 2.2
    • (Step 2.2) List out the options to bring back on track?
      • (Decision) What option should we pick?
  • (Step 3) For the selected option, what work needs to get done?
    • (Step 3.1) List out the work that needs to get done.
      • (Decision) Decide who will work on what.
  • (Step 4) Do the work. Rinse and repeat.
(Please note that this is an oversimplification for the purposes of this post)

Analyzing the steps
Step 1 seems simple but increases in complexity based on the context in which it occurs. If you are a new product manager, how do you make sure to get a clear answer without affecting your team’s morale or going against good cultural practice. If you have been working with your team for a while how are you going to align your team that this work needs to get done by a certain date? Additionally, how does this work prioritize relative to other work that needs to get done?

Going wrong: Without good collaboration step 1 can go very wrong very fast. You might decide against getting the feature on track because someone didn't articulate a strong reason (even though that reason exists). You might decide to prioritize the feature (at the expense of something else) for the same reason. You might affect your team and your relationships, which in turn may affect future work the team does together.

Step 2 is even harder than step 1 because we are either agreeing that there is no way to bring a feature back on track or signing up to do more work, make trade - offs or both. For example, you might agree that a feature needs to get done by a certain date but you could disagree on how to do this. Will everyone spend more time to get everything done or will we cut out something that is lower priority? Regardless of the path you choose, there are trade - offs and the team needs to align on what the right trade - off is.

Going wrong: Step 2 can go equally wrong as step 1 if there is bad collaboration. For example if everyone isn't direct the team may forget a feasible option, may choose the wrong option, may trade-off something long-term (for the short-term) or may burn the candle at both ends for the wrong reasons (affecting their personal health). These are all bad outcomes and have happened because there wasn't strong collaboration.

Step 3 is probably the simplest step because by this point you have likely gained buy - in from most members of your team; the key question now is who are the right people to do the work. In this context right probably means who can get the work done fastest with the highest quality. There are however two areas of complexity: 1) Whether someone has the capacity to do the work that they are probably the right person to do and 2) Whether you agree on when the work should completed.

Going wrong: Even step 3 can go wrong. What if someone who is being assigned to do work really doesn't have the expertise or time to do it, but cannot say that? Or what if someone who has the time and expertise does not volunteer to do it? Both of these can be remedied by good collaboration, that is people speaking their minds. The bad outcome in both of these cases seriously affects people and the product.

We can always analyze this example further but here are the core themes.
  • Seemingly simple things are not actually simple.
  • Things can go bad quickly under conditions of bad collaboration
  • Collaboration is a team skill, not just an individual skill
Product managers are at the heart of the collaborative infrastructure, so now I'm going to share how to make sure you and your team are collaborating well.

Keeping good collaborations from going bad
  1. Build strong relationships with your team from day 0. This is a long - term approach, but something that should be top of mind for all product managers the moment they join the team. This requires you to demonstrate empathy, humility and competence; you cannot be successful without any of these.
  2. Communicate “the why” for everything you do to the point that it may seem like you are over communicating. This is particularly true for product managers who are new to a team. If you expect the team to be comfortable sharing things with you, you need to do the same and be ready to answer tough questions.
  3. Create well - aligned operational structures that will work in the long - run. This may require changing existing structures or putting them in place for the first time. Here are some examples:
    • If you want to know the current state of the product, put in place a team norm that everyone shares the current state of whatever they are working. For delays, create a structure that encourages the team to surface delays AND propose possible solutions.
    • If you want to get executive buy-in, establish a regular check-in with leadership AND use the time effectively. A lot of people do the first part but end up messing up the second part. Make the most of the time you have by bringing sincerely tough questions and being candid as this will yield the most helpful feedback.
  4. Figure out what communication style works for your team and perfect it because what you communicate matters as much or more than how you communicate. This is true in life and in product development. We are all different and it stands to reason that we communicate differently, which means as a product manager you can say the same thing two different ways and get different results. To become effective here, use #1 to understand how each person on the team likes to communicate, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and then keep these in mind when you work with them in a group or individual setting.
  5. Speak your mind. This is the most important one and relies on the above recommendations to be effective. This does not mean be rude, it means giving the team the respect and the product the importance of saying what you think so that the team can collectively make good decisions. This is much easier written than done, but you can start by tackling this problem in 1:1 settings on small topics. Hold yourself accountable by committing to being direct n times a day and watch how you naturally fall into this pattern. At the same time seek feedback on how well you are doing this and if you need to make adjustments. Also set an example for the team, so that the team feels comfortable being direct.
Good collaboration is hard but can be mastered.
Good collaboration is hard and at the same time is becoming increasingly important in the modern workplace. Projects are becoming more complex and cross-functional, organizations are more distributed now than ever and the problems are hardest they have ever been. Practicing the above will set you up to be a successful and highly collaborative product manager going forward.

Recap of Key Points:
  • Collaboration is hard and increasingly important in the modern workplace
  • Complexity can make good collaboration go bad quickly
  • There are simple solutions if you start early
If you enjoyed this post you can follow me on twitter @thezainpasha