Collaboration: The Art and Science of Product Management
Collaboration presents us with unique challenges
Nikhil M. Varshney
Let me start this blog with a personal story and how collaboration resulted in a great product I was part of.
We were looking to create an insightful dashboard for our customers which would help them make better business decisions by providing actionable insights to support growth and reduce costs.
Our individual product offerings had separate dashboards to support those products.
This would mean customers would have to go to 10 different places to gather data. Run analytics and create a single report for their leadership or their decision-making team.
Another issue was data governance – different teams could interpret and present the same data point in different ways.
We had the following solutions to this problem. One way was to not change how we presented data. We will just appoint an ombudsman who will monitor data governance to ensure each team is interpreting and using the right data sources to calculate individual metrics.
But what about user experience – do we still want our clients to visit 10 locations to get the data? I decided to do some user research to understand what our customers want. The answer was right in front of us which was our solution to the problem.
Let us have a common data repository which will have governed data sets and provides actionable prompts to our customers to improve business decision making.
To do this we needed to COLLABORATE.
A single team was created that would be responsible for design and development. Individual product owners who had dashboard requirements worked with the clients to understand the right data points that define the business metrics.
The data governance team worked on structuring our data sources and identifying the right data points on the platform to create the metrics.
The result – we had an excellent product on our hand that solved our core customer problem of data governance. On top of that, we helped our customers save big on data analytics costs as our new tool did that for them.
Clients could now concentrate on moving their resources to areas that were underserved. In short, by Collaborating we freed multiple birds with one key.
In the example that I cited above, collaborating with multiple teams seemed like a cakewalk. But it is not always easy – especially in a large organization, where in the name of the process we create roadblocks that hinder collaboration and create communication barriers.
The waterfall delivery environment is another roadblock for collaboration as most of the time we are waiting for previous steps to be completed before taking any actions.
Also, in organizations that support a distributed model of delivery, where teams working on the same product are located in ten different places, collaboration can be difficult.
It is a cliched statement, but the life of a product manager is all about collaborations.
We are the centerpiece of the puzzle and are responsible for making others work towards the same goal with the same motivation and vigor.
As a product manager, you collaborate with engineering, development, design, marketing, sales, and leadership. Our biggest collaboration happens with our customers. They help us define and refine the features of our products.
Collaboration presents us with unique challenges. I have listed a few major challenges below.
- Conflicting opinion and egos
- Conflicting strategies of different teams
- Organization’s culture
Let us discuss them in detail:
1. Conflicting Opinions and Egos
As a product leader, you are responsible to reach out and pull the best ideas out of people that are assembled. A collaborative environment is really important but can be difficult to achieve in reality because in some ways it fights human nature.
You have to fight the human desire for affirmation, and you have to actively foster an environment where people feel comfortable disagreeing with you — and disagreeing with each other — if that’s how they feel.
Because in a collision between two contradictory ideas, often a third and better idea will emerge that may never see daylight if egos take precedence.
Below is the excerpt from HBR publication citing an important characteristic of a product manager – Relationship management.
Probably one of the most important characteristics of a great PM is their relationship management skills. By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential. Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation, resolving conflicts, and working with others toward a shared goal, which is especially challenging when a PM is tasked with balancing the needs of customers, resource-constrained engineering teams, and the company’s revenue goals. Authentic and trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support when additional funding is needed for a product or when an engineer must be swayed to include a quick bug fix in the next sprint. Outside an organization, these skills could encourage existing customers to beta test a new feature for early feedback or to convince a target customer to try the MVP of a product still in stealth mode. These relationship skills can also be what makes the difference between having irate customers because of a bug introduced into the product and those who say, “No worries, we know you’ll fix this!”
What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager – Julia Austin – HBR
2. Conflicting strategies of different teams
A common example of this challenge is the conflicting strategies of Sales and Product teams. Product Managers and Sales Reps usually are guided by different strategies, and therefore their metrics of success are different. A common tension between the sales team and product team is the sales team’s efforts to accelerate certain features on the product roadmap which can be a deciding factor for a large account. The product team would prefer to grow the company without prioritizing certain short-term features. What is the correct course of action here? Three questions to be evaluated in this situation are:
- What is the size of the account?
- Does this help your company’s long-term strategy?
- Can this partnership be of any additional benefit to your company?
As PMs we have all seen and lived this challenge. What is the solution? Simple standardization of success metrics, and workload centralization. In every large company, it is a challenge to create collaboration between internal teams – especially in the product, marketing, sales, and engineering teams. There will always be some misunderstanding. However, a good solution is to centralize all workloads and standardize success metrics of all project objectives thus creating a workflow collaboration. One simple way of standardizing success metrics is through transparent use of the Objective and Key Results (OKR) approach. You can read my blog on OKRs here for more details.
3. Organization’s Culture
High-performing teams need more than the latest tools to do their best work—they need to know that their managers value teamwork and collaboration.
According to Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report, “Happiness is a great starting point, but just measuring workers’ satisfaction or happiness levels and catering to their wants often fails to achieve the underlying goal of employee engagement: improved business outcomes.”
Often, high-performing teams respond less to perks (though those are nice too) than to a workplace that offers them the best tools to work productively, meaningful connections, a culture of collaboration, and leaders who are transparent and value teamwork.
Technology is making it easier to collaborate. Social applications allow people to work not just faster and cheaper, but also in ways that promote collaboration across organizations. But companies need more than new technology for developing a collaborative business culture where high-performing teams can thrive. But no single app or platform can fix a workplace culture that’s fundamentally broken. What is the solution here?
- Create a culture that invigorates building bonds between team members. And the research supports this: 75% of people who report having a best friend at work also say they’re ready to take on new challenges and initiatives. Comparatively, only 58% of those who don’t have a close bond with coworkers say they feel the same way.
- Make room for remote team members. COVID has changed the way we work and interact. I guess we have reached a new normal. The organizations are thinking about going completely remote. To build a culture of collaboration on a daily basis, use collaboration tools often for accessible two-way communication and use video conference for informal check-ins and feedback.
- Give actionable and good feedback – Often. It’s part of a leader’s job to celebrate and encourage employees who learn how to be collaborative at work, but it doesn’t always have to happen through formal reviews. Regular suggestions and feedbacks can be shared through quick emails or apps that promote virtual praising like the Applause app
Collaboration is a practice that brings together the whole team to achieve a specific goal. Working in a collaborative environment opens the doors to creating a product that offers real value in a fast and efficient manner and maintains a strong team.
Essentially, this practice can significantly enhance the group as a whole and will enable them to create highly successful products.
Collaboration helps individuals think outside the box, open communication with others, align around a common purpose, and work honestly.
By turning to others, your team will be able to deliver more successful products with a high value to the end-users, thereby, satisfying their needs in a faster and more efficient manner.
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Nikhil M. Varshney
Finding the right passion that drives your growth is critical. Building and scaling products that enable organizations to gain users is my passion. After 8 years of creating products and delivering growth, I have exposure across B2B, B2C, and B2B2C organizations. Right now, I lead product management for intelligence (artificial intelligence and machine learning) at Athena Health. It’s a $17B dollar company recently acquired by Hellman & Friedman and Bain Capital in the largest ever levered buyout. At Athena, I am helping our customers increase access to care by adding more appointments on calendars and reducing wait times. My passion for building products started with my first venture in healthcare where I developed an enrollment application that increased membership by 2.5 million members. I joined HM Health Solutions (HMHS) right after my master’s. HMHS is a sister company to Highmark, Pennsylvania’s largest insurer. It is a product company with more than 15M healthcare members and