“Coming together is the beginning,” Henry Ford once said. “Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” In any business, success cannot be achieved without collaboration and mutual respect among teams.
Throughout my 20-plus years leading product teams across real estate and personal finance industries, most recently as vice president of product at NerdWallet, I’ve observed many different team dynamics. I’ve found that the most successful teams are built upon a foundation of trust and mutual understanding of each person’s unique role. They work in lockstep internally and communicate collaboratively across departments to develop the best possible product for consumers.
In a successful product partnership, the product manager’s role is to identify what the product is and why it’s needed. They must first determine how it will benefit the consumer, how it will benefit the company, and how it will benefit advertisers, partners or other key stakeholders. These decisions need to be made in partnership with marketing to ensure alignment with the brand promise and user needs.
The engineer’s role is to provide input on what the product is — ensuring that they fully understand the rationale behind development and need — and then to determine how to build it. Because both the product and engineering teams have an impact on defining “what” must be built, they need to find a place of mutual respect for each other’s perspectives and capabilities.
In order to build this culture of collaboration, there are four key things that I recommend product managers and teams across all industries do:
Key #1: Leave Your Ego at the Door
Product managers should ultimately be proud of the work they do. However, there is a fine line between being proud and being arrogant. When working with other teams, you need to be nimble and willing to adjust your product or vision in order to best align with company’s goals and consumer demand.
For example, if you’re presenting a product to marketing that you believe is nearly final and they say that it is not ready to go to market for specific reasons, you need to be able to take this feedback constructively and adjust the product as needed until both disciplines agree that it’s ready to share with consumers. Alternatively, if you firmly believe that your product is ready to go to market, you need to be prepared to illustrate why in ways that respond directly to the areas of concern.
Key #2: Don’t Make Declarations, Outline Expectations
To ensure that they’re building a strong team culture that fosters creativity, product managers should avoid being prescriptive and instead start outlining expectations for their teams. There is no better way to empower a team to think creatively than by presenting a desired outcome and allowing them to determine how to get there. I recommend offering a decision-making framework that outlines what decision is to be made, what the alternatives are, and how the options will be evaluated (e.g. cheapest, best for the business, fastest implementation) in order to get teams thinking creatively about how to achieve the desired result.
By providing frameworks rather than answers, product managers can effectively uplevel the working style of their teams in ways that develop new skills and empower them to take calculated risks for better product outcomes.
Key #3: Make Commitments and Stick to Them
The best product and engineering relationships I’ve seen are based on mutual respect, trust, and values. Arguably the most important factors in building trust among teams is making commitments and delivering on promises. If I say I am going to deliver a piece of work by Tuesday at noon, I need to make sure that I live up to that commitment so that other teams know they can count on me when I make a promise. I expect the same from my colleagues in return.
Part of managing a team and earning respect as a leader includes identifying any mismatched values and adjusting the team structure, as needed, for it to function efficiently. I have found that when team values align, the end result is a much more collaborative and positive team dynamic.
Key #4: Understand the Product From Every Perspective
Understanding the roles of different teams in the product development process is crucial for effective product partnerships. In order to understand the product end-to-end, I recommend that teams rub shoulders with people from different parts of the business. Whether it be grabbing virtual coffee or just taking 15 minutes out of the workday to sit down with colleagues from different teams, gaining a more holistic understanding of each team’s role in product development will ultimately improve efficiencies and lead to better outcomes.
Let’s say that here at NerdWallet we’re planning to launch a new product that helps consumers track their daily spending habits. Before launching, we want to be sure that our product answers all the questions users may have on this topic.
Different teams within the company may come up with different questions when thinking through the consumer journey — the savings team might pose a question on where and how to save money, while the shopping team might question which companies offer the best rewards when opening a new savings or checking account. Ultimately, each team will end up with the question of “what’s next?”
Teams that have an end-to-end understanding of the product development process will be better positioned to answer “what’s next” because they will know which team or teams they need to connect with to continue moving the product forward.
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Effective product management is a lot of science, and a little bit of art. The goal is for teams to have constant improvement, not perfection, even if it means making some mistakes along the way. By nurturing a culture of trust and respect, product leaders can foster effective collaborations among teams, which ultimately leads to better product outcomes and an improved consumer experience.