Monday, February 8, 2016

The Crucial Role of Collaboration in Product Management

By Amie Durr
Vice President of Product Management
Message Systems

As a native Marylander, I carry a lot of hometown pride with me wherever I go. Whether that’s good naturedly ribbing out of town coworkers and friends about competing sports teams or welcoming everyone to town by way of a crab cake dinner and a tour through Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, there’s a lot to love about this east coast state.

One of my favorite things about Maryland is that it’s home to the United States Naval Academy, located on the Chesapeake Bay in our state capital of Annapolis. The best of the best students from high schools throughout the country are selected to attend the Naval Academy.

Each year, nearly 1,200 students leave hometowns where they are individually revered for their abilities to go to a place where they are now just one of many such individuals. The primary focus of their time at the Naval Academy is to learn how to become a leader; and to become a leader they need to learn that their team is more important than any one individual, including themselves.

That’s got to be hard, doesn’t it? Going from being an exceptional individual contributor to being one of many, working to advance a common goal?

For Naval Academy students, the transition from individual to team is never more apparent than during a well-known ceremony at the end of the “Plebe” or freshman year. Each year the outgoing Plebes work together to try to best the fastest climb of 20 minutes completed in 1972, and to go nowhere close to the worst time of 4 hours 5 minutes in 1995.

Why all this history? What do any of the trials and tribulations that Navy college students go through have to do with Product Management? Surely, most of us don’t work in environments where we’re asked to report for 5:00 am runs on a regular basis, so what’s really compelling here?

When I think about the Plebes, I’m struck by the visual representation of their transformation from merely being an individual contributor to being an individual leveraging their unique skills for the greater good of the organization.

As Product Managers, it’s critical that we recognize that we will not get to the top alone either, particularly as we are in roles where we work mostly through influence across nearly every functional unit in our businesses.

Too many times I’ve seen Product Managers operate with an authoritarian approach. Perhaps you’ve seen it too?

A PM that all but says “just build the thing I’m telling you to and stop asking questions.” This type of PM has gigs of analyst data, customer interviews, market research, and the like, proudly filling up their hard drive. What’s not inside that hard drive is any space for innovation. It’s all the questions they thought to ask, and all the answers they thought to get, but none of the insight of the individuals who actually build the thing, or live and breathe it as they support it every day.

So how do you create an environment where collaboration is key and where innovation has the freedom and space to bloom? How do you get your products to the top faster and better, just like the Plebe’s try to do each year as they climb Herndon Monument?

  • Build relationships everywhere inside your organization. When you find passionate people, grab them and don’t let go. If their passion isn’t for the thing you’re working on then get them to the thing that is. Challenge yourself this year to build at least one new relationship per team throughout your organization, it will change everything.
  • Define and agree on short-term goals. It is imperative that everyone has the same understanding of what you’re working towards, and be all in to achieving it. The vision is important for the long-term strategy, but you’ll need manageable chunks to get you there.
  • Collectively focus on no more than three major goals at a time. While I’m sure everyone would love to focus on one thing at a time, that’s rarely realistic in business. The trick here is to vary the degrees of effort needed for each of them. Trying to take on more than one major effort at a time is going to burn you and your team out quickly.
  • Determine how you’ll measure success and measure often to ensure you’re not off course. BUT measuring success should never be used as a tool to punish.
  • Take risks, and support “failures” because they almost always lead to learning or doing something exceptional the next time. Talk about this all of the time. This is where innovation happens. Right here. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • Learn to push back. Advocate for your team as much, if not more, than you do the product. This is hard. It’s also one of the most important things you will do for them and for your product (and why relationship building is so important).

Finally, collaboration isn’t easy, and even when you’re collaborating well, innovation doesn’t just happen because you collectively decide you want it to. It takes discipline and focus to make all of these things work. In much the same way that the incoming Plebes have to break down all their preconceptions of what it means to be successful, so to will you and the people your work with if you want to push beyond individual achievement and on to becoming a highly functioning team. 

Amie is responsible for delivering technologies that help businesses support and drive their messaging needs with a focus on scale, usability, engagement, and analytics. As the only person she knows with a background in both Mathematics and Anthropology, Amie has spent her career marrying her love of data and technology with her love of understanding people and processes. She is an evangelist and strong supporter of innovation and generally doing cool stuff, championing both the voice of the customer and the market, as well as the creative, technical skills of the engineers.

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