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Cross-functional collaboration Q&A: Practical strategies from the field (Pt. 2)

Cross-functional collaboration Q&A: Practical strategies from the field (Pt. 2)

This post is part two of a two-part series to understand the challenges of cross-functional communication, why it’s worth fighting for, and winning strategies from the field. Watch a recording of the full discussion here

Optimizing cross-cultural communication is no easy task—as three experienced product leaders shared in Part I of this series—but it is within reach for those who make it a priority. 

Below, learn how experts overcome the challenges of collaborating with design, engineering, and other counterparts to unify efforts toward building great products. (Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

How can product leaders better enable their cross-functional counterparts to understand the “why” behind what’s being built next?

Eric Bin, Director of Product Management at Article:

At Amazon, one of the lessons they always taught was “you have to write for the reader.” The default behavior of a lot of folks is “I want to tell you what I want to tell you.” And that’s not effective, because the other person is thinking, “How are you going to help me solve my problem?” 

The way I need to communicate—whether it’s in writing or verbally—is to put myself in their shoes. Then I can connect my work to how we will help them achieve their goal. 

A tip I often give my PMs is, when they do have one on ones with their key stakeholder, ask them what they’re talking about with their manager. Because the reason your stakeholder, or your peer, has a certain goal, is probably because their manager has a goal that’s related to that.

Robin Zaragoza, founder and CEO of The Product Refinery:

Even when they understand the why, they still have their own priorities that you won’t be able to align on—and they usually feed that to you in terms of ideas or feature requests that go into the ether and disappear (especially in smaller organizations). And that starts to build an environment of mistrust. So I think it’s very important to have a mechanism where stakeholders can input and you are responding back, even if you do have to say no. 

Emotional intelligence is super important when it comes to interactions with your stakeholders. These are human beings, and they have goals and personal motivations. Try to take all of those elements together and play that into how you communicate with them.

Susana Videira Lopes, product coach and former Director of Product at Onfido:  

Melissa Perru has written a great book, Escaping the Build Trap, where she talks about the strategy deployment levels. The executive team sets business goals: What do we need to achieve as a business, revenue-wise? Then product leadership talks about product goals in relation to those business goals. And then the individual teams decide what will help achieve those goals vs. experiments.

And I love that, because when you have stakeholders that understand how things are cascading, then the “why” conversation is so much easier. 

Can you share a story about a big breakdown, the impact that you saw, and your strategies to solve that problem?

Susana Videira Lopes, product coach and former Director of Product at Onfido:  

When we were building one of our products—trying to detect the fakes from the genuine—we didn’t have a large enough sample of fakes. We mobilized people to create what we call the “Spoof Lab,” creating a bunch of fakes ourselves. 

Having that really difficult conversation with legal and saying, “You know what, we need to find another way that’s privacy-conscious but different from how we’ve been doing it for the past six years”—the change management there was difficult. It was a lot of work to champion that and make that happen.

Eric Bin, Director of Product Management at Article:

I went through a case at Clio where we had a team working on a calendar product. The team didn’t have a full grasp of how complex building a calendar was, and they started saying to the CEO, ‘Hey, I think we’re almost done.’ It turned out they were wildly off that estimate. The key learning out of that was that we hadn’t created a positive culture around how to share bad news. Bad news often got tucked away because the team is desperately trying to fix it and hoping that it goes away.

When our VP of Engineering showed up, he completely changed how we talked about bad news. Instead of asking what happened, who did it, or any of those types of blaming questions, he asked: “What did we learn?” That language made it so much easier for everyone on the team to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got something to share with you.’ And that created a much healthier cycle within our teams. I want to hear about all the bad stuff that’s going on!  

Robin Zaragoza, founder and CEO of The Product Refinery:

This is a pattern I’ve noticed: Over and over again that there’s a real lack of clarity for product people in terms of “Where does my role end on the product side and where does the sales team pick up?” 

But the thing is, who the sales team is selling to is often misaligned with where the product team is trying to go long-term. The sales team is just thinking about how to get the next deal, and the product team is looking to satisfy needs across a very broad customer base. Creating alignment around that is really important. Especially when you’re in small organizations that are going through a really big change. You sometimes have to step outside the normal bounds of product management in order to create that change.

What types of cross-functional communication processes have you put in place or seen be effective with teams?

Eric Bin, Director of Product Management at Article: 

First, a monthly business review where you conduct a retrospective on the progress you’ve made and other things that may not be going well. Get it polished enough so that you can invite stakeholders and loop them in. 

The other type that works well is product demos led by the engineers. At Clio, we host these monthly for the whole company. This forces the engineers to talk about the value of the product and the customer impact that we had. They gain confidence around why they’re building something and have a chance to see the positive reception. 

Susana Videira Lopes, product coach and former Director of Product at Onfido:  

Be open to adapting ceremonies, just be really conscious about what this ceremony is for. What do we actually want to get out of it? Do we want to change the way that we do things because no one’s getting any value out of them? 

For example, we realized that ML engineers training a model need longer than a day for their experiments. So all of their updates were something along the lines of: “Still ingesting data, I don’t have anything else to say.” So they felt like they weren’t really adding value. Now we just do a longer update on a Friday. 

Robin Zaragoza, founder and CEO of The Product Refinery:

My job as a product leader is to understand all the things that are happening in the organization so I can field the right information to the team. That means trying to make sure that they’re not attending meetings that they don’t need to while still relaying them relevant information. I think it’s also good to be building relationships with other functions so we can call them when we need to. And sometimes having one-to-ones with other departments that you wouldn’t necessarily think should be regular connections. 

Any final tips or best practices that you’d like to share with the audience that could help them enhance their team’s collaborative efforts? 

Eric Bin, Director of Product Management at Article: 

I think the key is actually knowing how to build good habits. All of what we’ve talked about won’t work if you’re not committed to creating the habit of it. Maybe take one lesson per quarter. Don’t try to do all of it at once.

Robin Zaragoza, founder and CEO of The Product Refinery:

Think of your collaborative process as a living, breathing thing that evolves with time, with context, with culture. 

Susana Videira Lopes, product coach and former Director of Product at Onfido:  

If you’re a leader, go talk to your counterparts. If their number one goal is scale and your number one goal is not scale, talk about prioritizing those two things against each other and sort that out at your level. 

In case you missed it, check out Part I, where Robin, Eric, and Susana talk about why cross-cultural communication and collaboration is so difficult—but also so valuable. Or, to watch a recording of the full discussion, check out the video here.   

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