blogitto ergo sum

September 4, 2017

#228 – Yes-man teams deliver mediocre products

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Conflict, disagreement, argument – all are considered negative.

Consensus, agreement, alignment – such positive words, or are they?

Product managers’ success, more than any other management position I’m aware of, depends on leadership without org chart support.  A good product team is aligned, in sync, engaged.  Unified around a goal, a product, a vision.

A product team is, by definition and design, professionally diverse – its cross-functional nature guarantees it. Yet, it is­­ expected to work together as a well-oiled machine, collaborating to delight users who are not in the room, but who will be happily pay the bill; collaborating with the neighboring product teams to ensure the company’s overall success.

What makes a good, kickass product team?  Sharing a goal, mission, vision is crucial, of course.  But as a cynic you might clarify that it is what defines the team; it doesn’t make it rock.  Being a safe, trust-based group that allows mistakes as part of learning and growth, expecting accountability – now this sounds more like it.  Having clear and comfortable group norms is critical.  Google did as thorough research on this as possible.  Group norms, btw, are defined as “the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather…Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.”  [SOURCE]

Some norms are more critical than others. I’ve led and participated in culturally diverse, geo-distributed teams that spanned multiple time zones; my best – most successful – teams were the teams in which we’ve created a safe and respectful space, while,

  • Supporting freedom of thought and speech
  • Encouraging curiosity, questions, and even arguments
  • Expecting thinking differently, pitching creative ideas
  • Welcoming criticism, speaking truth to power, peers, and everyone else

In my experience, these teams are most likely to end with convergence to agreement on the best path[1] to successful exaction and delivery.  And, as important, these teams are best equipped to deal with development hiccups and surprises.

Thing is, in most settings, conflict is deemed negative, disagreements get pushed to “let’s

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take it offline” land, and presenting an unpopular opinion is feared to come with a cost; CLM anyone?  Some companies, including some Silicon Valley-based ones, have “do as I say; your opinion matters not” norms.  Interestingly enough, quite a few of these companies buy innovation more often than have it developed in-house, and the reason, IMHO, is more than the need-for-speed or time-to-market.  Killing the discussion kills most of the innovation.

Which is why, in an interview discussing my vision and beliefs about product management, I said “Yes-Man teams deliver mediocre products.” The interviewer was taken aback, immediately asking for an explanation.  “When a team agrees with the senior in the room, isn’t comfortable challenging proposals, doesn’t question the reason and motivation for a decision, doesn’t feel empowered to offer different approaches, but acts as a rubber stamp while pretending to agree after giving it some thought – well, it shows.  And not in a good way.  This applies to more than just new features. Developing a great SLA that ensures not only meeting customer’s RFP and KPIs, but also doing it in a way that manages its cost, maximizes margins, and provides a delighting CX experience, cannot be dictated by the RFP terms alone [even if that’s what Sales insists on].  The Support Manager, the Engineering Lead, development team, QA; each holds critical information – the robustness & frequency of upgrades/updates, weaknesses in the solution, workarounds that are required, best practices… A PM or an Account Exec, rock star as she or he may be, may be aware of any of any or all of these, but lack the intimate know-how to build it into the SLA.  A team that agrees without judgment, without questioning, without challenging and counter suggestions may agree to a losing proposal.

“But how do you do it?  How do you make it so,” she wanted to know. “You demonstrate it in everything you do.  You make sure you are approachable.  You act it.” Needs examples, I thought.  “It starts when I hire -when I interview candidates.  I make a point of challenging their ability to speak up, to accept the invitation to share opinions and argue for them.”  Unable to hide my smile, I added, “when I’m not sure, I go as far as role play.  Being brilliant, great at what you do isn’t good enough if you aren’t comfortable sharing your wisdom.”

“It’s all about being accessible, making sure everyone knows that you are willing and happy to change your mind, OK with changing your initial proposal… and do it in every meeting, corridor chat, over lunch…”

“How about a quick story to illustrate it?” I offered.

Last year, I had to create a web UI/flow for an early access product in no time.  The ad-hoc team included colleagues that sat next to me and haven’t previously collaborated with prior.  I wrote the stories, acceptance criteria, did agile as agile does.  When we walked the team through the vision and the problem we needed to solve, reviewing the stories, I made a point saying, “you have been working with some of these components longer than me.  You know the effort required to do this.  I want you to challenge the solution and the stories and I’d be delighted if you told me that there’s a simpler way to do it.” In our daily meetings, I saw progress and was very happy with the team’s commitment.  I kept asking them for more feedback and suggestions, and they listened. In one review, three days before the Sprint’s end meeting, one of the engineers mentioned that they added a reset command to one field.  Sometimes it’s too bad we are not allowed to kiss the guy who thinks ahead, sees a problem that I didn’t anticipate, solves it, and tells you about it after it done.

It’s not la la land; let’s be clear about it.  Adopting group norms that allow and expect team members to challenge and test each other comes with a price.  Product planning may take a bit longer, including revisiting a feature you thought was already a nailed down – done deal.  And yet, it’s a good price to pay.  People and product greatness come from open discussions, challenging assumptions, and true team alignment. This is what that drives and motivates a team!

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[1] There’s a lot to say about the PM’s leadership, vision, and need to point the team/product in the right direction, but this is out of this post’s scope.

 

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April 25, 2017

#227 – iRecommend

Filed under: #work #career,absorb,connectivity,life matters,Opinionated — yael [ya-el] wagner @ 19:06

A friend or a colleague gets laid-off. You worked together for a while, and you want to keep in touch. You truly want to help.  You care for the guy, you enjoyed working together, you even learned a thing or two from him.  Or her.  Women got a lot to teachSupportLIKEaBRA and share.

What you do? LinkedIn is the obvious answer.  Of course.  Request is sent, accepted, are we done?  And I thought you cared.  You tell yourself you care.  So, now what?

For many, this is as far as it goes.  Let that guy ask for help; we are connected, I’m available and done.  Hmmm, not so fast; not so done.

What does your buddy really need?  Support, mostly emotional, not to feel deleted or erased.  Don’t avoid her or him due to your “survivor’s guilt,” nor go the other extreme, telling yourself, “He was RIFed, therefore he deserved it.”  Don’t become a stranger.  You are better than this.  I know you.

Connecting on LinkedIn is great, meaning a great start.  You however, are going to do more.  You are that kind of a person.  So, in addition to your friendly [read: emotional] support, take the initiative and write a recommendation; endorse a couple of relevant skills.  Don’t overdo it, it’ll backfire. Don’t endorse me for algorithms.  Knowing what they are, their value, and what they do, understanding the philosophy behind them, doesn’t mean I can write one, right?  Yet… All of us can write a recommendation, regardless of training and title, what are you waiting for?!

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Last night, as I was getting ready to publish this post, i took a quick detour via LinkedIn. It paid off.  I came across a great advice from Gail Houston, and today I got her permission to adopt and use it here.  When listing accomplishments, “think about the biggest impact and list that first. “Acquired 20k new customers,” “drove cultural change increasing employees engagement level and increasing company’s presence on social media platform,”  “led a deal of $25mm in revenue”… These might be a lot more important than saying that one launched a product on time. It is all about getting that hiring manager / recruiter’s attention early – so they slow down and keep reading or pick up the phone and call. Thank you, Gail.

You shift position uncomfortably.  You never embraced all that stuff about investing in your LinkedIn profile, personal brand, and network. Having a coffee or a drink sounds great.  But, in a global company such as yours, your buddy may be in a different campus, state, or country.  WhatsApp, FaceTime, and SMS may do it, but what with that time difference?  And you never actually met outside the office other than for work-related stuff [and PIVO, but that’s a whole different story].  What should you do?  Think.

Your network may be small, but your heart is big.  And, anyway, right now it’s on the job seeker to expand the network.  But you?  You can help making that LinkedIn profile shine with recommendations and endorsements.  Even you who struggle to put together 140 characters for a tweet can help.  Yes, you can!

Think about your friend, the accomplishments, things you value, impressed with, what special sauce he added to the team, what difference did she make.  Make a short list.

Now, and you may find this a little challenging, what kind of job or a role your buddy is looking for? What qualities, skills & knowledge, experience, and achievement are relevant to those jobs?  Sort the list, scan it against those jobs. Not sure yet? Give your buddy a call.  they’ll appreciate it.  I promise.

Not there yet?  Reflect. Think of something he helped you figure out. think of a time that she pushed you,  you didn’t like, but then you did it.  Recall how he killed that bug, delighted that customer… Think of that sticky situation you resolved together with a smile, leaving the customer and the team happy.  Think of the person, the values, future roles. What would a hiring manager and recruiters want to know?  Don’t forget to mention the nature of the relationship.

Now stir.  If your time is limited to two olives, drop the personal memory.  You’ll have time for that when they call you for the referral.  Drink.   You are a good friend.
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