How we externalize product progress to the company, and defuse politics along the way

It’s depressing how many companies accuse their product and engineering teams of being a black box. The accusations aren’t always fair, but they usually stem from two root problems: 1. not enough collaboration, and 2. not enough externalization.

Here’s how we are tackling those two things at our company.

Collaboration:

  • We run a bi-weeky “qualitative research” meeting where anyone in the organization can come and report some feedback they received from a customer or sales prospect
  • We run collaborative sketching exercises (often called “design studios” or charettes) for new ideas with other parts of the organization
  • We have a “buddy system” between product, design, and product marketing that pairs everyone up with people in customer success and customer support to join calls and hear each other’s ideas
  • We socialize ideas and sketches early across the organization. Watching this in action has reinforced my belief that people don’t need to always get their way, but they do want to be heard and respected.

Externalization:

  • We have an always-updated Trello roadmap where each team manages three columns: 1. a prioritized backlog of features, 2. ideas that require research or experiments (some underway, some planned), and 3. known requests that we are “watching” but not convinced we should build yet.
 
What our headers look like in Trello
  • Every Monday the product team gathers to discuss each team’s OKRs and our dashboard of running metrics. Those then go into a weekly Jotto (an private publishing tool) post that I write for the entire team. This weekly post also includes a list of features likely to release that week, as well as key updates to priorities / strategies.

Weekly (albeit blurred out) Jotto update from the team
  • A monthly all-hands meeting where product/engineering presents a review of the past month’s metrics and upcoming priorities (the execs for our go-to-market and customer success teams also present their metrics and goals.
  • For special projects, the PMs do their own Jotto posts where they re-iterate the goals of the feature, the key facts, and metrics (targets if pre-release, and real performance if post-release). Product marketing also pitches in with internal training.
  • Smaller listening sessions with groups across the company, whether done by me or the product managers.

It’s not perfect. We run a multi-sided marketplace and recently much of our effort has been focused on our “supply” customers (those who bring deals to the Axial platform). It’s been inevitable that our sales reps feel frustration that we haven’t done more for their “demand-side” prospects. But for all their occasional frustration, they also acknowledge and accept the strategic choice and we’ve preserved a foundation of trust.

The collaboration and externalization creates more vectors of insight and information into the product team. The transparency also takes the politics out of product decisions. It is important to note that we do our own customer research, and so none of this precludes prod-eng from making its own strategic leaps. None of this is about becoming an order taker for the rest of the org, but rather remaining a true and effective partner.

Top photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash