“I Have No Idea What Product Is Working On”

Giff Constable product management

“I have no idea what the product team is working on!” Have you ever heard that? I did, on a recurring basis, when running product and engineering at the fintech company Axial.

But hold your horses! I did lots of externalization! I was writing a bi-weekly (and sometimes weekly) internal blog post where I updated everyone on metrics, work-in-progress, and strategic and roadmap changes. We had a Trello roadmap board open for everyone to see. At various times, we tried demo sessions, collaborative roadmapping sessions, externalizing on walls, and monthly all-hands presentations. But still, always the same: “I have no idea what the product team is working on.”

I’ll admit that I got a little frustrated. My unreasonable internal voice would chirp, “Why are they complaining since they clearly don’t care enough to pay attention?” My reasonable internal voice would say, “They have their own goals and big challenges. That’s going to occupy their mental energy. I can’t expect them to remember.”

I was mulling over the root causes and helpful solutions to this.

Culprit 1

The first culprit is that people are caught up in what they are accountable for, not what you are accountable for. This is hard to overcome. It’s the same reason why CEOs need to repeat goals, vision and strategy over and over again. The CEO is thinking about those things all the time, but most employees are operating at a more tactical level (by necessity). The repetition can feel tedious but it is necessary.

At Axial, I was trying to over-communicate, but I should have been asking myself, “where will people pay more attention and permit the necessary repetition?” One answer is their staff meetings. Next time around, I would set up a bi-weekly 5-to-7 minute slot in the various team meetings, and run them in a structured and efficient way. This would be time consuming, but worth it to preserve alignment.

Some tips on this:

  • Ask the manager (whose meeting you are invading) to let you join at the start of the meeting, not the end. Let’s be honest — people’s minds are going to wander back to their own work (“why hasn’t Bob called me back?” … “I better lock down that up-sell today or Jane will be pissed”… “when are they going to get around to raising my commission level?”) no matter what you do, but at least at the start, their mental energy will be higher and you can start on time and get out of there quickly.
  • Time box the session to no more than 10 minutes and hold fiercely to that. If you can get in and out faster, do so.
  • Keep the conversation focused on goals and results, problems to solve and needs to fulfill, not feature brainstorming. This takes patient persistence. Everyone loves solution-ing.

Culprit 2

The second reason your messages might not be sticking in people’s heads is that they don’t fully understand what you are saying, or they haven’t connected the dots in their heads. Or, let’s be honest, in some cases “I don’t know what product is working,” is simply a passive-aggressive way of saying, “product isn’t working on anything important to me.”

This is where alignment around top-level goals and strategy is so important. The only way to effectively explain *why* you are working on something is to be able to clearly tie it to a north-star goal. Personally, I like using stacked OKRs for this (stacked meaning each level/initiative has OKRs that roll up to a top-level set), as long as those OKRs are based on an “outcome” goal and not an output (such as “ship by Feb 1”). You need to work from strategy to goal to feature, in that order. This applies to infrastructure and tech-debt investments, not just user-facing features.

Ideally you can explain your work and roadmap to a team in the context of their particular needs, as well as the bigger corporate goals, but sometimes your job is to explain why their needs are getting postponed. You have to make this about the strategy, not about your whims or ego. The former leads to excellent debate and a meritocracy of ideas. The latter — even a subconscious perception of the latter — leads to politics. Worse, it can lead to Product losing ultimate control over the roadmap, which is a great way to stifle strategic innovation as well as drive product talent to leave.

What if you feel like there isn’t a high-level strategy to work from, or a focused set of top-level goals? What if everything feels tactical? That means you need to engage with leadership. Give leadership the benefit of the doubt, and strike up conversations. Do this in 1-on-1 meetings where you can build rapport and the executives you are talking to can reveal uncertainty/vulnerability. You might find that a strategy exists and you didn’t grok it, or it wasn’t communicated well. Or you might find that it doesn’t really exist, and you can coax some strategic thinking into action.

Bringing it back to communicating product work and priorities, remember that effective communication requires thinking about the language, as well as the goals, of the people you are talking to. If you are talking to business people, you want to frame things in business terms.

(Photo by David Kovalenko on Unsplash)