Best Practices

Are Communication Issues Slowing Your Product Team Down?

Behind every product that people want to buy and use, there is usually an exceptional cross-functional team. However, building such a team is hard. Each function has its own politics, strengths, motivations, etc.

When a cross-functional team works well together and is properly aligned, the team knows:

  • What they’re working toward
  • Their specific role and how they contribute to that goal
  • How to get there

Technology now allows everyone to communicate easily and frequently. As a result, the level of noise has risen. For teams to collaborate effectively, they have to be able to navigate this noise. In this article, I’m going to introduce the concept of team discovery as a tool for effective communication. Also, I’ll discuss several common communication issues faced by cross-functional teams, then share potential solutions to resolve them. 

When a cross-functional team knows where to go for information, how often it will be updated, and who to go to for additional clarity, the cross-functional team begins the alignment process. Effective communication skills become your superpower.

An introduction to team discovery

Working on cross-functional teams has its fair share of ups and downs. On one hand, cross-functional teams bring a level of expertise to the table that you or your team may not have. On the other, they have their own politics, strengths, motivations, etc. Therefore, they may not share the same values or goals.

Since PMs have a lot of responsibility with little to no authority, they have to lead by influence. In other words, product managers need to communicate, negotiate, and evangelize effectively, while building trust and confidence around cross-functional teams. As a result, PMs need to have strong soft skills to understand the dynamics of working across departments.

When communicating as part of a cross-functional team, don’t just talk shop. Get to know the team and its members. This is the essence of team discovery. You should understand:

  • What/how they think
  • What motivates them
  • The biggest challenges they face
  • How they measure success 

Building a good relationship and rapport is very important for a positive team dynamic. Have you worked on a team where it seemed like things just didn’t click? Maybe they did at first, but as the company starts to scale or team members change, you start losing track of what’s going on.

Consequently, the communications are unstructured, mixed messages abound, and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Hence, there is no clear sense of direction and team members are losing interest fast.

Furthermore, teams are arguing and escalating to management. As a result, you end up working late to actually do the job you were hired to do, and nothing seems to move in the right direction.

The benefits of team discovery

In contrast, imagine working in a team where things start to flow. You might notice the following:

  • The team knows what they are working on individually, as a functional team, and as part of the larger team.
  • Communication is clear and effective.
  • Everyone on the team is invested in the bigger cause and is working hard to succeed.
  • Decisions are made faster.
  • Team members want to come to work and work hard. They are engaged and motivated.
  • Team productivity and performance increase, reducing waste.

Working with the sales and engineering teams

Product managers work with a number of different functions, including sales, engineering, marketing, finance, support, customer success, and product ops. Alignment with sales and engineering is particularly important, however. Both functions bring tremendous value to the table but come with their own communication challenges and potential pitfalls. For example, you don’t want your sales team to sell something that your engineering team isn’t building. Remember: working in silos is difficult and potentially wastes resources.

Working with sales

Sales is a customer-facing function and is, therefore, closer to the pulse of the customer and the market.

Generally speaking, the sales team has one very clear objective: to sell the product. That means they’re very interested in the roadmap, technical support while completing an RFx or a demo, and having product as a trusted, go-to partner for pre-sales questions.

Communications issues can occur around:

  1. How much of the roadmap to share publicly.
  2. Disagreements about what features and capabilities are currently available to the prospect.

Partner with the sales team and:

  1. Understand the reason for the prospect’s interest in the roadmap. For example, is it a specific feature that they are looking for, or do they want to ensure that the product can grow with the prospect’s need?
  2. Offer to listen in or participate with the sales team on sales calls/demos. Be a resource to the sales team when they are unable to find what they are looking for in the sales collateral.

Working with engineering

Engineering is an internal-facing team that supports solving the problem by writing code, fixing bugs, and maintaining the code base (among other things).

Generally speaking, without the engineering team there is no product to sell. Therefore, the engineering team is very interested in understanding what problem(s) is (are) being solved, supporting communication with other stakeholders, and building barriers against distractions/unnecessary fires.

Communications issues can occur around:

  1. The differences between the user, the customer, and the customer’s buying process.
  2. Opinions versus data-driven decision-making 

Partner with the engineering team and:

  1. Engage them regularly and evangelize the why of what they are working on. For example, some customers may require a proof of concept before they make their purchasing decision. Explain what this means and why it is necessary.
  2. Make the underlying data available and discuss the reasoning for your product decisions.

A final reminder

Communication is simply the process of transferring information from one person to another. It sounds relatively simple. However, without effective communication, the message may not be correctly interpreted or acted upon. In fact, it may just end up in an information overload bin. Keep the above advice in mind and you’ll build strong working relationships both across and within different departments.