Yesterday at RailsConf2014 (a Ruby on Rails event, not something to do with trains) the closing keynote, by Farrah Bostic, touched on inclusion of engineers with the product teams and business. In the product consulting work I do, I witness this culture issue of tech and business struggling to align and collaborate.

The issue is often a failure to share a common goal. The engineers want the product to work fast, efficiently and elegantly - which is great. The business wants to make cash out its customers paying for the product - which is also great. Are these two perspectives conflicting? Not really, so why the difficulty?

More times than not, no one can communicate what the actual value proposition of the product is. The commercial teams can repeat unique selling points and share marketing bullshit while the engineers can list uninspiring details of every feature and options of how to use them.  Neither of these describe the value the customer gets. 

Given a lack of common focus each discipline will migrate to what it knows best, this 'defacto' position is not conflicting, it is also not aligned. It immediately creates a mutual, unwritten, unspoken law that neither discipline needs to involve the other in their decision making. This is probably the biggest opportunity a great product manager has - break the silos!

The genius that every organization contains, and few tap, is the hive of brain power and opinions. It does not matter about org chart level, job title or education - anyone within an engaged staff with a shared customer centric focus can spot that killer feature that will amplify the value of the product. But to do so they need to know what the value is. Then they need to know how to communicate the information. So many times a customer facing employee will be heard saying "we should make this widget work this way it would be so much easier", but how many times does that insight reach a decision maker who can make it happen? What a huge loss!

Every one in the company should be working to deliver or enhance the value the customer gets. This means the product manager must encourage collaboration and entice solutions out of the business and deliver them as marketable products. But I see many product managers who believe their job is to dream up the ideas, dictate their designs to engineering to build and marketing to promote. This is just dumb and is NOT product management.

To often the first time the engineering team find anything out about the new product features is when they are handed a very details specification and told to code it. Unfortunately many companies operate this way.  The result is a disengaged engineering team that ends up losing its best talent and making do with sub standard replacements, coupled with a shit product that only sells successfully if there is an amazing marketing campaign to convince customers there is actually value hidden in there.

Before the product manager can really achieve this goal there needs to be some job empathy. Do sales or marketing staff have any empathy with what engineers do? Do engineers have any empathy with what marketing does? Having a tiny insight into the joys and pains of the different disciplines provides a more integral working relationship and improves communication. 

While I believe the product manager has the most opportunity, influence and likelihood to break your companies silos it should be the responsibility of everyone. So what are you waiting for? 



AuthorDave Martin