As product folks, we know we’re supposed to love collaboration. But do we always?

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the frustration that can come with working with someone new, maybe that fleeting thought of, “I could do this quicker on my own.’‘ You might even start to blame the other person, telling yourself they don’t know what they’re doing.

These feelings often stem from unclear expectations of each other and how to best work together. When something feels uncertain or outside of our control, it’s easy to reach for the blame stick. 

But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be this way? That it’s possible to co-create incredible collaborative environments that we love working in?

As product managers, we’re intentional about the methods we use to understand our customers and market. We’re articulate in how we communicate with our stakeholders. These are all centered around seeking to explain a problem or need. 

In other situations, we feel less comfortable. For example, in my coaching role, I partner with my clients to explore the challenges they’re facing at work. It’s unstructured at times, it can be messy, and it can be uncomfortable. But it’s incredibly powerful and built on trust, safety, and clear expectations. 

If we take a step back, these are all types of relationships. When we hear the word relationship, we often think of romantic relationships. However, collaboration is just a relationship that exists to serve a particular goal. With this lens, we can take a lot of the insights we have about what healthy relationships look like and apply them to building amazing teams and products. 

So let’s talk about how to consciously collaborate. 

I’ll cover a few powerful tools that you can start using immediately. 

  1. Design your relationship
  2. Listen with your ears, eyes, and gut
  3. Name it 
  4. Check in
  5. Foster clear agreements
  6. Celebrate each other

Design your relationship

We’re really good at talking about the outcomes we’d like to achieve for our products and how we’ll measure them. But have you ever talked about how you’d like to work together as a team?

When you begin collaborating with someone, take the time to have an explicit conversation about how you can design an impactful working relationship. The purpose of this isn’t to set “rules” or enforce a “right” way of doing things, but rather to create an environment that works for you both. It can feel a bit uncomfortable at first, especially if it’s new to you. So feel free to have some fun with it! 

Here are some things you could think about. 

Tell each other about your working styles. Are you methodical and like to follow clearly set out steps? Or are you happy to chart a direction and set off? Are you a processor who likes to take a moment to think silently when consuming new information? Understanding these personal preferences can help you calibrate how you communicate. 

Talk about your intentions for working together and what you’d like to get out of the project. Are you keen to learn how to do a particular task? Maybe your partner can teach you. Or perhaps you’re seeking to demonstrate a specific skill for your upcoming performance review. In that case, ask your partner for feedback. Remember that working together doesn’t just have to be about the task, but how you can both grow as well. 

Give each other explicit permission for things, such as having fun, making mistakes, and promising to give (and receive) thoughtful feedback. By taking the time to co-create a collaborative space, you are giving each other permission to do your best work, safe in the knowledge that you can learn, make mistakes, and check in with each other. It’s a powerful investment that pays real dividends. 

Action item: Ask yourself, “What could I ask for in an existing relationship in service of having more honesty?”

Listen with your ears, eyes, and gut

You may have heard this phrase by Stephen Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” 

Don’t be that person, especially when collaborating with someone else. It’s really irritating, and the other person can tell when you’re just waiting to jump into the conversation. I get it — when we’re excited about a topic, we’re eager to move things along.

Instead, try to slow yourself down by listening with your ears, eyes, and gut. Let me explain:

Ears

Listen not just to what is being said, but how it is being said through tone and word choice.

Eyes

Watch what your partner is doing as they talk. Do they seem nervous and fidget a lot? Do they pause in between key points? 

Gut

Notice what’s going on for you as you listen to your partner. Do you feel butterflies and nervous energy as you discuss an exciting new idea? Do you feel chills as you review customer feedback? Does the atmosphere feel tense?

By paying attention to all of our senses, we can better respond to our partner, validate our understanding, and deepen the conversation. 

Here is an example that pulls all of these signals together: “It sounds like you’re really excited about the opportunity here, but I get the sense you’re nervous about how to approach the next steps. Have I got that right?”

Action item: Try honing these skills now. Sit back in your seat and observe a nearby conversation. Listen using your eyes and gut only — what do you notice?

Name it

Naming what we’re experiencing in the present moment is a powerful way of deepening the conversation. For example, you might say, “I’m finding myself getting frustrated because I’m not understanding as quickly as I’d like. Would you mind slowing down and re-covering that last part in different words?

This frustration could easily have come across as blaming the other person for not doing a good job with their explanation. By recognizing your own feelings at that moment, you can turn it into a productive request.

Or you might say, I’m struggling to stay focused on this conversation as something is weighing on my mind. Would you mind if I took a break to deal with it and get present?”

This happens to us all and it’s totally normal. Prioritize your own needs so you can do your best work. I know it happened to me while writing this blog post! 

Action item: Practice this skill with someone you really trust, perhaps your partner or a close friend. Pay attention to how it feels to ask for what you need.

Check in

Remember our first step, “design the working relationship?” Well, that doesn’t have to happen only at the beginning. You can continually tweak how you’d like to work together as the project progresses and you get to know each other better. 

I’d go as far as suggesting this is a sign of a really healthy partnership when you feel at ease discussing how to work together. Some prompts could be:

  • “What is working and what isn’t?”
  • “Do we need to change anything to make the partnership more impactful?” 
  • “What could I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?” (from the incredible book Radical Candor by Kim Scott)

Action item: Ask yourself, “What request could I make to help myself complete a current project?”

Foster clear agreements

I’m sure we’ve all experienced that moment where you realize someone hasn’t done a task because they thought you were doing it. It’s frustrating when this happens and it stems from unclear agreements. 

Clear agreements communicate who is going to do what by when. Then everyone commits to it.  As we talked about in the “designing the relationship” section, we can apply these parameters to your partnership(s) as well. 

Having clear agreements tells us what to expect of each other. However, the real power comes when we take responsibility for our actions and clean up any messes. 

Think “I didn’t get that task completed as I said I would. What can I do to help rectify this?” vs. “I didn’t get that task completed. I was so slammed with that other project, plus I’ve been out sick and traveling lots. It was just impossible.” The first one takes ownership; the latter makes excuses and dodges your responsibility to the partnership. 

Action item: Take a few moments to think about what agreements you’re currently in breach of and how you could fix the situation.

Celebrate each other

Last but not least, take the time to build each other up! You’re doing some great work together and (if you’re following these steps) hopefully having some fun and learning along the way. 

So take a moment to really celebrate each other for achieving the goals you set for yourselves. There are two key skills you can use here:

  • Acknowledgment is about recognizing an inner trait of someone and making them feel seen. It tells them who you see when you work with them. This could look like, “Your commitment to minimizing the impact on the environment really shone through consistently here.”
  • Championing is about building up the other person. This could be something like, “At the beginning, I remember you saying you didn’t think you were very good at user research. Working with you on this project has proven that this isn’t true. You approached the process with rigor and care, and we’ve generated some incredible insights. I’m excited to see what you do next!”

Action item: Look to your right and acknowledge the first person you see, then look to the left and champion the first person you see. It feels pretty great, right?

Go forth and collaborate

There is something very powerful about the intentionality and humility with which we approach designing relationships. It gives us great power and the freedom to do amazing things. I dare you to take these insights into all of the relationships in your life and see what magic happens.

About the Author

Ben is passionate about the intersection of product + people and believes it’s this combination of skills and focus that enables product teams to thrive. He’s currently the director of product of Pivotal Software and is also a leadership coach working with emerging product talent. In his downtime, he’s usually reading, cooking up a storm, swapping cheese jokes, or hunting out a new coffee spot.