How Slack's Engineering & Product Leaders are Building Strong Cross-Team Collaboration

Rukmini ReddyUser no longer at Plato

Rukmini Reddy (VP of Engineering at Slack), Steve Wood (VP of Product at Slack), and Veena Basavaraj (Sr Director of Engineering at WeWork) dig into the heart of fostering a great relationship between mission-based cross-functional teams.

It goes without saying that product and engineering are the two most synergistic relationships in big tech organizations. When big-dreaming product managers meet the "art of the possible" engineers, they bring some unique perspectives to the table. Collaboration could be as simple as product managers passing guidelines to the engineers, who'd then build the product. In actuality, it's more than that.

Engineering and product leads are constantly trying to balance the innovative ideas and artful designs of the product designers against the organization's resources and tech team's capabilities. For the past two years, such collaboration has been primarily virtual (or, in some cases, hybrid) that can naturally create some friction between the two groups to focus on competing priorities.

The greater business Gurus believe that collaboration as a collective team can lead to amazing things. Before jumping into the 'how' to be more collaborative, let's look at the 'why' it's crucial in the first place.

Why Product and Engineering Teams Should Work Together

Let’s face this. Most product and engineering teams have a bitter-sweet relationship that can have a siloed effect. Eventually, it leads to loss in productivity. When the product team is the heart of the business, engineers are the brain; here are some synergistic outcomes of the two working together:

1. Collaboration Fosters Innovations and Leads to Better Solutions:

Ideas are everywhere. Everyone’s looking forward to building the “next big thing,” and what makes it possible in the real world is the harmonious relationship between teams. With true collaboration in the system, teams can combat complex challenges and devise better solutions. Think about it: would you rather endure an escape room by yourself or with eight others?

2. Saving Time and Costs:

You may think that the time and effort spent in collaborating slows you down. In reality, it's the complete opposite. When talking about cost-saving processes and new ideas, seven brains can develop forty-nine solutions. However, if your team is working in silos, chances are you're working your heads off and not getting a great deal of output.

3. Harmony Leads to Motivated Teams:

When you fully understand how other teams operate, you start improving on the communications, building empathy, modifying the deliverables, and so on. Altogether, it leads to a motivated and unified team — driven by a sense of collective ownership.

Sometimes such collaboration may not come quickly, but with the help of good tactics, you can create a more synergistic relationship between product and engineering teams. Now the question arises: how can both teams work together to build a more productive working relationship?

Read ahead on how tech giants are encouraging collaboration in the digital workplace.

How Can Product Successfully Collaborate With Engineering

Sending a box of chocolates to the engineers or taking the product team out to a fancy restaurant may do the trick in the short term. However, a lot needs to be done to work shoulder to shoulder towards a shared mission. If you’re ready to reap the benefits of collaboration, here are 6 ways that’ll lead you towards building such culture:

1. By Building Trust Between the Teams:

Good relationships are based on trust, and empathy is the foundation of trust. Here are some values based on which both the teams can champion on their trust foundation:

  • Having mutual respect: While it's essential for the teams to respect each other's work methods and knowledge, acknowledge what can be discussed and improved.
  • Assuming best intentions: What works like magic is when you assume that your peers on the other team have the best choices. In the end, question yourself: what are you guys working on? Building the best product that'd make customers happy.
  • Exposing vulnerability: If you share a chunk of your problems with the product manager, it will encourage them to share their difficulties with you. In turn, it'll be easier for you to work and solve problems together. It's a win-win situation — your engineers are likely to be encouraged to share their part of the story if you do so.

2. By Being Transparent and Involving Engineers Early on in the Process:

It's no surprise that transparency builds trust, leading to great efforts. As engineers are highly analytical wizards, some may not understand the sound product and business strategies. That's when product experts can play an exceptional role in explaining the "what" and "why" so that the engineers can work on the "how."

All of that is possible smoothly if engineers are involved early on in the process, and they have a chance to contribute to the product vision. Remember that the more healthy the relationship is between these two teams, the greater the products are going to be. Never let the air create a mystery when decisions are being made.

3. By Working with a Flexible Schedule:

The relationship between engineers and product management is seen as clients and contractors. The product managers, as clients, specify what needs to be done, while the engineers, as contractors, deliver on time with adequate quality. Sometimes, unexpected delays and obstacles are blamed for creating frustration between both parties.

In a perfect world, this shouldn't be seen as clients and contractors; instead, as equal partners. When two strong partners own the schedule of the deliveries, they are likely to rise along the way. Besides, following up on the discovery process and agreement leverages both the teams for maximum value while cutting down on the time and cost.

4. By Establishing Communication Conventions:

A great product-engineering bond shouldn't be about, "oh, the engineers know that better." It should be more about "here's how it works, but the engineering team will have a detailed explanation." While it may not be possible to sit together in an open space in a remote work environment to simplify communication, what works is a daily 15-minute sync between the two managers.

Part of communication involves knowing when not to communicate. You may find that many engineers block their calendar as time for deep focus work to avoid piecemeal meeting days, and so respect their time. Another way to practice this is to have No Meeting Fridays, which will make time for everyone. Remember that it will take time for everyone to collaborate and work together comfortably; it won’t be effortless and that’s ok.

5. By Overlapping Interests:

True teamwork is about being interested in one another's professional constraints and perspectives. While product managers care about the technical complications, engineers should also care about the customers' feedback and the business side of operations. After all, the end-goal for both the teams is to solve customers’ problems that the overlap is likely to be a solution for.

6. By Driving Autonomy:

Setting expectations, ensuring alignment and unblocking competing constraints are an important part of leadership. Once you’ve set goals and targets that both the team members can work towards, the autonomous teams will perform in full rhythm and synchrony. Apart from that, as their leaders, create a feedback loop to reduce friction, facilitate the autonomy and empower the engineers and the product team to flourish in the long term.

Once you’ve built trust with the engineering team, and given them all they asked for, one last step before executing the processes. How can you essentially hit the ground running? Enter cross team activities.

Activities to Encourage Cross-Functional Collaboration

When the daily sprint backlogs and standups come off as a nightmare, you need to decide how to ensure the engineering team's alignment on the product roadmap. To keep the teams stuck together, it's not a case of taking a single approach, but a few:

  • Schedule Team Building Activities: A little fun goes a long way. Traditionally, when team building activities took place pre-covid times, it was probably one of the things that the team members looked forward to. Break the barrier and enable meaningful communication to help them get out of their daily mundane — esp virtually. Organize activities like online chess, two truths and a lie, online charades and so on. The benefit of these activities are that people can learn about one another and collectively work towards organizational productivity.

  • Offsites: These are office times away from the office. A few days away at a beach or mountain resort could be a great exercise in a remote world where individuals can't see each other at offices every day. This opportunity to enrich remote work experience creates a safe for creativity and help teams connect with one another in newer and meaningful ways. Whether it’s yoga, foosball or other activities, everyone will have something to learn from one another.

  • Offer Mentorship and Support: Many product managers might not understand certain technical concepts, while engineers may fail to understand the customers’ pain points. This combination of interpersonal communication skills is incredibly effective when it comes to cross-functional collaboration. As more and more team members are willing to learn newer concepts, mentorship and support from leaders within the organization can help the teams improve their productivity.

Well, this is not something you can pull off overnight. With time and persistence, you'll be rewarded with a team that'll go above and beyond their job descriptions.

Finally, Key Takeaways to Achieve Product-Engineering Balance

If you look at some of the best companies, engineering and product have equal powers at all levels, and most successful products are a collaborative approach between these two teams. Therefore, it all boils down to the great relationship based on mutual trust that takes the business to another level.

Without further ado, build a cooperative relationship based on transparency and empathy. Propose the changes for improvement, map the gaps and keep moving forward. Of course, it's said easier than done, but it all starts with trust, and so do your best to get there.

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