6x6: How PMs Work Across Functions

Part 4 of 6x6 series, where we share perspectives from six PMs on six questions about product management. See Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 5, and Part 6.

Photo by The Lucky Neko on Unsplash

Product managers have been called orchestra conductors, kitchen expediters, cat herders, and more. Whichever metaphor you prefer, it’s true that most PMs work with many stakeholders to ensure that we build the right things and build them well.

Here, we explore how the relationships between PMs and other functions (XFNs) work across companies and products.

Who do PMs work with?

  • Engineering manager: We consider ourselves two halves of a bigger unit. My EM should understand what our product vision is and I should understand the engineering direction. We both own the roadmap and drive for key decisions to be made.
  • Engineers: Defining the product is a collaboration. Not only do the engineers know what’s feasible, but they’re also users of the product and have ideas on what we should build. While the PM is responsible for making sure the team has a clear roadmap, the team defines the contents of this roadmap together.

I protect engineer time as much as possible. As a PM, you can either be a shit funnel or a shit umbrella. So try to be the shit umbrella.

  • Designers have deep expertise in usability and are the closest advocate for the user experience. Design teams often work close together to ensure UX consistency, which means designers are also really great at spotting opportunities across teams for collaboration or alignment.
  • Researchers provide input on where we should focus based on what users are saying: how they think about a space and make choices, what problems they face, how they feel about a proposed flow. I love observing users firsthand in these sessions because researchers know how to get accurate, useful information from the conversations.
  • Data scientists and analysts provide input on where the product should be headed based on what users are doing. They dig into what’s weird in the data, what doesn’t make sense, what does the funnel look like. They make recommendations on metrics we should be tracking and what we should prioritise. They craft statistical models and help the team design and analyse experiments.
  • Product Operations collects user feedback and regional operations requests. They look through support tickets, social media, and user voice tools (e.g. forums, surveys) to understand how a feature has landed or the pain points people are talking about. They can also specialise in the needs of a particular region or culture, considering local market competitors or regulations to better understand the user’s context.
  • Sales, partnerships, and customer success managers work with customers directly and will often hear complaints or even receive direct requests for features. PMs or researchers can often help upskill these partners, where needed, to ask users about their experiences in ways that reveal underlying unmet needs, creating valuable signal for prioritisation.

What makes for successful PM/XFN relationships?

Be an enabler

  • It’s important that everyone feels that they have their fingerprint on the product. It doesn’t mean everything is a democracy and we should vote on all our decisions, but it means that when we choose Path A vs. Path B, everyone feels heard. Even when people vehemently disagree, they get to say their piece and should understand why we went the way we did. People should feel the product is something they’re crafting, not something they’re just executing on.
  • Remember we’re all trying to solve the same problems. I work to understand the motivations of the teams I’m negotiating with and figure out how their goals align with ours. Ultimately, they should, because we’ll all doing what’s best for the business, but there are different facets to do this, and that’s where it gets hard. We often disagree not because we believe different solutions are the better way to address the problem, but because we’re trying to solve different problems, so we end up talking past each other. It’s so important to get clear on this.
  • I help my XFN empathise with users by inviting them to observe research and by sharing our data dashboards. It grounds stakeholders together in a different way. It’s so painful for an engineer to actually see a user interacting with a bug or for a designer to watch a user get confused by the layout of the screen. This motivates people to fix things.
  • Alignment at startups vs. big companies works differently, as they optimise for different things. Startups have more of a survive-or-die-mentality, so near-term goals are always the most important and there’s less to align on. There’s also a level of implicit trust that comes with being able to stand up and talk to everyone in the company in one room. In large companies, we’re negotiating with other priorities. Teams are more specialised, which tends to make them more siloed. I have to have much better communication to get alignment in a large company.

Put in the effort

  • Approach people with empathy. They’re dealing with a lot and I’m dealing with a lot. It doesn’t cost anything extra to be kind. If I listen with curiosity and kindness, I find that people naturally want to collaborate with me and support me.

Across your partners, you’ll find that everyone has a job that is harder than you think. It’s easy to downplay the troubles and problems someone has when you don’t understand them.

  • Understand how they feel. It’s easier when you’ve engaged in the work: I know the frustration engineers feel writing code because I used to be one. You can’t always experience their job firsthand, but you can work to be a multi-linguist — like when I’m travelling, I learn how to say please and thank you in the language. This connects me to my XFN by showing 1) vulnerability in my awareness of how much I don’t know, and 2) my willingness to meet them where they’re at and 3) my respect for their craft. It also trains me to arbitrate and translate, so I can diffuse situations when XFN run into miscommunications.
  • Understand what’s getting in their way. I ask my XFN to walk me through their days and I try to understand what their challenges are. This shows that I care, that I’m not just counting on them to execute for me. It helps me unblock them. It also gives me insights to better estimate what their timelines may look like and when they may need help, which is key to bringing all the pieces together at the right time.

Focus on trust

  • Create psychological safety, particularly for the creative parts of the product cycle. People need to feel they can be themselves and share even unconventional ideas without being judged or punished. During brainstorms, we encourage wild ideas to ensure we have good coverage. We always say, the only bad ideas are the ones that aren’t shared.

The best experiences I’ve had as a PM, where I’ve wondered, why do they pay me to do this, have all been when I’ve had amazing camaraderie with my counterparts.

  • Good things take time. You have to build trust gradually with your colleagues. Then, when I have to make a judgment that might not fare well on certain stakeholders, people know that I care about them and I’m trying to do what’s best for everyone involved. I continue doing this whether the business or project is doing well or poorly. It requires and deserves a lot of attention.

How do you build psychological safety and trust?

Create clarity

  • Create explicit shared principles. A team is defined by a common purpose and values. If you have trust without a purpose, you’re just a group of friends. A PM can help the team understand what the team collectively believes in and how this translates into the product. Even the obvious cultural things, like not interrupting, are important to say out loud to make sure the team really commits to it.
  • Make sure everyone understands one another’s role and why they are important to the process. Ensure we each respect other people’s responsibilities and what they’re good at.
  • Create a norm of giving and receiving feedback regularly, and train the team to do this well, so people can flag behaviours that are disrupting psychological safety. For example, if a person doesn’t realise they’re being too dominating in the conversation, they could kill the brainstorm; it’s important for team members to highlight this in a respectable manner so the person can adjust, and more ideas will flow.
  • You can’t always be best friends with everyone — it’s not scalable or realistic. But you can always work to understand people’s motives. Why do they come to work? What makes this person happy? What are their work habits so I can engage with them in the ways they prefer and make their life that little bit easier? I ask each new XFN to tell me about a great relationship they had with a PM, and another time when it didn’t go well. I try to understand the stories where people fit together and why.

‘Waste’ some time

  • When some people start a meeting, they believe it’s a waste of time to chat casually and cut focus straight to the agenda. But that filler time in the beginning and end of the meeting is often the most productive part, because it’s when we build trust, humanise people, and set everyone up to support each other through everything that happens. I like to ask other people how they’re doing, tell them a joke or about something that happened to me that day. Outside of meetings, I send funny videos or interesting articles to get a sense of what content people like and discover our shared interests. These casual encounters make people comfortable with each other, which makes them more collaborative.
  • When I join a new team, we have a storming and norming period. Storming happens as people realise they have different backgrounds and opinions, and they’ll need to adjust to each other. To help with this, in the earlier forming stage, we do a summit on different aspects of work. We play games that help us understand each others’ personalities. We define our principles and values. We brainstorm what might happen in 10 years with the market our product is in.
  • It’s important to spend time with each other. Especially in larger companies, you’ll work with people from all over the world, each with their own cultural norms. For example, if a colleague stands a bit closer to you than what you’re used to, your psychological safety may be broken, and it takes time to become aware and find a good balance. I try to create opportunities for people to adjust to each other. I think that’s why many tech companies offer free lunch — teams that eat together actually get to know each other, so they work better together.

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