Collaboration” and “remote work” may not seem like a perfect match. But teams can’t skimp on group work because the days of everyone being in the same room are a distant memory that may never return in quite the same way.
There’s still no real replacement for real-time, dynamic discussions and exercises to foster stakeholder alignment. Asynchronous apps have their place, but sometimes you need everyone to debate and sort through things together.
According to Isabelle Berner, Director of Product Management at Def Method, the secret is intentionality. She shared her suggestions and tips during our recent webinar “What’s in Your Product Stack: Collaboration.” Berner, 12-year product management career included stints at Pivotal and Betterment, joining the software development consultancy specializing in Lean and Agile. She is a true believer in the importance of working together on these fundamental product issues.
As a consultant, Berner has seen a wide range of collaboration challenges. But she firmly believes “collaboration is the foundation upon which great products are built” and that product managers can be effective catalysts for this activity.
“The role of facilitating a lot of remote collaboration conversations comes to the product manager. Often product managers have been part of a lot of different teams, and so they maybe have a better read on where collaboration is flawed.”
To Drive Alignment, First Look at Your Team
Establishing rapport and respect.
An essential ingredient in successful remote collaboration is creating familiarity, comfort, and trust with colleagues before attempting true collaboration.
“It’s good to spend time with each other one-on-one. Even if it’s on work-related items so we can appreciate each other as human beings,” Berner said. “I love to do walking one-on-ones. Just moving in a direction together and talking about something—it’s nice to stretch your legs and really good for building rapport.”
Berner also finds standups can be another forum to get teams more comfortable with opening up and talking about important issues.
“I started seeing the value of standups when I worked at Betterment,” Berner said. “Being tuned in to what everyone’s working on and being able to air any challenges that we’re up against quickly. I’ve carried that with me and never stopped doing standups whenever I’m on a project.”
However, standups come with their own risks to the team dynamic, especially when they become placeholders that morph into some of the larger meetings and conversations the team should have in a more intentional and dedicated forum.
“Something to mitigate that is to have someone in your standup that’s responsible for putting a pin in those conversations and making sure that they happen because they’re important,” Berner said. “But keeping the standup short and moving along is essential.”
Creating a feedback-friendly culture.
Being open and honest in a work setting doesn’t always come naturally. People don’t want to step on any toes or offend anyone, both out of civility and protect their own careers. But an environment that encourages authentic dialog is essential to avoid groupthink-driven disasters.
Organizations need people to challenge assumptions, ask “why” more often, and voice their opinions. And while a suggestion box or an “open door” policy might try to set that tone, people need to walk the walk as well.
“A great way to establish a culture of giving and receiving feedback is to ask for it. Ask for some specific feedback. Then listen to it and hold yourself accountable to respond to that feedback and show the team how you do that. That’s an easy way to show that feedback can make a big difference.”
Berner is a big fan of Team Speedback. This one-hour activity is for everyone on the team. Each person writes down a piece of feedback for every other member. They then share that feedback one-on-one in a speed-dating type of format.
“You have an opportunity to give and receive feedback with every single member of the team. ” Berner said, adding that holding these once every month or two “sets the expectation that this is an OK thing to do, and it makes it a lot less scary if you’re doing it regularly.”
Drive Alignment with Stakeholders Remote Collaboration Exercises
Define goals and anti-goals.
A lack of alignment on the objectives of an initiative creates a shaky foundation for any product team. But if the group hasn’t put in a concerted joint effort to build a consensus, chances are team members are operating under various assumptions.
One of Berner’s favorite exercises to ensure everyone agrees on what they’re trying to do (and not do) is defining Goals and Anti-Goals.
“This is a very tactical piece of collaboration. But it really sets teams up to collaborate effectively and build on that if they have an obvious understanding of what their goals are and also a sense of ownership of those goals,” Berners said.
The very act of going through this exercise together and putting in the work also strengthens the team’s bonds. This co-laboring creates a stronger consensus since they all witnessed and took part in the process.
“Working together to achieve a shared objective and a shared set of goals is important towards driving that ownership of goals,” Berner said. “That ties into group idea generation and how to facilitate collaborative conversations.”
Have a remote collaboration group meeting.
This group exercise takes about an hour and requires no preparation. Get the team, and any stakeholders get in the same real or virtual room. This meeting’s goal is for everyone to agree upon what they’re trying to accomplish in the next three-to-six months.
First, give each attendee their own color sticky notes to write down what they understand to be goals. They should also add what they don’t consider essential for this timeframe. This is why it’s essential to establish those dates upfront. Then after everyone’s scribbled ideas down, the group shares their goals or anti-goals round-robin style. This way, each person has an opportunity to share what they think is most important.
“If people have something similar, group other people’s stickies in that category. And you end up with a series of categories for things that might be considered goals.” Berner said. “Then, from a facilitation standpoint, you can take these goals, summarize them, refine them, and then ultimately vote on which ones are most important as a group.”
The benefits of this exercise go far beyond alignment. Inclusivity in the process also creates a sense of ownership.
“Being part of the process of coming up with the goals is really empowering for the people on your team,” Berner said. “They’ll understand the goals a lot better because they’ve had these conversations, and they’ll care about them a lot more because they had a hand in choosing what was most important to accomplish.”
Agreeing on the anti-goals is also sometimes even more valuable than the goals themselves.
“What is something important down the line or something that might be seductive and distracting but that isn’t actually the most important goal for us right now?” Berner says calling out these out-of-scope goals brings additional clarity and focus for everyone and might be the most important discussions of all.
“When someone in the room thinks an anti-goal should be a goal, surfacing and bubbling up this misalignment and then being able to talk through it and to talk about the relative priority of goals and then make a decision together that something that one person thought should be a goal is actually an anti-goal,” Berner said. “This is where the trickier, more sensitive conversations happen.”
The final step is each participant “dot voting” on how to prioritize those categorized goals. “You want to have clarity about not just what your goals are, but what your most important goals are,” Berner added.
If this sounds hard or even undoable in a remote or distributed environment, using a virtual whiteboard such as Miro can recreate the actual pen and paper feeling. As an added benefit, there will now be a “permanent” digital record of the exercise’s outcome for newcomers to the team or when someone wants to revisit a decision. That isn’t usually possible since someone else will need the IRL whiteboard for the next meeting in that conference room.
What’s at stake is what matters.
By collaboratively aligning around goals, this common understanding filters down into every other aspect of product management. They can even show up in user stories tying small, incremental work to the big picture and laddering up to the business and user value.
Berner also cited product roadmaps as another instance where this coherent vision can play a role. “Focusing on outcomes versus outputs, but really telling the story through your roadmaps of what those outcomes are, what they mean to your users, and how they benefit the business helps with that communication and connecting people with what they’re building and why it matters.”
It’s also wise to revisit things regularly. Priorities and goals might change or evolve but not automatically flow down through the rest of the organization. Berner recommends using stoplight check-ins to keep everyone on the same page.
“Have your stoplight check-ins, or just your ten-minute ‘is this on-track/off-track and then address the things that are off-track,” Berner said. “I’ve seen goals sit and get dusty in a corner, and it’s not pretty.”
Berner also recommends excluding stakeholders from these stoplight check-ins and retrospectives.
“You want the team not to have to worry about any repercussions if a goal is off-track and just be able to have transparent, problem-solving conversations about getting it back on track,” she said. Spending 15 minutes per week every week or two isn’t much time to confirm things are still headed in the right direction.
Other Tips for Remote Collaboration Challenges
Replacing the natural interactions that occur in a physical workplace doesn’t happen by itself. Creating surrogates for watercooler time requires some real effort.
Berner’s biggest concern is that a distributed workforce isn’t celebrating wins like they usually would, which can impact morale and take some of the fun out of working on an exciting project with peers you like and respect.
“Getting everyone energized and excited about what’s being accomplished is important,” Berner said. At Def Method, they’ve carved out time in their weekly company meeting for that and have also made little gestures of gratitude, such as sending contributors a care basket after completing something big or putting in the extra effort.
To learn about other ways remote collaboration teams can work together, you can watch the entire webinar for free.