There is nothing quite like seeing a great band in concert. One person plays lead guitar while someone else adds a bass line. Another member provides the steady rhythm. And the fourth person is singing lead vocals. Every person in this band knows the job they must do to make the music happen, and they make it look easy.
But this harmony does not develop magically overnight — even if it seems so natural.
You do not see what goes on behind the scenes: the hours of practice, the mistakes, and the tension that develops after long road trips. And yet, despite these challenges, each member of the band has figured out a way to collaborate for an excellent, often breathtaking result.
In the same way, there are no solo performers when it comes to building a great product. Each person must play their own part, while at the same time working together for a larger purpose. That all sounds great, doesn’t it? But like any working relationship, it can be disharmonious. Such is the case with product and engineering teams.
Unfortunately, in the real world, product managers and engineers do not always get along. Yet both groups must collaborate for the same end goal — a better product. Having led product for more than 10 years, I will be the first to admit we (product managers) do not always make it easy for engineers.
Sometimes we throw requirements over the wall to engineering that are half-baked. Then, when there are problems with the product, we deflect criticism and blame the development team.
So yeah, finding harmony has its challenges. And often it is our fault. But it is possible to achieve a higher level of alignment (and team happiness) with the right approach.
Here are six ways product managers can achieve harmony with engineering:
Respect the role
You spend time ensuring that each release delivers the most value to customers when you go to market. You also consider how each cross-functional team operates and the challenges they face to meet their goals. The product manager role is crucial, indeed. But that does not mean you can do it all alone — or that you know everything.
Keep in mind that without engineering, you would not even have a product to bring to market. Yes, you play the lead role in bringing your product to life. But remember to stay humble. Being the first to admit a mistake will promote goodwill with the engineering team.
Put your product first
You focus on what is best for your product in the long run. This involves deflecting feature requests that veer away from the overall strategy and making decisions that are sometimes unpopular but necessary. Frustrating as these can be, they go a long way towards building trust.
When engineering sees that you care about the product’s integrity and do not bend easily to outside pressure, you will earn their respect. Likewise, you can show gratitude to engineering for the determination and ingenuity that they bring to solving hard problems.
Communicate with purpose
As PMs and engineers communicate more often, both groups are empowered to enhance the product vision. By keeping communication open, PMs can explain the product’s high-level vision and goals. This allows engineers to understand the reasons for — and direction of — each product feature. And it gives them the chance to share their vision for the product too.
When product managers provide the big picture, engineers are more in sync with the motivations driving product decisions. This also empowers engineers to provide new ideas which are consistent with the product goals and vision. Engineers have the strongest sense of how much effort is needed to build each feature. So, speaking with them more often can provide new ways of seeing the same problem — and perhaps a better option.
Embrace their questions
Important questions must be answered before any product can be launched. As the product manager, you tackle the why, the when, and the what. But engineering must also tackle how each feature will be developed. Keep this in mind when they look to you for direction and ask questions.
It is your job to clarify all aspects of what you ask engineering to build. So, encourage them to reach out when they don’t understand something or think your assumptions are wrong. Questions that go unanswered may cause problems and hamper progress. Getting out in front is the best way to solve this.
Consider their time
Aside from figuring out which features to build, it is equally important to create clear and concise requirements for each feature. This helps engineering understand the scope and implementation details per feature — including how long it will take to build each one.
Without features that are properly defined, engineers can build them in a way that misaligns with what you really need. The end results? Frustration and lost time for all involved. Luckily, it is your job to make sure this does not happen. Clearly defining requirements per feature helps you all stay on the same page.
Let them do their job
One of your biggest challenges as a product manager may come after you share the strategy and user stories that are top priorities. You might worry about how engineering will solve the problems that you have just presented to them. But once you have done your job of clearly explaining what customers need — and why — step back. Let them get busy finding solutions.
Of course, you should keep communication open. This helps them inform you of possible delays or potential problems. But it is not your job to tell them how to work. This can be a fatal product management mistake; avoid it altogether by respecting their own process and trusting their insight.
You are bound to have product team disagreements. These are inevitable in all groups — especially in teams of smart and independent thinking people.
But the more time you spend cooperating for the sake of your shared product — and considering how each person contributes — the more often harmony will result. Remember that you and engineering are on the same side, working together to create something lasting. This is an awesome privilege that makes being a great teammate worth it.
What are some other ways product managers can work harmoniously with engineering?