Lab Notes

Building Product Teams Across Organizations

At GoKart, we learn a lot about product development from leaders and leading organizations managing a single product under one roof.

They talk about hiring and optimizing a team under that roof dedicated to better ways to work, and ultimately create better products for their users.

But there’s something missing.

Their advice doesn’t take into account what it means to integrate product teams across organizations or agency partnerships.

It’s challenging enough to build successful product teams under one roof, but what about when you’re mixing different companies, financial models, sizes, and cultures?

As a digital innovation partner, we at GoKart have learned an awful lot building products and product teams inside leading companies across a variety of sectors.

Here are five lessons we’ve learned helping teams create products across organizational, agency, and departmental silos:

  1. Put trust at the center.

I don’t mean the kind of shallow I-Trust-You-Until-You-Don’t-Deliver kind of trust. I mean the We-Are-In-This-Together-No-Matter-What kind.

When you have communication gaps, you have to assume positive intent and work through it as one team, not two. You have to find ways to tear down the silos, which enables stronger communication and better work overall.

At GoKart, we find it helpful to talk to the product team on the client side every day, and for out-of-state clients, that means finding non-traditional communication methods to do it.

We use Slack to set up work stream channels. It leads to more sharing of ideas and outside inspiration, as well as simple “Good mornings” that can be so critical to building humanity across the team. 

  1. Clarity will save the day.

If you don’t understand something, say something.

It doesn’t matter what it is – every person on the product team needs to be empowered and encouraged to get to clarity, and trust completely that they are not making themselves or their organization look bad for wanting alignment.

The inverse is also true – if you think someone else on the team doesn’t really understand what you are explaining, keep trying or ask them to play it back to you.

  1. Everyone has a different assumption about the spirit of a roadmap.

When a product manager holds a roadmap and looks out across the next couple of quarters, they [should] see it as a guide to fulfill the promise the product makes to users. 

When the people writing checks above the product team hold a roadmap, they often view it as a guarantee of deliverables and an ROI.

It’s a disconnect that needs to be solved – either by creating a new kind of roadmap, or by training people to read it for what it is – or both.

What if a roadmap could:

  • Describe what the user will do with the product, and not what the product will do for the user?
  • Show which features were getting killed, and why, instead of appearing to be cumulative?
  • Communicate what the marketing team should know about the product in the third quarter, instead of being a spreadsheet with description-less feature sets?

Answering these questions can get your roadmap several steps closer to solving the alignment gap in how roadmaps are viewed outside your core product team.

  1. You can’t pivot from nothing, you need a plan.

At the foundation of every great agile development project is a great plan.

Here’s a short list of the things we believe all product teams working across orgs should plan and drive to clarity around:

  • When and how to meet
  • How to communicate
  • How and when to roadmap
  • How and when to sprint plan
  • When and what to release
  • How to figure out the dependencies in a release
  • How and when to test
  • How you’re going to learn from users if it’s working, and when to ideate around problems users are having and how you might solve them.

At GoKart, we like to create a structured operating system for our product teams, and we iterate on it when we need to.

When the plan is clear, it’s easier to understand the implications of a pivot. Your product team should be able to describe to an outsider why something in your roadmap was either de-prioritized or escalated.

  1. Setting the right expectations can change everything

When we work across organizations on product teams, we push for complete transparency, and we constantly work to build trust and alignment. 

But though we strive for perfection, we are still human – so we will also set the expectation that we can humbly admit when we are wrong, with no shame or damage.

We hope these lessons will help you build stronger partnerships and deliver amazing products, and we’d love to hear your own experiences or questions in the comments.

GoKart is a digital invention & growth lab, a recognized ‘Top Place to Work’, and one of Inc’s Fastest Growing Private Companies in America. To learn more about our services, contact us here: [email protected]

Elli Rader creates, shoots (photos), curates, mentors, motivates—and she's a crackerjack strategist to boot. Her keen insight fine-tunes for our teams and clients alike. Along for the ride: kids, Dobby the dog and her All-City bike.

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