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The court of collaboration: thriving as a product manager

Learn from Workable's Senior Product Manager on 10 essential strategies for effective product management through the lens of a volleyball coach.

Anthoula Poniraki
Anthoula Poniraki

Anthoula is a Senior Product Manager at Workable with a diverse background in the tech industry.

If you’re like me, working with cross-functional teams, you know that this collaboration is the name of the game. To succeed as a product manager, working seamlessly with cross-functional teams is a fundamental requirement, similar to the way a volleyball coach collaborates with their players.

To better illustrate this, picture yourself as the head coach of a volleyball team, orchestrating the game. Now, imagine each player on that court as a different department or team, all looking to you for guidance.

But here’s the twist – cross-functional collaboration isn’t just a part of your role; it’s the very heartbeat of it. Just as a successful volleyball team thrives on seamless coordination and teamwork between its players, so does effective product management rely on collaborative efforts with engineering, design, marketing, and all the other players in your organization.

I’m going to share 10 key strategies to help you spike the ball of harmonious collaboration over the net of interdepartmental intricacies. Let’s huddle up and get ready to serve an ace!

1. Open communication is key

Communication is the foundation of successful cross-functional work, much like a well-placed serve in volleyball. During a serve-receive situation, when an opponent serves the ball, the receiving team needs to quickly decide whether to pass the ball to the setter for an attack or to communicate with their teammates to call for a specific game.

For example, if a hitter (attacker) calls for a “quick” set, the setter knows to deliver a fast set to the net for a quick attack.

Likewise in the product manager’ world, regular meetings, clear documentation, and open channels for feedback are essential. Whether you’re discussing user stories with the development team or brainstorming with the design team, fostering an environment where everyone can serve up their thoughts is critical.

“Fostering an environment where everyone can serve up their thoughts is critical.”

Effective and timely communication ensures that the team can make the right decisions and execute plays efficiently, just like a well-orchestrated pass and set in volleyball can lead to a successful attack and point.

2. Establish a shared vision

To align everyone’s efforts, it’s crucial to create and communicate a shared vision. ​​Imagine you’re on a volleyball team preparing for a crucial match. To win, everyone on the team must be on the same page with a shared game plan.

In the context of volleyball, the shared vision could be a coordinated strategy for serving. For example, the team may decide that they’ll use a combination of strong serves and short serves to disrupt the opponent’s defense and create opportunities for attacks.

By ensuring everyone knows the plan and their role within it, the team can work together cohesively to execute the strategy effectively. Just as a volleyball team needs a shared game plan to win, your cross-functional crew needs to sync up on the bigger picture, establishing a shared vision.

Make sure your colleagues understand not just what your product does, but why it exists and who it’s for. When everyone buys into the same vision, it’s easier to work cohesively towards common goals.

“Make sure your colleagues understand not just what your product does, but why it exists and who it’s for.”

3. Collaborate, don’t dictate

In volleyball, a winning team is rarely composed of just one exceptionally skilled player. Imagine a situation where one player on a volleyball team has an incredible spike, but another player is known for their fantastic passing skills.

To succeed, the team must work together, harnessing each player’s unique strengths. While you’re the product manager, it’s essential to remember that you’re not the sole decision-maker, just like in volleyball, one player can’t win the game alone.

“One player can’t win the game alone.”

Instead of dictating tasks, encourage your team members to showcase their individual strengths and insights, similar to how players in a volleyball match make quick passes to utilize each player’s unique skills effectively.

This collaborative approach ensures that your team functions harmoniously and leverages the diverse talents of its members, leading to success.

4. Understand team dynamics

Understanding team dynamics in volleyball is similar to a coach knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their players.

Let’s imagine a volleyball coach preparing for a crucial match. The coach knows that one player on their team excels at powerful spikes but struggles with precise serves, while another player has exceptional agility and defense skills but lacks strength in their serves.

In product management, this understanding of team dynamics is just as crucial. Like the coach adapting their game strategy, you, as a product manager, can adjust your approach to work more effectively with each group.

Some teams may prefer detailed specifications and structured processes, similar to players who excel in precise plays. On the other hand, some teams might thrive in a more agile and flexible work environment, just like players who adapt quickly to various game situations.

Recognizing these differences and tailoring your approach accordingly ensures smoother collaboration and a higher chance of success.

5. Prioritize and negotiate

In a volleyball match, imagine the ball is heading towards a spot where two players from the same team are positioned. One player shouts, “Mine!” while the other also reaches for the ball.

Here, prioritizing is crucial. The players need to quickly assess who has the better position and chance to make an effective play. One player might have a better angle for a spike, while the other is better suited for a precise pass. They need to negotiate by communicating during the split-second decision, determining who should take the ball.

This negotiation helps prevent potential conflicts, ultimately leading to a more successful outcome during the rally. As a product manager, you’ll often find yourself juggling multiple priorities from different teams. Prioritizing tasks based on their impact and urgency is your winning move.

Be ready to negotiate and find compromises when conflicts arise, ensuring everyone’s needs are met to the best extent possible.

6. Feedback is your best friend

In the world of volleyball, the importance of feedback is akin to a rally during a game. Consider a situation where a team is in a tight match, and they’re trading shots back and forth with their opponents.

As they continue this rally, each player observes and analyzes the trajectory, speed, and spin of the ball coming from their opponent. They adjust their positioning, timing, and techniques based on this continuous exchange of information.

Similarly, in the world of cross-functional collaboration, feedback is the back-and-forth conversation that fuels effective teamwork. Seek and provide feedback regularly, much like players read and react to the ball during a rally.

Constructive feedback helps improve collaboration and fosters a culture of continuous improvement, just as players adapt and enhance their skills with each exchanged shot. Be open to receiving input from your cross-functional teams, and, in turn, provide them with feedback to help them grow and perform better, just like players fine-tune their strategies during a volleyball rally to outmaneuver their opponents.

“Constructive feedback helps improve collaboration and fosters a culture of continuous improvement.”

7. Celebrate achievements together

In volleyball, the victory is a team effort, and it should be celebrated as such. Picture a scenario where a volleyball team has just executed a brilliantly coordinated play, resulting in a point scored against their opponents.

As the ball hits the floor on the opposing side of the net, the entire team comes together in a huddle, high-fiving, cheering, and exchanging congratulatory words.

Similarly, in cross-functional teams, celebrating achievements is essential. When your product reaches a significant milestone, it’s like winning a hard-fought point in volleyball.

Acknowledging the hard work of all the involved teams and recognizing their contributions creates a sense of unity and shared success. Just as in volleyball, where players come together to celebrate a point, this acknowledgment ensures that everyone feels valued and motivated to continue working together effectively toward the next goal.

8. Foster empathy and understanding

Just like a well-placed serve can win a volleyball game, empathy can go a long way in breaking down silos between teams. Imagine a crucial moment in a volleyball game. The opposing team delivers a powerful serve, and the receiving team struggles to handle it.

Instead of immediately criticizing their teammates for not handling the serve, the players take a moment to picture themselves in their teammates’ shoes. They consider the challenges the receiver faced, the speed and spin of the serve, and the pressure of the game.

This understanding allows them to support their teammates constructively and find solutions to improve their performance. It not only builds a stronger team bond but also helps them adapt their strategies and tactics to accommodate the different challenges they face during the match.

Just as in cross-functional teams, fostering empathy and understanding in volleyball can lead to better teamwork, communication, and ultimately, success. Take a moment to picture yourself in the shoes of each department – understand the challenges they face, the constraints they deal with, and the daily struggles they endure.

By truly appreciating their perspectives, you can better tailor your communication and expectations, while finding better solutions that accommodate the needs of all teams.

9. Managing interdepartmental conflicts

In the heat of a volleyball match, calling a timeout can be a game-changer. Similarly, in the world of cross-functional collaboration, handling interdepartmental conflicts strategically is essential to maintaining a smooth workflow.

Think of these conflicts as intense moments during the game where the ball is up in the air, and it’s not clear who should make the next move. As a product manager, you should act as the mediator, helping resolve these issues constructively.

Just like a well-managed timeout can turn the game around, facilitating open discussions and guiding the team toward a resolution can keep your collaboration on track.

10. Adaptability in the face of change

Just as a volleyball team must adapt to different game situations, cross-functional teams need to embrace change with agility. In a volleyball match, the need for adaptability becomes evident when the game conditions change unexpectedly.

Imagine a volleyball team that has been performing exceptionally well with a particular offensive strategy throughout the match, consistently using powerful spikes to score points. However, the opposing team starts defending against these spikes effectively, making it challenging to score using the same strategy.

In response to this change, the coach and players need to adapt. They may decide to switch to a different strategy, focusing on precise serves or clever placement shots rather than relying solely on power. This adaptability and willingness to switch strategies on the fly are essential for success in volleyball.

Similarly, in the cross-functional team, adaptability is crucial when external factors change. Encouraging your team to be flexible and adjust their approach allows them to navigate unexpected challenges and continue working together effectively, no matter what changes come their way.

“Encouraging your team to be flexible and adjust their approach allows them to navigate unexpected challenges and continue working together effectively.”

Just as a volleyball team adjusts its game plan when faced with a changing opponent, cross-functional teams pivot to maintain their collaborative effectiveness in a shifting business landscape.

Win on the court – and in management

In conclusion, successful cross-functional collaboration is not just a vital component of effective product management; it’s the very essence of it. These 10 strategies are the essential tools in your kit to ensure that each department works in harmony.

From fostering empathy and understanding to embracing change, and from prioritizing tasks to promoting inclusivity, these strategies are your winning playbook for delivering exceptional products and achieving your goals.

Remember, just as a sports team can’t win with a single star player, your success as a product manager relies on the collective efforts of your cross-functional team. With these strategies in your toolkit, you’re well-prepared to lead your team to victory and make a significant impact.

So, put these tactics into action and watch your collaborative efforts score big on the court of success.

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