How to align a distributed product team around a shared goal

Here at RealtimeBoard, we set out on a mission to build a universal whiteboarding tool that helps companies embrace digital transformation, manage remote teams and think visually in order to speed up internal processes and delight their customers.

That’s why we are always curious about the ways leading companies from around the world approach product development and the challenges they face while organizing their work in distributed teams. Recently, we talked to Kasia Krzoska, a San Francisco-based product manager at Skype, who shared with us three steps that help her align a distributed team around a shared goal.

I have worked with collocated and distributed teams, which gives me a good idea of both situations. Now I’m based in the US, while my teammates are based in Tallinn and Luxembourg. When PMs work with remote teams, it often becomes a real challenge. The main benefit of being collocated is that you can round people up to talk. When you work remotely, it’s much harder to get real-time reactions. The lack of communication and collaboration result in a lack of alignment and understanding of a shared vision.

Profile


Skype

is a global telecommunications company that specializes in providing video chat and voice calls between computers, tablets, mobile devices, the Xbox One console, and smartwatches via the internet and to regular telephones. In 2011, Skype was bought by Microsoft.


Headquarters: Redmond, WA

Founded Date: 2003

Founders: Jaan Tallinn, Janus Friis, Niklas Zennström

Here are three strategies that help me overcome this challenge in a distributed team:


1.

Structure your thoughts to start a conversation.

2.

Engage your team in decision making.

3.

Bring the team back to initial objective.

Structure your thoughts to start a conversation

First, you need to create a framework for the conversation about the proposed vision. When you are presenting the vision, the goal is to trigger conversations. When working with design, for example, I think about presenting an idea in a way that they will immediately think, “I see where this is going; here are some next steps.” And developers say, “That’s a roadmap; what’s the minimum viable product to get there?”

It’s also important to present the vision as a collective team vision. I provide direction, but it’s important to get feedback. It never works well if you dictate the vision.

I typically use Keynote or PowerPoint to present the overall vision and direction and to communicate messaging. Then I like to show what we’re actually going to build. I start with the data flow to show the end-to-end user journey, our users’ behavior, the product and what we’re building. Then with the design team I’ll be a bit more detailed. I’ll usually use a combination of InVision and Trello to prioritize individual tasks, create briefs and draft rough mock-ups.

When you are presenting the vision, the goal is to trigger conversations

 Kasia Krzoska

I’d like to use RealtimeBoard to add structure for the distributed design team. I create sections for the design team: Backlog, In progress, Ready, Done, Parked and Deployed. This way, I create creative briefs explaining the problem so they can pick it up when they begin their work day and move it along as we progress. This helps us keep track of what we’re working on.

Engage your team in decision making

As a product owner, you need to bring the whole team together to discuss the vision. This is easy to forget to do when you’re in a distributed team. I try to show the team that I’m making it a point to bring them together. Then I present the structured vision I worked on, get their feedback and make it a collaborative discussion.

With distributed teams, people often say “Development, that’s your task. Design, here’s exactly what to design.” But in the best-performing teams, everybody brings their best skills to the table. You need to facilitate that as a product owner.

As a product owner, it’s important to present the vision as an opportunity.

Every presentation should have the following:


1.

Data supporting your idea

If you don’t have data for your product yet, use data from other products or relevant proxies.

2.

User centricity

The team should feel empathy with the user. What are your user’s problems? Talk to people, conduct interviews, introduce your target users to the team if you can.

3.

The impact

It can be growth, revenue, or something else. You can show the financial model or a vision of how things might be different (e.g. what products you can eliminate) with this new product or feature.

To have a good discussion, you should have the data, user information and impact information. You need to have a clear skeleton of what you’re going to build.

First you have a problem, then users and potential solutions. Then you break it down every two weeks into Sprints. We have grooming sections every other week, where we agree upon the tasks and subtasks, what we need to build, the acceptance criteria for the task and for the entire feature as it rolls out.

If you’re doing your job correctly, you’re going to be experimenting and a lot of things might change. But you need to agree as a team that you’ll make thoughtful changes consistent with the overall vision. Having a clear hierarchy of how each task fits into the bigger vision is important. Organizing your Sprints like this will make that structure clear for everybody.

Looking for a productivity tool to simplify remote collaboration?

Try RealtimeBoard free,
no strings attached

No credit card required

Bring the team back to initial objective

The last thing you need to do to align your team is bring them back to the shared vision as often as possible. Even as you’re executing the plan, make sure to return to that original vision.

Hold Retrospectives to talk about how the Sprint went. When you’re in a distributed team, especially if there’s a time difference, it’s critical to make sure everything is progressing as it should and everyone is on track.

We do a stand-up every week where the team tells me what they’re working on and I get a sense of whether things are moving forward. I give them an update on what I’m working on, and discover if they’re blocked. The Retrospectives and stand-ups create a ceremony where everybody knows they can and should speak up. We use video calls and a proprietary Jira tool for that.

I also like to celebrate milestones with a champagne toast. During the Retrospective, we ask “What went well? Who do we thank for making this happen?” That makes everybody feel like they’re working towards something that they’re all a part of.

One last tip: turn on your camera! For any meeting where you’re presenting a vision or celebrating a milestone, make sure everybody has their camera on. No excuses. That creates a really good environment.

ABOUT THE speaker

Kasia Krzoska

Kasia Krzoska a Senior Product Manager who is passionate about building impactful products. She’s spent years working on remote teams: from her first PM role at Adap.tv to her current role at Skype where development, design, and product are spread out across 3 different time zones. Kasia also leads the Speaker Management Team for TEDxSanFrancisco. You can follow her on LinkedIn.


Read also