When product and engineering teams are working well together, it can be the difference between building the wrong thing slowly and the right thing quickly.
But organizations often take this critical relationship for granted. Engineering and product managers are often paired up randomly, with little consideration for how to set up a productive partnership. At worst, the relationship can even turn antagonistic, with engineering managers (EMs) pushing for time to take on pressing technical debt, and product managers (PMs) insisting on a rapid clip of feature delivery instead, with no compromise in sight from either side.
Some of the hardest times in my career have been working with product managers who were anything but partners, putting me in the difficult position of shielding the engineering team from chaos and unrealistic expectations.
Some of the best times have come when working alongside kind, generous product partners who not only excelled at their work but pushed me to be a better leader as well.
When I think back on the best product-partner relationships I’ve had in my career, there are three things all of them had in common that made our partnerships productive.
1. Engineering and product managers embrace the blurry line
There are many job responsibilities that fall clearly into the role of either an EM or PM. An EM is usually responsible for things like helping the team organize itself around the work, calibrating quality vs. delivery speed, and the pastoral care and career development of individual engineers. A PM typically owns things like organizing the feature roadmap, condensing business context for the team, and guiding scoping conversations around features.
But there’s a huge gray area where the two roles intersect. The team needs regular input from both the EM and PM as they’re building out features, relying on both leaders to help coordinate and calibrate the work in flight. Much of the friction between product and engineering leaders actually comes from trying to define roles too tightly in this gray area, putting strict rules in place around things like how the PM proposes work to the team and what the EM needs to make sure the team has done before work can be called complete.
When the EM and PM choose to embrace the blurry line between their roles instead of defining it, it frees them up to co-lead the team in a much more functional way. Instead of laying down rules to make sure blame can be assigned if something is late or has a defect, they share the responsibility of making sure the team has what it needs to deliver effectively. This saves them and their team the mental overhead and stress of a constant EM/PM turf battle and lets them focus on doing great work instead.
2. EMs and PMs work to disagree productively
Humans like to win arguments. We’re literally wired for it. Our bodies amp us up with adrenaline when we get into an argument and douse us in dopamine if we win. On the flip side, humans also like to avoid arguments. When a discussion starts to get a little bit heated, our survival instinct sometimes kicks in and tells us it’s a good idea to just not engage. The problem with this is that as leaders, neither winning arguments for sake of winning or avoiding them altogether serves us or our teams particularly well.
The goal of an EM and PM partnership is to ship good software that meets the needs of users. When you take two highly motivated people who care about doing this well, it’s inevitable that you’ll disagree from time to time. This is a good thing! This clashing of perspectives will often lead to either uncovering new information that changes one of your minds or the emergence of a third path that neither of you saw on your own. But if you’re either fighting to win or avoiding conflict, this can’t happen.
It’s important to find ways to engage in productive conflict. If you find you and your partner’s tempers flaring, take a step back. Give yourselves time to calm down. Maybe try writing your thoughts down instead of discussing them in real time. If you find yourself regularly avoiding conflict, try to figure out why. If it’s because you’re conflict averse for some reason, try reading a book on productive conflict (Crucial Conversations is my go-to recommendation) or finding a coach who can help you. And if you realize you’re avoiding conflict because your partner is always fighting to win, you need to find a way to give them that feedback. Speaking of which…
3. EMs and PMs give good feedback
As you spend time working with your product partner, it’s almost certain you’ll notice things that make them less effective in working with you or others. Even when part of your job is giving regular feedback to folks who report to you, it can still feel awkward to give feedback to a peer, and especially one you work with all the time. But avoiding giving feedback is even worse, because it means you have to continue dealing with the distracting behavior, and your partner’s effectiveness suffers because of it.
The good news is that many of the same feedback techniques you use with your team will work just as well with your partner. My favorite technique is the ‘Situation, Behavior, Impact’ framework popularized by the Center for Creative Leadership. The key to using this technique effectively is actively avoiding expressing judgment. Your goal is to share your observation of the situation, how your partner responded, and how that response impacted you. It can be tempting to ascribe motive or try to explain their behavior, but this makes feedback significantly harder for someone to receive and process. And then once you’ve delivered it, you’ve done your part – it’s up to them to decide what to do with it.
The same is true when you receive feedback. It’s often jarring when someone points out that something you were doing with the best of intentions affected them negatively. Thoughtful feedback is a gift and it’s important to receive it gracefully and consider it, but it’s fine to disagree with it. It’s perfectly ok to say ‘Thank you for the feedback,’ and then take some time to process it before responding.
Trust is the key
The common thread running through all three of these things is trust. It takes trust to allow your product/engineering partner to veer a little bit into what’s normally your territory. It requires vulnerability to let your guard down and engage in conflict without fighting to win. And you have to have mutual respect to give or receive feedback productively. None of this works without trust.
So how do you build trust? Take the time to get to know what your product/engineering partner is into outside of work. Book a weekly 1:1 that’s longer than you need for coordinating your work so that you have the margin to build that relationship. If you work together in an office, grab lunch or coffee together. If you’re remote, make sure you prioritize in-person 1:1 time whenever you’re in the same place. Your relationship with your product/engineering partner is one of the most crucial pieces of your team’s ability to deliver, so invest in it!