Weeknote: product communities and networks

This week I have been thinking about product communities. In my last organisation, there was a fairly active product community, both at cross-government level and within the organisation. However, in my new job, there is no such community, as our product team of 7 is integrated in the ‘business’ and fairly isolated from other PMs.

For the last few weeks, my colleague who supports communities of practice across the company has teamed up with me to find those other product managers. Because our main business is video games, and product management is in a supporting role, product people don’t sit in the same departments (nor countries) and therefore don’t know each other. The organisation also grew organically so it’s even hard to look for people by job title. For example, we have already discovered that ‘IT project management’ could mean you could be a product or a project person. There is also a role called ‘product specialist’ that we aren’t yet sure about.

Yet, we have started finding pockets through reaching out to people recommended to us and their subsequent recommendations. We’re curious as to whether there is an interest in a company-wide product community.

What struck me was a conversation my colleague had after she found a small community of product managers, all from the same department. They had a structure and sharing practices in place, so this seemed to be a good find. Yet what a person told my colleague was that they are happy with their community how it is, and don’t think that other people in the organisation would have the same challenges so wasn’t quite interested in a company-wide community. 

I was very surprised when she told me that. I automatically assumed that product communities are great! So why didn’t that person realise that? As I didn’t speak to the person, I can only make assumptions as to what created such doubts – maybe a fear for how much work it would be, maybe a lack of confidence in the quality of product management in other parts of the business? Most importantly, maybe what wasn’t obvious to the person is that we need communities – plural.

Therefore I thought about the different communities that form my product network.

1. PMs who work on the same product or domain in your organisation

That’s simple, that’s the product managers I work next to. We’re a team of 8 and we meet twice a week to share what is going on with our products, so that we can manage dependencies and identify opportunities for collaboration. We also do learning activities every month. For that we watch a talk/ read a book chapter/blogposts and discuss them. We also have monthly sessions to inspect our product practice (I wrote about this here: Setting up a product practice).

While this group will understand your problem space well, they will also have the same assumptions as you, and won’t challenge you in the same way someone external might. What I’ve also found is that sometimes it’s difficult to focus on the product craft, and dissociate it from team challenges we experience.

2. Organisation-wide product community

That doesn’t currently exist for me, but from previous experience, it’s a coming together of product managers every month or every 2 months where different people may present what they’re working on, a specific method they’re trialing or hearing from people in other disciplines (UX, accessibility, tech…). Of course this only makes sense when the organisation is of a certain size.

This community is better for talking about the product craft dissociated from specific team issues, but still within the context of your organisation. While our products may vary vastly in terms of what problems they solve, we can see how they complete a bigger picture. We can also identify opportunities for collaboration and to reduce duplication of work. Plus, sometimes you want to talk candidly about organisational challenges and that tends to be easier within the company.

This type of community will make us all better product people, and a company should really invest some resources in helping to organise it, as without a structure, such as a community lead or a committee, this will very quickly fall apart.

3. Product communities outside of the company

I’m typically thinking of the networks that exist on Meetup, such as local chapters of Product Tank or Women in Product, and other such networks. They are a brilliant resource because they bring together a large diversity of voices, allowing you to learn about new practices, reassure yourself that everyone has the same problems and learn about how other organisations do product.

These often rely on the goodwill and enthusiasm of a few people, but those that persist over time tend to have really good content.

4. Personal network of PMs

This is less a community in the strict sense, but more my personal network of people I regularly catch up with to talk product things. They are all people I worked with at some point. I tend to meet them one-to-one on a monthly basis. These conversations help us both reflect on our practice, and offer suggestions and ideas to the other person. In this community is the product circle my PM friend Tobi wrote about as well as people I mentor and support in their journey across the product management jungle gym (we know it’s no longer a career ladder).

Why it’s important

All these communities bring complementary benefits, and any product manager not taking advantage of these networks is missing a trick in growing themselves and their practice.

Having more than one community also creates resilience and allows you to be flexible when you’re moving countries/cities or say – the world is going through a pandemic. While going to product events was part of my routine when I was living in London, in the last year I’ve been much more engaged with my personal circle and the immediate PMs I work with. While industry events will still help you gain knowledge, there is a gap of personal connection, which I now get from my smaller networks.

In the meantime, I will also see what I can do about a company-wide community. Even if it starts small, I hope it’ll be a fun project over the next year to try and spark a product conversation.

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