Redefine culture-fit: Product teams with the distributed mindset

Prashant Rajkhowa
Prashant Rajkhowa
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Remote working

Every startup that launched in the 12 months from mid-2020 had some element of distributed Product teams in their DNA. The ones that are going to struggle with distributed work going forward will be where the loudest voice in the (Meet) room is someone that “can’t wait to get back into an office again.”

Have you actually thought about how many on your team actually value craft beer, or any kind of beer for that matter, as a work perk?

More importantly, do they value it over sitting in traffic for 2 hours, unpaid, every day? Or do you think they’d value a couple of extra hours in the day to do something that they actually enjoy?

Actual job ad from a Sydney tech company, August 2021

While the coronavirus pandemic brought the concept of “working from anywhere” to the forefront of every conversation, there were a lot of people that were doing it successfully before it became mainstream. This is an analysis of the characteristics of those successful people and whether those strategies can be used to build successful distributed Product teams

Success metric: Genuine collaboration

Every startup that launched in the 12 months from mid-2020 had some element of distributed Product teams in their DNA. The ones that are going to struggle with distributed work will be where the loudest voice in the (Meet) room is someone that “can’t wait to get back into an office again.”

Successful long-term distributed Product teams from this period are going to be those that are actively driven with the distributed mindset.

The distributed mindset isn’t a philosophy or higher plane of being. It’s a toolkit that you can refer to in order to build a successful distributed Product team. And like all toolkits, they are neither one size fit all nor are they complete. They are a starting point of resources that you can consider, shape, mould and build upon in order to make your distributed Product team successful.

And the best part is that nothing here is going to be new nor is it going to be easier or harder than the way you’ve been doing things so far. The distributed mindset within Product is just a different way of approaching the same challenges that every Product team faces.

Actively build trust. Aka culture-fit

Let’s start by separating the concepts of remote teams from distributed Product teams.

Remote implies there is a central location to be remote from. Distributed teams are those that are dispersed across borders with the centre being a conceptual one, usually the location of the founder.

The biggest challenge that remote team members face is wondering whether they can trust the central team to keep them involved.

You can recognise those without the distributed mindset by looking for people that consider remote team members an afterthought. They’re the ones whose solution to the video call not working in the conference room is “let’s catch them up separately.” Key word here being “separately.”

And unfortunately it doesn’t end there. Remote team members miss out on the decisions made during coffee breaks and walks round the block. This increases their disconnect, increases their distrust of being genuinely involved and ultimately proves the self-fulfilling prophecy true that “remote teams don’t work.”

With distributed teams, while you have the advantage of not having a central office, it’s important to not waste that advantage. The distributed mindset requires you to not just work on building trust through involvement and genuine collaboration, it requires you to understand that building trust is also an ongoing and active process.

Product teams need to be constantly collaborating with every other team - That’s Product 101. The key idea with the distributed mindset is to collaborate on their workstyle terms, not in a way that just makes sense to you.

So start with regular video catchups. The video being important because you need to see the other person in order to build their trust. You need to pick up on their non-verbal cues and you need to (potentially) exaggerate your own non-verbal cues. Once you establish some sort of a habit of regular catchups, and you build a more personal relationship with the other team, you can mould these catchups to what works best for the other team.

You don’t need an established culture document to tell you how to build this interaction. There are some people that don’t mind being tapped on the shoulder (the shoulder in this case being Slack) and there are those that do head-down work time and prefer if you’d put time in their calendars.

Successful Product managers with the distributed mindset are those who figure out what work style the other person prefers and works with that. Remember, the company does not revolve around Product, it revolves around the success of the product. Change your mindset to accommodate different peoples’ workstyles. And if you don’t know what work style they prefer, ask.

Let the other person see you trying hard to get them involved. That’s what builds trust.

PMs need to be pragmatic. Distributed PMs are pragmatic+

Two kinds of Product teams emerged in April 2020.

The first either made the overnight switch to, or continued with Miro, Slack, Meet and Zoom. The second, scrambled last minute to get permissions from their managers so that Corporate IT would allow them to download software onto their devices so that they would be able to make it for the online video-call standup the next morning.

Product managers need to be pragmatic on a regular day. They need to be able to put out a fire in the morning and then turn the entire ship around in the afternoon in order to pursue a new opportunity.

The distributed mindset in Product needs a higher level of pragmatism. It points to people who are true problem-solvers not problem-solvers when it’s the right time, right place and given an opportune moment.

With distributed teams, given different locations and time zones, you may not have the opportunity to get everyone to swarm on a solution right away. You might be the only line of defence and you might only have Slack at your disposal.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a competition to figure out who is better at handling stressful situations, it’s simply a question of getting the right players on the team. Think of it as the difference between “Enterprisey Product Managers” and “Startuppy Product Managers” - While no one will say one is better than the other, or at least they shouldn’t, everyone will agree that each has skills that works for their situation.

This is the hardest one to solve for. While I’m sure there’s a BuzzFeed quiz that could tell you if you are pragmatic enough for a distributed Product team, it comes down to understanding how you work. And whether the way you work will work for others. After all, Product needs to be involved but other teams don’t need to involve Product.

It’ll be challenging to self-evaluate to understand whether or not you are pragmatic, or pragmatic enough to join a distributed product team but it's definitely a worthwhile exercise for yourself and for the distributed Product team you’re looking to join.

Redefine culture-fit: Hire for inclusion and diversity

Distributed Product teams can fix a lot of the challenges of the modern office workplace, such as open place offices and  the glorification of work meetings. What those concepts have encouraged is to look for people that can perform in work meetings and those that value the “buzz of an office”. For your distributed Product team to be successful, you don’t need either. You need results. You don’t just need decisions to be made, things need to move forward too.

Think of it this way. Those with a distributed mindset will never say “I don’t trust people who work from home because how do I know they’re actually working.” Because to them, making a decision in a meeting is work. Does it actually move things forward though - let's set up another meeting to tackle that one.

While not everyone will be that open about their prejudice, what we’re looking for is the shift away from thinking about the importance of having people in offices and towards people that can drive the success of the Product. You’re looking for people that can work independently. You’re looking for leaders that can own their deliverables. You’re looking for Product people that can genuinely collaborate, where collaboration doesn’t mean having you sit in on meetings.

Make no mistake, the success of a distributed Product team is undoubtedly driven by the founder and their leadership team. It’ll be difficult, if not outright impossible, to build a distributed Product team without the vocal and enthusiastic support of the founder. The next step is finding people with the right mindset.

And while you will never be able to convince everyone of the merits of a successful distributed Product team, building a team with members that have the appropriate mindset will ensure that your distributed Product team has the right people in it.