Cogent Conversations: Episode 21

How leaders can best support and motivate product teams

Welcome to the second episode in Season 3 of Cogent Conversations, where we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the 2021 Australia & New Zealand Product Teams Report.

This is the second year we’ve published the report, featuring insights from 100 tech companies across Australia and New Zealand, and helping us answer the question we get asked most at Cogent: “how do other people do it?” when it comes to the way product teams best work together.

In this episode Adam Murray, a Product Principal here at Cogent, digs a little deeper into how high performing teams work together. Hear him interview two highly experienced experts on the topic from Cogent about their experience, opinions and recommendations.


STU LISTON
Chief Operating Officer

KATH CASHION
Lead Product Manager

“96% of CEOs and Founders believe that their product team’s day-to-day work is contributing to the overall company strategy, but only 79% team members feel the same.”

Access your own copy of the 2021 Product Teams Report here for more insights and recommendations.  To keep up to date with what is happening with Cogent, including when new episodes of this podcast are released, you can subscribe via email or follow us on Twitter

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Full Episode Transcript

Adam: Welcome to season three of the Cogent Conversations podcast, in which we take a deeper dive into our 2021 Australia and New Zealand product teams report. This is the second year we’ve published the report featuring insights from 100 tech companies across Australia and New Zealand, and helping us answer the question we get asked the most: How do other people do it when it comes to the way product teams work best together?

I’m Adam Murray, a principal here at Cogent, and in each episode, I’ll be digging a little deeper into a key theme of the report, gaining further insights and recommendations from some of our experts here at Cogent. You can download the free, 50-page report by visiting cogent.co/podcastreport. Let’s get into it.

All right, welcome back everyone to the second episode in this season of the Cogent Conversations podcast. We’re diving into more detail about the product teams report. You can catch the first episode, that was with Dan and Scott about high performing teams, and it’s just really good to be able to talk to Cogent people on this podcast where we’ve got a whole different crew. We’ve often talked to clients in the first couple of episodes, sorry, first couple of seasons, and in this season, we’re talking to a bunch of different people from Cogent, which I’m already enjoying thoroughly. My name’s Adam Murray, I’m one of the principals here at Cogent, and I’ve got a focus on the strategy. And in this episode, I’m sitting down with Stu Liston who’s Cogent COO, and Kath Cashion who’s a lead product manager here as well, and we’re going to talk about how leaders can best support and motivate product teams. It’s great to have you both here, Stu and Kath, welcome.

Stu: Hello.

Kath: Hello.

Adam: Now, interestingly, you’ve both worked together at a different organisation and come back to working together here at Cogent as well. So Kath, can you give us the inside scoop on Stu as a leader and how he’s best, or when he’s been at his best supporting and motivating teams that you’ve been working in?

Kath: Yeah, so Stu and I’ve worked together for five years previously. I would say that one thing he’s always really focused on is creating empowered product teams, so setting up the team structure so that the teams are able to solve meaningful problems together fairly autonomously. Nothing disrupts the flow of a team like having unnecessary collaboration before they can actually get something out the door, and so setting a team up well really sets them up so that they can function and perform.

Adam: Very good and  is he any different here at Cogent than he was at Qantas?

Kath: I actually work less closely with him here, and we’re not shipping software. I guess his role’s less directly connected to software development here.

Adam: Okay. You got out of that very nicely! Well done. And Stu, welcome to you as well and yeah, I’m interested to hear your reflections on Kath too, and some of the things that she’s done well in enabling her teams, the teams that she’s been product manager in, to be well supported and to feel motivated.

Stu: Yeah. Hey, long time listener, by the way. Great to be on the show. Yeah, as Kath said, we worked together at Qantas Hotels for probably five years, or collectively for five years. What so I see Kath do? Kath does a lot of the things that she just described about me. I see Kath giving teams actually a really nice balance of trust and autonomy and freedom and things, but with also the right level of challenge, which is great. Kath’s always really good at asking the right way in the right tone, “Do we really need to do that thing? Or do we need to do that thing now?” I think that’s one of our superpowers. So yeah, definitely a really keen appreciation for, certainly in the role of a product manager, and what does design contribute to a team? What does technology contribute? How does the business operate? What is the commercial setting within which we’re operating? And I’ve seen Kath really bring those things together really well to produce some great outcomes. So yeah, I think that’s where Kath’s superpowers lie.

Adam: Yeah. Awesome. Yeah I’ve seen a lot of that around the OKR work and that question that you do, Kath, so we might even dive into a bit of that as we reflect upon this topic in a little bit. But I wanted to call out one of the interesting stats that I found that’s relevant to this topic in the report. That said 96% of CEOs and founders believe that their product teams’ day-to-day work is contributing to the overall company strategy. But then, when that’s compared to members of the teams themselves, they only agree with this about 79% of the time. So Kath, just reflecting on that in your own experience, has this discrepancy, I guess, between the perceptions of leaders and people in the team, and I guess with maybe CEOs and founders in particular, product managers and then senior technical people are also leaders. But yeah, particularly between CEOs and founders and team members, is this something that’s always been a problem or has it been something that’s changed as we’ve shifted to distributed work?

Kath: I reckon it’s always been a problem. I think leaders have a very clear vision in their minds, and they know what the company’s doing and the strategy, and that gets communicated with the company, but how well that is remembered and integrated with the ongoing work of the team is variable. So I would say I think product has got a key role to play there in connecting that strategy to the work of the team so that they’re feeling, on a day to day basis, that the stuff they are doing is integral to the company strategy and its purpose. So yeah, I think it’s long been a gap there, making sure that communication is repeated more often than you think it needs to be to connect people to purpose.

Adam: Yeah, and we might get into a little bit more about how that has shifted, but yes, Stu, do you have something you want to say about that as well?

Stu: Yeah. I think what Kath says is right, and I think a little bit about the difficulty of taking what is often a very complex set of factors and distilling those down into a really simple message to convey to the team. And I think one of the roles that product leaders in particular can help to play is to help to challenge and query and question and contribute to that thinking, to enable leaders to distill down to the simplest pieces. We talk about this in software engineering a lot that the most difficult thing to do is produce simplicity in what is often a really complicated or complex environment. I think conveying a strategic plan and then communicating it, as Kath said, feeling like you’re overcommunicating it once you have distilled it down to something simple, is a real art. It’s often, take the number of channels and ways that you think you need to communicate things and add a couple more on, and then you’re getting close to how much you really need to do.

Adam: I’m also wondering about, and this sort of might lead into another question, but I’ll ask you a question first, Stu, and then we’ll riff back on my thoughts, but are you saying that leadership is any different from your perspective in a distributed environment versus a predominantly in-person environment?

Stu: Yeah, I think it is. And it might be a bit hard to separate because I’ve only been in a leadership role in a fully distributed environment in the context of this global pandemic, and so it’s hard, I think a little bit, to separate the way that you have to behave in a distributed environment versus in an environment where the world is turned upside down a bit. But certainly when I think about, when I think about my behavior and my leadership style and my style of connecting with people, definitely, I’ve had to change that in a distributed context.

Kath probably would’ve seen me many times in a physical office co-located with other people, cruising around, connecting with people, creating moments for serendipity, intentionally making a coffee beside somebody that I thought might need to have a little bit of a conversation. I don’t know how many coffees I would get through in a day. I was pretty famous for what was coined the blockie, which is the walk around the block with Stu if you felt like you needed to have a chat about something. So yeah, I think that you’re no longer able to inject a bit of comedy or a bit of lightheartedness by doing a somersault into standup in the morning. You have to introduce that in other ways. So definitely, it’s been a bit of an adaptation, certainly when it comes to connecting with people. That’s for sure.

Adam: There’s an old adage that a friend of mine talks about around motivation and it’s, one of the simplest things we can do is to make progress visible. And Kath, I wanted to maybe talk to you a little bit about this as well. And the role, let’s say, a product manager can play — as that link between say, CEOs and founders and other leaders and the team as well — and in a distributed context, making progress visible. In the past, we’ve had physical card walls and then we’ve migrated to digital and I suppose there is that sense of visibility there, but I’m wondering if some of that discrepancy is between the CEOs and founders seeing a sense of progress, and maybe the teams themselves not feeling like they are making as much progress, or it might not be as visible and how that connects into the company strategy. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Kath: It’s certainly something we do a bit of in teams, trying to recreate in a virtual world the kinds of things we would’ve had up on a wall, and try to find ways to keep them as visible as they would’ve been otherwise. Like continually bringing back your wall which shows where you’re up to and what percentage of the whole that is, and that’s challenging. And again, then finding opportunities to communicate that to all of your stakeholders who can’t then walk past and have a look. I think there’s also something in that around finding ways to measure success that are objective. I know we saw in last year’s product survey that teams who thought they were working well were far more likely to have objective measures of success rather than depending on a leader to tell them that they’re doing the right things. And I think in a distributed environment, it’s even more important that teams can judge for themselves that they’re working on the right things and that they’re making progress, and not need someone to tell them.

Adam: Yeah. Stu, do you think there’s a way that, just on that, that those objective measures of success, how can people that are perhaps more senior in the organisation cultivate that environment where those things are created or that, at least when they are created, they’re well aligned to where the company wants to head, as well?

Stu: Yeah. Good question, and great point, Kath. I agree completely, and I think just to riff on that point a little bit, Kath, before I answer the question as well, we’ve seen this. We’ve seen this a little bit on a micro level and on an individual level where, starting a new job in a distributed world, which a bunch of Cogent people have and a bunch of people listening probably have, it’s really easy to not get the feedback that you need to say that you’re doing a good job. When I think about that stat and where we’ve seen a rise, for example, in imposter syndrome, for example, where people aren’t getting the glances in the body language and the little bits of feedback, that, “I’m okay, and I’m doing a good job, and I’m welcome here, and I’m contributing.” And how you have to really manufacture opportunities to give that to people and be really intentional about it. Because most of the times that we gather together, it’s with a really clear purpose, right? There’s an agenda and there’s a meeting and there’s a bunch of stuff we intend to figure out together.

And when I read that stat and listen to Kath here, I think about whether a bit of that plays into that gap as well. Product teams feeling that they aren’t making as much progress towards goals as CEOs, for example, do, because actually we just haven’t manufactured enough means of giving feedback. I don’t know if I’m answering the question you want me to answer, but yeah, just a bit of a thought that popped into my mind, I guess. Kath and I have had some experience on creating objective feedback and ways of objectively measuring progress. Kath and I have had a bit of experience, both at our past roles and Kath consulting to other teams in specifically using OKRs as a tool. We had a discussion prior to this about how the superpowers — John Doerr’s kind of superpowers of OKRs — focus on priorities aligning both with other teams, but with company objectives, tracking for accountability, and stretching. Those are an interesting prism through which to view this, I think.

Adam: Yeah, they are. I’ve seen OKRs done really well and really poorly in different organizations. And particularly when they’re rolled out, it can often be quite stressful for people, I think sometimes, and also maybe counterproductive to what the organization is wanting to achieve, where there is that misalignment and not that cross-referencing between teams. Kath, what have you got to say about this? I know that OKRs is something, obviously, as we talked about, that you introduced to Qantas, but yeah. What’s your experience been like?

Kath: I’ve looked at OKRs across a number of organizations and firstly, they’re hard. It’s hard to get them good. I do think, though, that even just starting to address them brings into focus some things which are really important to getting happy product teams. One of the key ones there is focus, that I’ve seen a lot of unhappy product teams who are being pulled in too many directions. And when people feel they’re thinly spread and they can’t make meaningful progress on anything, then it’s a real demotivator for the team. So, forcing people to start to look at really what is the one most important thing and call that out, produces much happier teams. I often think that where OKRs go wrong is where people try to create too many of them, and they actually fail to create the focus they’re intended to create.

Stu: Yeah, I completely agree. I think the other interesting thing is thinking about the original point of how leaders can best motivate their teams and lead in this environment where being in close contact with each other, constant contact with each other, is not as practical when we’re distributed. And that forces us to devolve authority, devolve accountability, which are all really positive things for organizations, if you do it the right way. And actually, Kath and I were musing about one of the most difficult things about OKRs, for example — and it’s just a tool — but one of the most difficult things is getting the objectives articulated at the right level. So not having them be so granular and specific that the solution is really obvious, the output that you want to create so obvious and you defeat the purpose. And also having them not so lofty that there’s so much ambiguity and so little constraint for the team that they really spin wheels and struggle to make the impact that you want them to make. It’s another example of where something looks really very simple on the surface, but requires a huge amount of effort in the background. 

I think the other superpower to talk about with OKRs in particular is that alignment, and it is a part of having teams that are empowered and autonomous and understand what their priorities are, is also about making sure that they’re not just connected to the company goals and your organisational goals, but that they’re also aligned with each other, and they’re not suboptimising against each other like an alignment between your team and an adjacent team. It both in service, collaboratively, of those company goals is another real superpower that you can unlock if you do these well.

Kath: Yeah. Just on that, I notice in the product report that only 50% of teams think that they collaborate well, and I often think that’s when they’ve got misaligned objectives. Teams are pulling in different directions, sometimes they need each other to release their thing, but that’s not a priority for the other team. So, when different teams are not aligned, then it can cause problems for teams.

Adam: Yeah. One of the things that, I don’t know if it’s still said, but we used to say about a story, a user story, for example, that was on the wall, is that it was a placeholder for a conversation. And I see that OKRs can be a vehicle for that, as well. They’re a way of capturing that something’s important if they’re done well in a really articulate and maybe succinct way, in a way that captures the essence, and they’re a placeholder for a conversation with the team. The team can always come back to those, and they’re across teams as well, and then to leaders in the organization as well. 

Perhaps there’s something about that kind of conversation that is a little bit more difficult to have now that we’re not bumping into each other quite as much. But what are some of the ways that you’ve seen that teams and organizations that you’ve both been in contact with and working within have enabled good conversation? Whether it’s around that kind of motivation or just around support and connection as well, but how are teams enabling — compensating for the lack of incidental conversation with other forms of conversation?

Stu:  Yeah. That’s a good question. Do you want to go first, Kath?

Kath: I think about that, sure. I think one thing which is important is to make sure you still have one-on-one time with everyone, whether it’s scheduled or just spontaneous huddles, making sure there is time for that direct communication, now that you’re not just having a coffee with them. You just can’t get a substitute for that in a group environment. The sorts of just meaningful but light connection which happens in those moments is irreplaceable by group communication.

Stu: Yeah. Yeah, we’ve definitely tried. I wouldn’t profess to have figured this out, obviously, this is something that all of us will be experimenting with, but I’ve definitely seen our teams create environments where serendipity can occur. We have a daily water cooler chat, for example, with the leadership team or the HQ team at Cogent. We often come on and talk about our weekends or painting or gardening or whatever, and it can soon become a connection into some work things that you want to talk about. I’ve definitely seen our teams find — manufacture avenues to socialize and to connect with each other around things that are not specifically work-related, or with a specific objective from the conversation as well. Yeah, they definitely help along with the one-on-ones like Kath mentioned. Yeah, we’re having random coffee chats and things. I’m sure there are a bunch of tactics that people listening can think of as well that they’re implementing. I’d love to hear about ones that are working well for people.

Adam: Yeah, exactly. I think there’s a lot of experimentation around different types of meetings and conversations and ways of connecting. That’s one of the things that jumped out through the report, reading the report to me, was I had certain practices and rituals that people were talking about, like having a Friday, sorry, a Monday planning and a Friday kind of showcase or a “What’s Next?” kind of gathering as well, where there’s a little bit of high-level discussion about what’s on the horizon and maybe playing into roadmaps a little bit there as well.

But yeah, there’s something about experimenting with different forms, and I think that ties into what you were saying, Kath, too, about being really clear about how we measure success, too. And in ambiguous environments, it can be perhaps sometimes difficult to be clear on what success looks like so we know that we are learning and growing. I don’t know if I have a specific question there, but maybe there’s something there about, what are some interesting things that you are noticing about types of experiment or the fact that people are experimenting with different ways of doing things? I don’t know if Kath or Stu you’ve got any reflections on that.

Stu: Yeah. I mean, I can have a little run at this one. I mean, when I think about, and this connects a little bit to objective measures of success. I think about the composition of an experiment with a hypothesis and some way of observing whether your experiment is successful or not. It really speaks back to the requirement for feedback, to be clear about your intentions, and then having clear feedback as well. Perhaps — and I could flip this around a little bit to have you speak about this, Adam — but perhaps one of the interesting things that we’ve done recently is around the strategy meeting that we have.

I mean, it’s topical because obviously, the intention of our strategy meeting is to convey priorities and help teams make decisions, and also ensure that people are on track, but we’ve been messing with the format, haven’t we? We’ve been experimenting and riffing on the format of that meeting to try and ensure that it gets increasingly more and more effective. And what was once in person, effectively a wall, a physical wall in the office, in the kitchen (actually quite a casual space where anyone could walk past and there was a bit of an open standup), that has become actually something quite different and probably something a bit more, a lot more mature and structured and purposeful, right? But it might be worth talking through perhaps one of the recent experiments we’ve had on, Adam, is that.

Adam: Yeah, I can do that. Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s interesting because we’re always, always running experiments, whether we’re doing it formally or informally. We’re trying to learn and we’re riffing on things and we’re incrementally improving them of course, but I think it’s a pretty recent thing for us. And it’s come through reflection on organizational learning and retention of knowledge that we want to be more intentional and deliberate about running those experiments and capturing those learnings in a way that other people can access. So yeah, it is one of the ways, and we’re just running small experiments at the moment in that strategy meeting on just adjustments to way we run the agenda and how it’s facilitated.

I think one of the small things we did was just introduce being clear on the etiquette for raising questions, cutting down the amount of time for status updates, and moving some of that to an async update and then some of it to being more in person, and then thinking about, what’s the best use of our time together? It’s not so much giving status updates — we can read those — but it’s that rich conversation that is much harder to have when we’re not all in the same place at the same time, and spending more time focusing on those. And it seems like in conjunction, all of those things have led to a better meeting and we could keep improving it and we’re probably going to just back off trying to keep on improving it for the time being. It’s good enough, I think that’s another thing, there’s a good enough that we get to sometimes, but yeah. I think the better learning for us is that we can be more systematised and intentional about our learning. Yeah. Do you have any thoughts on that as well, Kath? On experiments and running them?

Kath: I found it Interesting trying out more intentional ways of running meetings also, and the effects of that, which I didn’t expect. So when you give everybody equal time to talk, then that elevates more diverse perspectives, which has been really useful, and often really enlightening.

Stu: It’s probably true that, I mean, how many people at Cogent do we think have gone on facilitation courses over the last couple of years? It was a big cohort recently, wasn’t there? I mean, look, certainly in the context of consulting, facilitation has always been a really important skill, but it does definitely feel as though, it’s hard to say it’s more important because actually hearing equal voice, getting the best out of a group of people has always been important, but there’s something about seeing a bunch of faces in a very equal Brady Bunch style grid on the screen in front of you has all of a sudden made us think about that more, and be even more intentional about the structure and the facilitation of meetings. I’m not necessarily sure where that comes from, but it certainly feels true to me.

Kath: I think there’s improved etiquette over interrupting people so that when you set up a structure like that, it stays more structured.

Stu: I resisted the temptation to interrupt you there, Kath.

Kath: Thank you.

Stu: It’s a dad joke.

Adam: Brilliant. All right, we’re almost at a time, but I’ve got a couple of questions for each of you as we start to wrap up. Kath, there’s probably a bunch of different people in different contexts listening to this, and I’m wondering about those people that are in teams where they feel like they’re not particularly supported or not feeling particularly motivated. How might they go about approaching improving this? It could be quite an awkward situation, but what are maybe some small steps that people in those situations can start to do?

Kath: I think there’s probably, I guess, two sides to this. One is, what can you do within the team? How can you find within that team, a clear purpose, even if it’s not well directed from outside and communicate about that? So that if that’s not what leadership wants you to be doing, at least it’s really clear what it is you are doing and how you’re measuring success. So, a clarity and communication and building an internal purpose for the team so that they’re connected, and feel like they know what their goal is and they’re working to it. And I guess from the flip side, if there are problems there in the organisational structure or set up from support from leadership, communicating to leadership about what you think the problem might be and how they can better support you, be it a lack of clarity on priorities, or alignment between teams. So, finding ways to articulate what the problem is and helping to get the support you need.

Adam: Yeah. I think that’s great. Describing something that the leaders don’t want, at least it kind of creates that provocation in that conversation. Yeah. And Stu, a question for you. So, for leaders who might be pretty comfortable or happy with the way their businesses are going or their teams are going and they think, “What does it mean to take my team to the next level now?” What kind of things might they start to look at first? We’re in a new context again, where we’re coming out of this lockdown, at least here in Melbourne, where we’ve been in it for a long time. There’s a summer period here in Australia, there’s this thing called The Great Resignation, what might leaders do to get their teams and their businesses really humming?

Stu: Good question, Adam. Yeah, so something that I have observed that Cogent has done really well, and this predates me, so I can’t take any kind of credit for this, and it’s really prevalent as I listen to and read about this Great Resignation, for example, is a focus on meaning for people. Meaning is one of the stated values of Cogent. And when I listen to people talking about The Great Resignation, one of the big topics that comes up is people are looking for ways to derive more meaning from the work that they do. And what’s really curious about that is that it’s not going to be the same in every company, and it’s also not going to be the same for every individual in every company.

And so what we do, or what we did at Cogent, and we do this iteratively every now and then, to understand what meaning is, what meaning means to people, is to actually just turn a bunch of our research skills that we have with our designers and our product people, for example, inward on the organization, to start to build a picture of, what is that? Where do people at Cogent derive meaning? And so we know what that looks like as a map across people at Cogent. But for every organization, like I say, it would be different. And so for us, the big topics that come up are certainly around growth and development.

That’s one of the big advantages that we have as a company that provides services and consulting to other companies, is that we can provide people with a real variety of industries and technologies and problem spaces, for example. So we have to lean into that as an advantage as an employer, for example. But aside from growth and development, which is probably going to be prominent in most environments, I would imagine, there’s also a big element at Cogent of wanting to do work for purpose, and work that has a real impact on the world and leaves the world or the teams that we work with — the organisations that we work with — in a much better space. And people derive meaning from that, and that matters a lot more to Cogent people, often, than some of the extrinsic benefits of working for a company. 

So yeah, I think the maturity level, kind of hierarchy of needs, once you’ve got the basics done, if you’ve got people who feel empowered and trusted, who feel like they’re having an impact because they’re getting feedback on the progress that they’re making, and they have enough autonomy to make decisions and create the output that they need, but also enough constraints to drive creativity and unanticipated outcomes. Once you’ve got all of those fundamentals done, and a lot of them are spoken to in the report, I think a focus on meaning. I think a focus on understanding where your people derive meaning from is really important.

Adam: Yeah. Thanks, Stu. I think it’s really exciting that organisations and people are wanting this in organisations are looking for ways that they can start to provide it for their people as well. I’m really looking forward to how that unfolds over the next 12 months. Yeah, is there any final words that either of you had, things that you wanted to talk about before we finish this episode?

Kath: I think we’ve covered good range of ground today. Thanks, Adam.

Stu: Yeah, it definitely feels like we’ve talked a little bit about the role of product and there’s a whole episode in that, or a series of episodes, frankly, in that.

Adam: Yeah, and we’ve got one coming up from this season as well, so we’ll dive more.

Stu: Terrific. All right, I’ll definitely listen to that. Thanks, Adam.

Adam: Now, awesome. Thank you both for your time. It’s been awesome to chat with you, and thank you all for listening as well. If you’d like to learn more about how teams across Australia and New Zealand are doing things, you can download the free, 50-page report by visiting cogent.co/podcastreport. Until next time.