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The importance of diversity in product management is a conversation that seems far from reaching maturity. I’ve been spending some time considering the steps required to embed a culture of diversity and inclusion within the products I build and the teams that build them. It is an approach I have been calling diversity-by-default where, from the outset, diversity is built into the very fabric of a product, from the team that builds it and how we go about building it, to how we research, design and sell our products.
Great product managers understand the importance of diversity to the success of their product. Many of these great PM’s will develop plans and work through frameworks to reach a stronger position but, from my experience, will overlook some of the simplest and potentially most valuable opportunities that lay before them.
For instance, the wealth of knowledge and lived experience that comes from your offshore or outsourced teams from around the world should be regarded as a valuable resource but is so often overlooked and under-utilised. All too often I’ve seen offshore teams (being mainly engineers) only being provided with enough space to speak on the issues related to development; what goes into the next sprint, how big is the story, how quickly can you deploy etc. But, learning how to engage with and empower your team beyond sole development could bring a world of insights and perspective.
I spent some time at the UK telco, BT, helping them to build a platform, during the height of the pandemic, which would enable 10m people to gain essential digital skills during the lockdowns. Being a large multinational organisation, BT builds products through relationships with numerous suppliers and agencies who provide dev and BA resource. Therefore, I was working with people from various organisations and located across India, Sri Lanka, Eastern Europe and the UK.
We were all working during the same pandemic, on a product aimed at helping people navigate the crisis. Yet, even though the pandemic impacted us all, we were all experiencing it in very different ways. Some of us were in cities while others were more rural. Some of us were in countries where the pandemic was particularly dangerous while others not so much.
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So while we shared some experiences, going through the same crisis, our lived experiences, our cultures and localities gave us different perspectives that warranted capturing. How could Indian families in Britain help their elderly relatives ‘back home’ communicate over Zoom, for example? Or how does the Ukrainian small business get online for the first time and learn to reach new audiences? Have we considered the accessibility requirements for the many languages and abilities of a multinational user base? We were able to tap into small insights that helped frame the challenge and pivot potential solutions in small but not insignificant ways.
Building relationships with our offshore teams around the world felt vital and a huge opportunity to learn. Every day we were getting insights into how people may use our product that added additional insights on top of our user research. What began as a team of roles and organisations developed into something far stronger, with a shared focus on the importance of delivering a product during a challenging moment.
We broke down the silo’s by no longer referring to us as different organisations but instead as one team with overlapping roles and responsibilities. We took the time to workshop together, to speak on areas outside of our formal duties and to also learn about each other’s lives around the world. We built a team, of many different nationalities, ethnicities, genders and experiences, but shared in our focus to building something great, while offering our lived experience into how we built it.
How to Empower Offshore Teams
This concept and the learning I gained at BT has become pivotal to my thinking as I develop what may grow to become some kind of framework for how product leaders can build better products through diversity-by-default. I thought I’d put these ideas, of how to empower your offshore or outsourced team, on paper. So here’s my starter for ten:
- Break down organisation and team role silo’s – there is nothing to be gained by describing your offshore team as your offshore team or your outsourced team as your outsourced team. There is, however, everything to be gained by breaking down the distinctions between onshore and offshore teams. To build the idea of being a team, there are nice things you can do for your guys located around the world such as arranging your scrum thinking of your offshore team, first.
- Take time to understand the cultures and communities of your offshore team – there is as much to be learned from your offshore team in terms of who they are as people, as there is to be gained in terms of productivity. I learned a great deal when working with a team of engineers co-located across India, Sri Lanka and Eastern Europe. Insights that helped to provide me with a wider context about how I should be building the product I was working on as well as how best to engage with my team.
- Meet up – Following on from the previous point, in trying not to view your offshore team as merely additional players but as central to your team, spend time with them in the same way you would others. Whether it is in person (less possible these days) or via a call, organise regular 1:1 informal catch-ups to understand their capacity, workload, stresses, frustrations and ideas.
- Trust needs to be mutual, so build it – It isn’t just about you trusting your offshore team, it is also about your offshore team having trust in you. If your relationship with them is solely transactional and you communicate only on outputs, then any potential issue could force defensive behaviours from all parties focusing on things such as cost and productivity before how, as a team, the issue could be remedied. Promote autonomy, trust, and flexibility.
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- Provide space – If your only communication with your offshore team is involving the feature/function they are developing, or the particular sprint they are working on then you will be missing from all of the wider contributions the team could be offering you. By making your team feel included in your product vision, by taking the time to understand them and how they work and also by providing them with space to explore the product more holistically, and personally, will only help you gain insights into where your product could grow. In my experience, where I have provided my team with space and the opportunity to share their thoughts on the product from their perspective has provided me with insights into how communities I may not have considered could experience our product. I have also found that my outsourced offshore guys, once they feel involved, always have something to say when it comes to a product (they’ve seen so many). These conversations and open dialogue help my teams feel empowered and motivated to achieve good outcomes.
- Show the team the results of their hard work – with all of the points above now in motion, your team, wherever they may be in the world, should feel included, empowered and with a sense of ownership for product success. Therefore, it is important to make sure that this sense of ownership is backed up by a product manager who shares in the successes as much as they share in the work! Find a time, whether in your sprint retro’s or stand-ups, to give visibility on the data, any positive user feedback or praise from the higher-ups. Send holiday cards, celebrate birthdays, invite them to wider team meetings. Do everything you can to make your team feel like all the hard work they have put in isn’t going to waste.
Most conversations I have witnessed around diversity in product tends to focus on the outputs of a diverse team. For example, having more women, disabled people or ethnic minorities within a product team is regarded as the metric of success; the end result.
However, the focus needs to move away from the outputs to the many outcomes that pursuing greater diversity will drive. Outcomes such as an empowered and empathetic team who, coming from all walks of life, have the voice to express their lived experience through how a product comes to life and delivers for the many different communities who may use the product. How you grow your team, how you make the most of those you have around you, and how you empower those voices are integral components to any great product team and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Meet the Author
Oliver Hypolite-Bishop is a senior product manager and strategist working within the public sector, helping to deliver more effective, responsive and user-centred services. He specialises in building products that can deliver social value and change, writing predominantly on how a diversity-by-default approach can lead to greater outcomes for society and business.