Here at Spark to Substance, we are committed to helping businesses solve messy business growth business problems through Empathetic Leadership with Rapid Innovation & Alignment.
“Innovation is communication,” writes Alex Goryachev in his Forbes article. He argues that great ideas will not come to fruition through individual effort, especially in this age of rapid technological change and complex business applications; they need people working together effectively, “listening, understanding, and valuing other perspectives”, to successfully bring innovative concepts into reality. Unfortunately, many professionals struggle with communicating effectively-likely due to the lack of noteworthy listening skills, as Goryachev mentions--and in regards to the tech industry, this creates unwanted tension between internal teams that may negatively influence the product outcome.
We interviewed two individuals, Michelle Priest and Negar Amiri, who work in software product management to learn how communication problems typically manifest.
First up is Michelle Priest, a Senior Product Manager at AltaML. Based in Edmonton, AltaML is a software company that commercializes machine learning products from end to end. Priest explains it’s necessary to be a polyglot in her role, as she does not execute work herself but rather communicates user needs to high level stakeholders and developers during the stages of ideation, discovery, development, and delivery. One problem she notes in her years of experience working at both startups and large corporations is that people in specialized fields possess different ways of interpreting information.
For example, developers work on a granular level so their understanding of user needs is very technical, as opposed to business executives who interpret the same information through the lens of the market. On top of relaying information such as user needs, Priest has to peel back all the layers of semantics and jargon to understand the true problem that needs to be solved and fill in the gaps of understanding for the people she works with.
The other person we spoke with is Negar Amiri, who is a Product Owner at Buyatab, a Vancouver-based software company that offers eGift Cards and marketing services. Amiri is responsible for the product, so her role includes keeping stakeholders and the product team up to speed on new developments. She assesses current trends (e.g. remote work during the pandemic) to shape initiatives that will align stakeholder agreement and produce the best outcomes for client satisfaction and Buyatab’s bottom line.
A notable problem Amiri has encountered while communicating information between internal teams is keeping the product team engaged from the beginning to the end of an initiative. Due to juggling multiple projects and the intensive nature of software development, she finds that developers might work with unanswered questions in mind and without clarity of the bigger picture. In some cases, developers might not even be permitted to make implementation or design decisions without the green light from someone higher up. To create alignment with the product team, Amiri will have additional follow-up meetings and communicate with evidence-backed examples, because, in her words,
“no one can argue with data.”
Her approach to solving problems is to research, attempt, test, and improve.
The roles of product managers is still evolving in the corporate world. However, people who work in product management are generally responsible for a lot. They must balance customer and market needs, get internal and external stakeholders to align on a vision, and work with the tech team on top of communicating all relevant information between groups. Approaching their role with a mindset of curiosity and empathy is key to successful communication and collaboration.
During her interview, Amiri dropped a truth bomb that resonated deeply.
“There’s a misconception about people in tech. People assume they will always have a solution to a problem or question. The truth is, you won’t always have the answer. And that’s okay,”
“It’s perfectly alright to say, ‘Let me look into that and get back to you.’ The key is just to communicate honestly.”
Priest holds a similar opinion. In her recently published article on The Startup, she says,
“Don’t pretend you have the answers because you don’t, and you can’t because everything is an experiment. Instead, wonder and ask, why? Work to really understand the users’ needs. Listen to all stakeholders through a lens of curiosity, and respond with compassion and grace.”
This notion of listening and understanding every person you work with perfectly sums up our philosophy of problem-solving with empathy at Spark to Substance. Having empathy for customers, users, and most importantly, for problems, is the best way to communicate effectively-and, thanks to Alex Goryachev, we know that effective, two-way communication paves the way to successful innovation. Especially now in a time in which our lives are heavily impacted by covid-19, this is more important than ever.
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We would like to express our gratitude to the ever so wonderful and talented Peggy Liu who has written this piece for us.