A How-To-Guide for Driving Instant Alignment in your Product Org
Originally published on Medium
In my previous article, I shared my thoughts on the true value of starting a Product Management Guild at your company.
Now, you’ve decided you’d like to start one, here are the 3 key steps I’d recommend taking to prepare for your first Guild meeting followed by the 3 key action items for the first meeting itself:
Step 1: Find out if your organization already has a PM Guild!
When I first started thinking about starting a Product Management Guild, I’d read about them int he past but had never seen one in action. I first heard about the concept of a Product Management Guild actually being used at Vistaprint’s parent company Cimpress. The Cimpress Product Management Guild was founded by Kara Hecker who at the time of the guild’s founding was a Product Manager for the Cimpress Order Management tribe looking to create more of a product community at Cimpress.
I had known Kara before and decided to reach out to understand why she started it, what the structure was like, what was going well and most importantly what she would have done differently if she was starting from scratch.
By taking the time to get an understanding of how a Product Guild can be run, I was able to build on Kara’s success. Thanks to Kara’s advice, I had clarity around what to do next; steps 2 and 3!
Step 2: Get buy-in at the individual level
As an effective PM you should always be building relationships across your organization. Specifically when concepting a Product Management Guild, make sure to bring Product people along who hold influence and respect at your company from the very beginning. This will ensure alignment and traction.
During normally scheduled 1:1s, I asked what people thought about the idea, what kind of time they had to invest in a guild once started, and what kinds of topics they would like to ideally focus on.
In seeing what people think early, you can set yourself up for success before putting your professional brand out there.
Step 3: Get an executive sponsor
While not always necessary for something indirectly related to the output of the company, getting buy-in from a key executive can increase your chances for success in driving the organizational change you’re looking for. Not only does this give you great visibility and demonstrate how you have taken initiative, you then get access to a wealth of advice and knowledge from someone who has likely seen similar groups form at other companies.
Additionally, this executive sponsor will likely be willing to present at the meeting itself which can give a nice boost to attendance. Based on response rates at Vistaprint, attendance at meetings with executive team members as speakers drove 3 times the number of attendees as a normal meeting.
Lastly, executive team members have significant impact on things like budget. Often times by having buy in from an executive team member, you have more of a chance of securing budget for things like food, outings, external speakers, and training that will be critical to the future of this Guild.
One important thing to note here is that you don’t have to stop at just one executive sponsor. Some companies have teams across the organization running all sorts of working models; scrum, kanban, waterfall, etc. To truly enact change at a consumable pace across teams, having multiple executive sponsors bought in from different parts of the business can help. While this doesn’t have to be done from day one, it should be a longer term target for the guild as a whole to drive organizational alignment.
You’ve understood if something has already been tried and how much of a need there is for this type of group, you’ve got buy in from your influential peers and a key executive team sponsor, now you need to actually start the meeting. Here are the three key steps I’d recommend taking once you’ve completed your prep:
Step 1: Schedule your first meeting
Setup a time where you know attendance will be highest. At Vistaprint, many people had their lunch hour free, and while engineers would not be happy if you scheduled meetings during lunch, Product people were generally OK with it.
Make sure the goal of the meeting is clear (introducing the Product Management Guild), and publicize that the meeting is happening by circling back with your executive sponsor and other key product manager contacts to confirm they are spreading the word.
Step 2: Have a great first meeting
Anyone that says first impressions don’t mean anything is crazy. No pressure, but your first meeting is essential because it sets the tone of what you are trying to do and is the best possible chance you have to set expectations with the organization. During your first meeting, you need to make sure to accomplish a few key objectives:
Make sure it is not a dictatorship. While I was excited to be starting this group, running something like this end to end would be significantly time consuming especially as a side project not critical to the role I was hired for. The last thing I would want to do is be a bottleneck for a group like this that has the potential of driving significant learning leverage for a wide group of influencers in the company. By aligning that everyone is expected to contribute, accountability is spread in a way where no one person feels too much of the administrative burden of organizing meetings
Make sure everyone participates. Everyone has great ideas, it’s just a matter of getting them to speak up and volunteer that brain gold in as safe of a space as possible, especially if your first meeting attendance is large. By making the guild meeting a place where everyone can chime in, you guarantee one of the original goals of the guild; to get everyone more proficient with product management by increasing the number of great ideas shared faster
Step 3: Align on future cadence
There are a few things to do in this meeting that will build a strong foundation for the future:
Setup and standardize communication channels. At Vistaprint we primarily used slack, so as a group, we agreed to set up a slack channel (and identified a specific owner during the meeting to take the action of setting up the channel for accountability). In this channel, we’d discuss any key findings, post questions or problems we were faced with, and briefly introduce new members
Develop a running topic list (see below). This gives people something to look forward to in future meetings, and also directly gets feedback on what the group would be most interested in, and what would not drive attendance. Doing this activity as a group will also drive more of a sense of ownership
Align on the structure for future meetings. Borrowing from the Cimpress guild that was already in existence, it seemed to make sense to have a structure that would facilitate a few different aspects of product management. In general the rough meeting structure went like this
a. Everyone briefly went around the room to mention what they were focused on since the last meeting, specifically focused on a success or a failure that went wrong and why
b. The meeting facilitator would then present the main topic selected in advance from the topic list
c. A separate volunteer would then do a deep dive into their product, not explaining what the product was but focusing on how they are managing it, what Product Management principles they are focusing on(for example going through their roadmap), or going deep in a trade off decision they were faced with recently
d. The meeting facilitator would then do a “who am I” a Vistaprint norm where for 2–3 minutes that person presents pictures from their life about who they are, what they like, and where they come from. This is often both fun, but also gets the product organization closer together and in my opinion working better together
e. Finally the meeting facilitator then sets up for the next meeting by deciding which topic people are most excited about from the running topic list, getting a volunteer to present on that topic and to do a who am I, and getting a separate volunteer to do a deep dive into an aspect of their product
While some topics will be more engaging for the group than others, we used an informal vote at the end of meetings to decide on which topic to dive into next as a qualitative gauge of interest. Here are some topic ideas the Vistaprint product management guild had run though, or had on their list for future topics to cover:
Roadmapping, how it is done, and the different tools people are using
Grooming and what makes it effective
The role of a scrum master
The PM to engineer relationship (you could bring in a panel of senior engineers to share what they’ve liked and disliked from past PM relationships)
Agile thinking (Bring in an agile coach)
Stakeholder management (Bring in a panel of executives to talk through what great PMs have done to keep them up to speed, or what they hate)
Customer research (Bring in someone from your Customer Insights group, or a few customers with a designer)
Marketing: Someone to give an overview of the marketing side of the organization
The risk of internal groups going stale
One thought I’ve heard a few times across different organizations when forming a new group (whether it is a Product Management Guild, a book club, a board game night) is a valid concern around staleness. All the time I see meetup.com groups that were created with enough energy and passion to seemingly boil the ocean only to have them die out from inactivity after a few weeks. There are a few key points here to combat this:
Make sure the group is invested in vocal in coming up with new topic ideas, and deciding which one should be chosen next
Outside speakers will pay dividends for excitement, frequency of new ideas, and attendance. Leverage them and don’t be afraid to ask for people to come speak!
Shared ownership of the meeting as a whole is the keystone for the group. No one person should bear the brunt of leading an organization like this
I hope that the steps for both preparation and for the meeting itself outlined in this article provide a high level guide on how to start a Product Management Guild if your organization doesn’t have one today, or gives you ideas for potential incremental changes you could introduce at your organization.
Questions, comments, concerns? Let me know! Ben.D.Staples.email@example.com
A note on COVID: These are challenging times. I personally was selected for furlough at Trunk Club because of the pandemic, but am fortunate enough to have been asked to return to work. If you are still lucky enough to be employed, don’t let working from home stop you from creating something as great as a product management guild. It’s these times that we need even more connection and collaboration. All of the steps above can be done while remote and I encourage everyone to not let this slow us down.
About the author: Ben Staples has over 7 years of product management and product marketing eCommerce experience. He is currently employed at Trunk Club as a Senior Product Manager responsible for driving engagement through the Trunk Club Native App. Previously, Ben was a Product Manager at Vistaprint and founded the Vistaprint Product Management guild with over 40 members.
I do product management consulting! Interested in finding out more? Want to get notified when my next product article comes out? Email me!