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It’s been a chaotic year in all regards, but product teams able to quickly get up to speed working remotely and improving their digital collaboration have seen a competitive advantage. MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration, saw 15X growth in the spring of 2020 and has more than tripled its team to support demand with the sudden shift to remote work.
We asked MURAL’s co-founder and head of product, Agus Soler, to share lessons he’s learned from running a remote-first product organization and why resilience is important for both product managers and their roadmaps.
Q: How are you supporting a remote-first workforce and ensuring teams are able to thrive?
MURAL was lucky to be able to hit the ground running to support suddenly remote workers because we have always been remote-first as an organization. We have a Head of Culture & Collaboration at MURAL because it’s important to not only focus on remote work through the lens of productivity but also remote culture — employee wellbeing and remote culture are a priority of our leadership team.
And we actually just discussed this very topic with Eugene Chung, R&D team coach at Atlassian, last week during MURAL Imagine. Eugene developed a workshop resource to help leaders build empathy within their teams during this challenging time; the plays he created are all about making sure you have the information you need as a leader to support every individual on your team and foster strong communication. I’ve encouraged all our team leaders to explore these plays using the customizable MURAL template.
Q: What would your advice be for product leaders looking to future-proof their skills as remote team leaders?
I have a lot of empathy for how difficult the forced change to remote work has been for many teams. But the truth is, if you’re now still doing work the same way you were in an office, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities for collaboration and innovation. I think resiliency is an underrated quality in product leaders, and it’s about being able to adapt and thrive as conditions beyond your control come up.
There are a lot of skills that a remote-first product manager needs to develop to thrive. For example, a skill set we value highly in our product managers is the ability to facilitate conversations and effectively manage your collaborators’ time. Having strong facilitation skills doesn't mean you need to be completely objective about the topic; that’s a common misconception. You can have a strong perspective and still facilitate prioritization and retro syncs effectively.
Q: And on the topic of thriving after change, how do you bring resilience into your product roadmap?
Our feature development always starts from our strategy and vision, and then our personas and customer journey maps. As a product-led organization, we’re lucky to have constant feedback from our internal users, our customer-facing teams, and of course our customers. The product team uses MURAL extensively to synthesize information and identify problem areas in a visual way.
We get quantitative feedback from the typical sources, including live collaboration session observations, usability tests, feature usage data, NPS responses, and customer interviews. And we build our roadmap plan using key personas that help us better understand our users and their goals. I recommend Alan Cooper’s book About Face if you want to learn more about personas.
All this information feeds into agile planning cycles. We plan our releases on a quarterly basis, following a design thinking Double Diamond approach. This brainstorming template that was developed in partnership with Atlassian ensures all team members have the opportunity to share ideas — avoiding the “loudest person in the room” problem. We always generate multiple ideas before prototyping solutions.
I’m often asked about how to approach innovative work versus feature enhancements as a product leader. You need to define in which area of the customer experience you will make bigger bets, and in which areas you will just deliver. If you just deliver table stakes features, you won’t differentiate, and you’ll get beaten by your competitors. However, if you don’t deliver them, you won’t even compete. So you need to do both. We strategically decided (at an executive level) which areas we need to excel in.
Q: What are some of your predictions for how product teams can thrive in 2021?
I spend a lot of time (when I’m not in meetings or, sometimes, because I’m in so many meetings) thinking about how we can support more asynchronous collaboration. There’s so many reasons this is going to be a part of the future of work — from freeing up more time for deep-thinking moments, to supporting global, distributed workforces.
I think the teams that succeed most easily will have made it a priority to communicate better. Improving the documentation of decisions and thought processes will be key to this, along with using technology to intuitively connect the digital collaboration ecosystem even more closely to workflows so execution can move ahead.
When meetings do need to happen, whether virtually or in-person, making collaboration and ideation engaging and fun is a key element to success. The best ideas happen when thoughts aren’t challenged right away, and there needs to be room for error. Building trust and playfulness into meetings is vital for this.
Product Marketing Manager