Is Your Team Engaged?

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Whether you’re a product manager or not, you’ve probably experienced a brainstorm session like this: You’re in a room where the conversation is flowing and ideas are flying from brain to brain. There are so many things being uncovered, and you really feel like you’re making progress on the topic at hand. It feels awesome. Except, is it? If you take yourself out of the conversation, step back, and watch what’s happening from an outside perspective, you’d likely find that not everyone in the room is truly participating in the mental gymnastics that are happening.

As you step back, ask yourself: Are some people paying more attention to their devices than the conversation? Are there one or two people hanging out in the corner with a perplexed look on their face as if they have something to say, but they never speak up? Do some people chime in with information that seems absolutely foreign to the discussion, ultimately derailing the conversation and leaving the team in a tailspin?

Amidst the energy and excitement toward finding your solution, you’re unknowingly leaving key people out of the conversation, and the “thing” you think you’re on the road to making is going to suffer as a result. The diversity of thought from all team members is critical to properly vet and work through ideas before anyone attempts to execute on them. Without your whole team’s input, you lose this fabulous built-in quality control mechanism, and you’ll spend time on things you shouldn’t. Let’s dive in and see if we can understand why these things happen and explore some ways to get your team reengaged.

The Devices

Let’s start with those devices, eh? I don’t know about you, but it’s distracting for me when people have their devices out in a meeting. Without diving a layer deeper, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about why those devices are out. The first thought I have is that the person is not engaged in the conversation and is distracted by something happening on Instagram or TikTok (which is absolutely the downfall of modern society as we speak, but that’s a conversation for another time). However, I don’t think this distraction is the problem. I think it’s a symptom of something greater. When a team has a variety of disciplines like marketing, design, writing, dev and UX, it can be hard for individual members to truly understand how their input is valuable for a particular topic—and this becomes more true the further away from that person’s discipline the conversation goes[JR1] . 

This is something I struggle with. When people start trucking down a road where things start sounding like a foreign language, I have serious trouble staying focused on what’s being talked about, and my mind wanders off into its own little solution silo. If someone doesn’t feel like they have an adequate understanding of the problem or topic, then they’re simply not going to contribute to the conversations in a meaningful way, and they’ll revert into their own mental silo as well. If you’re seeing frequent symptoms of the “devicers” in your team meetings, here’s some questions that you need to ask yourself:

  1. Did you put the right people in the room? There will be many instances as you go through the workweek where it makes sense to have smaller groups together to work on particular things. Do it! This not only promotes focus in your meetings, but it also enables team members who are not needed on a particular problem to focus on their work. Just make sure not to sacrifice transparency to the rest of the team when this happens.
  2. Did you give people enough understanding of the topic? Perhaps the reason for this low level of engagement lies in the lack of understanding on the topic. Teach them! Or better yet, if you have a team member who’s an expert on the thing, let them teach it. This is an empowering move and will help build up trust for the team.
  3. Say NO. If you have the right folks in the room, and people have the right understanding of the topic, you might just have to ask to shut it down. At the start of your next meeting, explain that what you’re talking about is important, you need everyone’s input, and the meeting time is going to be screen-free. This direct way of addressing the problem seems harsh, but the benefits are much greater than the alternative. And it gives the team a clearer understanding of what to expect moving forward.

The Processors

What about those confused faces in the room? This is an entirely different problem, as these folks are usually quite engaged in the conversation. You can see the wheels spinning as they process the information being presented to them as the talks continue, but they never seem to contribute to the conversation. Just as the devicers show a lack of contribution to the conversation, the same result is happening here for a completely unrelated reason—these people are your processors. They’re taking in the information and running it through their own internal mental models, but sometimes those models take time. They want to make certain that if they do say something, it’s right and they know it. They also might be concerned to contribute because they don’t feel like there’s enough data to go off and making a choice now may point the team in the wrong direction. If you see the processors in your room, you’ll need to try these approaches:

  1. Make room for them to think. These are the people who will beat concepts up to no end and find the flaws that you and your other team members might have missed. This might mean you need to let something bake for a day to give them time to think about it, and then you can come back for a decision later.
  2. Stop talking! While some people thrive on bouncing ideas off of people, processors don’t. Get comfortable quickly with silence being present in the room—and encourage it. I’ve found by doing this, I’ve gotten considerably more input from these team members, which has saved my butt in a case or two.
  3. Avoid the group think. One way to get thoughts out of this group of folks is to deploy the sticky note method of gathering thoughts before discussions start. This gives people who shy from the conversation an early outlet to be heard, which brings their influence right to the table.

The Derailers

What about that final group of people? You know those who appear to have the ability to derail the conversation at the drop of a hat? The derailers are some of the most valuable—but, at times, the most frustrating—people to have on your team. If the conversations continue to get taken off track, team members will start to doubt the direction that has been set, and you’ll start to lose confidence from other team members. I believe this happens because they’ve done some seriously deep thinking on what the team’s doing, and buried somewhere within the derailing are legitimate reasons why your focus might need to shift. Let’s explore why you might be facing the disruption of a derailer.

  1. You haven’t gotten them aligned with the problem. Consensus is never a thing on a team, and that’s perfectly fine. There will always be people who are not in agreement with a direction—but you have to have alignment. This means putting aside the disagreement, accepting the direction, and moving forward with the team effort to go after the problem or achieve the goal. If your derailers are not in alignment with the direction you’re going, let’s just say it's going to be a rough go.
  2. They have a better understanding of the thing than you or your team. You don’t know everything, and you never will. If you’re feeling tension with a derailer, then chances are you don’t fully understand what they’re talking about, or why they might be trying to take these conversations in different directions. Dive deep with them. Ask them why they’re having the questions they’re having. Ask them why they’re bringing up the things they do. Ask them what they think the right answer is. This may help you learn that there’s something else you need to pay attention to, then you’ll have to decide if it's worth a pivot or not.
  3.  You haven’t earned their trust. This is likely the most difficult obstacle to overcome on a team, and if you’ve stumbled here, be prepared for a long road. But once you gain that trust, the amount of unlock you’ll see is tremendous. 

In Conclusion

Ultimately, it’s up to you as the product manager, the leader of the group, to make sure your team is fully aligned and, as a result, can contribute effectively to what you’re going after. Unless you pay attention to the small queues, you might miss an opportunity to avoid a major roadblock or uncover some gold that can take your product to the next level.