My Product Management Toolkit (47): “Different Hats”

Working cross-functionally is a critical part of product management. Products are never developed or improved in isolation. They are the result of engineers, designers, marketeers, sales people, legal counsel and product managers working together. To do so, understanding the people that you’re collaborating with and what’s important to them, is a vital prerequisite for achieving customer and business outcomes.

You’re looking to solve a specific customer problem. You’ve developed a solid understanding of the customer problem space, and you’ve got a team of great people from different functions across the business, ready to create a solution to solve the customer problem. How do we set up the right conditions for this cross-functional team to succeed? How do we create a shared understanding, shared goals?

Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/@clemono

To help people and teams developing this understanding, I use my own “Different Hats” exercise. The main goal of this exercise is simply to look at a common scenario or problem from different perspectives.

The activity should be played with a minimum of four players. Having at least one person per function or department is critical here, since this will help participants getting maximum value out of the activity. You could for example have a group that consists of the following participants:

  • Bianca, Legal Counsel
  • Eve, Product Manager
  • Daryl, Marketing
  • Chloe, Sales
  • Denise, Engineer
  • Tony, Designer

The activity consists of three distinct stages, and each stage will take approx. 15 – 20 minutes:

  1. Problem or Opportunity
  2. Wear a hat
  3. Share a hat

I’ll outline the three stages in more detail, and highlight relevant examples per stage:

Stage 1 – Problem or Opportunity

Goal: Set out a common problem or opportunity for the group to work through, applying different perspectives.

The facilitator of the activity outlines a common scenario pertinent to your organisation or product. For example:

  • Significant sales opportunity – Chloe in the Sales Team has identified a great sales opportunity through talking to a number of prospective high value customers. The features that these prospects have been asking for aren’t currently on any product roadmap but could result in substantial revenue for the company.
  • Missing out on marketing – As a product manager you’re over the moon; the product team that you’re part of has just shipped a new product that took a good few months of hard work. However, you just received a snarky email from Daryl in the marketing team, who is cross about not having been in the loop on this product release.
  • Legal are not going to lay low – Bianca, the legal counsel has repeatedly raised concerns about the legal implications of the data sharing element of a new product onboarding feature that is being implemented. She has pointed out specific privacy and data protection regulations that the feature would be violating. James, the product manager, believes that Bianca is just acting like a typical lawyer and feels she’s raising concerns unnecessarily.

Following the explanation of the specific scenario, each participant can ask up to three questions about the scenario. The group will thus have a shared understanding of the situation, and the specifics to consider.

Stage 2 – Wear a hat

Goal: To get participants to step in the shoes of a function that they’re unfamiliar with; exploring the considerations their cross-functional colleague would make and their rationale for decision-making.

At this stage, the facilitator will assign a perspective to individuals or pairs of people, depending on the group size. Key here is to make sure that people approach the scenario from a viewpoint that feels (most) unfamiliar to them.

Example – Significant sales opportunity

Chloe in the Sales Team has identified a great sales opportunity through talking to a number of prospective high value customers. The features that these prospects have been asking for aren’t currently on any product roadmap but could result in substantial revenue for the company.

If this is the scenario that the group will work through, the ‘hats’ could be handed out as follows:

Marketing Hat’:

How would you approach this scenario if you were a marketeer? Why?

Bianca (Legal Counsel)

Denise (Engineer)

Legal Hat’:

How would you approach this scenario if you were a legal person? Why?

Eve (Product Manager)

Daryl (Marketing)

Product Hat’:

How would you approach this scenario if you were a product manager? Why?

Chloe (Sales)

Tony (Designer)

Naturally, additional hats – engineering and operations, for example – can be assigned, depending on the makeup of the group. The facilitator provides 3-6 questions, which the different ‘hat wearers’ can use to work through the scenario:

Wearing the hat of a specific stakeholder, ask yourself:

  • What am I accountable for?
  • What are my goals and priorities?
  • What does success look like, why?
  • What tradeoffs or decisions do I need to make?
  • How do I feel about working with the different functions?
  • Who am I accountable to?

These questions should help participants come up with an appropriate response to the scenario, and develop empathy for their cross-functional counterparts in the process.

Stage 3 – Wear a hat

Goal: Participants build on their empathy and understanding through learning from the ‘actual’ hat wearer, i.e. the person with the actual domain perspective.

Each pair briefly presents their scenario response and takeaways. This is an open conversation; participants compare notes, with plenty of opportunity for the actual hat wearers to share their their real life experiences:

  • As a product manager, in this situation, I typically do ______________________________________________
  • In sales, the main thing is to ______________________________________________
  • As a legal counsel, I want to make sure that ______________________________________________
  • From a marketing perspective it’s critical that ______________________________________________
  • In engineering we always want to ______________________________________________

Participants thus get a chance to compare notes, and uncover any biases or busts myths about each other’s perspectives.

Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/@joshstyle

Main learning point: The main goal of the “Different Hats” exercise is to encourage cross-functional participants to develop empathy for each others perspectives and challenges. It creates a safe space for people to compare notes and learn about what’s important to the other person and why.

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