Product Partnerships (pt. 2/2) — Executing a Partnership as a PM

This is a continuation of Part 1: The Making of a Partnership

As a PM on a product partnership, your core responsibility doesn’t change: ship a product that customers will love.

There is, however, a complexity that is unique to building in partnership... and unsurprisingly it’s that you need to work with another product team to execute. This sounds small, but it’s huge. Even if they have their own PM, you end up effectively managing the complexity of two teams, two systems, and two highly dependent backlogs.

It’s a symbiotic relationship: when one team slips on a timeline or runs into something unexpected, the other team can get blocked. This extra dependency on another team is far more risky that it may seem at first. Just think of all the times your own team has run into complexity that caused a timeline to slip or forced you to de-scope your product, and realize that with a partner it’s happening at least twice as much.

When blocked, you end up in a tough spot with all your stakeholders. If your team is the one blocking, your PM counterpart will start exerting pressure on you to fix it and will escalate if it takes too long. If that happens, their executive stakeholders end up back-channelling “I’m concerned” emails to your CEO and your team looks like shit.

If their team is the one blocking, your team gets frustrated and looks to you to push the partner to fix it faster. Because you’re the closest to the partner, internally you’re seen as directly responsible for the partner’s execution (even though you cannot control it). You’ll similarly need to escalate to exert pressure, and basically find anyway to accelerate change in another company.

Avoiding these situations entirely is impossible, but there are some specific tactics you can employ as a partner PM to make the most disruptive situations less probable.

1. Reduce the communication latency

90% of partnership blow-ups in the execution phase are because of lack of communication. Could you ship a successful product with your own team if you only met once every two weeks to check-in? Probably not. So why would two teams working together be any different with that cadence, if not worse?

The single best recommendation I can give is to setup a shared chat instance with your partner. At Shopify, we create a shared Slack instance with all of our partners. Since we already work in Slack internally, and are used to distributed teams, working with the partner team this way can make them feel like family.

Since it takes two to tango, we often need to train the other side to use the tools and be present. For many partners, using a shared chat instance is novel, and they still default to email or other high latency options. The best way to train is to lead by example. If you get an email, respond in chat and ping the sender. Ask lots of questions with the same frequency you do your own team. Share psuedo-code and designs in imperfect states. Respond informally, and promptly.

Over time, they will alter behaviour and keep up with you, and then a magical thing happens where weekly sync ups and the like tend to go away or become redundant because everyone knows what’s going on. It also encourages the teams to build relationships with each other and not rely on a single point-person to be the communication conduit (read: bottleneck) with the other side.

2. See each other, and be human

Plan trips for both teams to see each other periodically. Make them a mix of working and vision/partnership sessions. Go out for dinner after the meetings. Make jokes about Donald Trump together.

Basically, do all the same things you do with your own team. We are all human, and we do our best work together when we can put a face to the name and can think of each other with empathy.

3. Become a lawyer

Kidding, not kidding.

The saying is that “once the lawyers get involved, it’s all downhill.” And yes, that’s 100% true.

As launch approaches, you’ll begin reading 50 page documents of jargon you barely understand, and you’ll be asked to substantiate the claim that “Company will only use data in Appendix B section 1.3 directly for user reporting that is deemed appropriate under section 2.3 titled ‘Applicable use of data for reporting’”

Your lawyers (as they should) will explain worst case scenarios to you, and it will start to freak you out. You’ll worry that launches will get delayed, or that the whole partnership will implode if you can’t get the two sides to agree on Appendix A, section 3.2 a.

When you’re on those four hour calls, going line by line through the agreement, just remember that this is part of the process, a process built by lawyers who are paid and trained (rightly so) to only protect the interests of their respective companies.

It’s vital that during legal negotiations, you maintain a healthy relationship with the product and business teams of your partner. Remind everyone this is always painful, and reiterate the benefits of the partnership.

The funny thing about partnership legal agreements, is that for all the work to make iron clad contracts, it is often not possible to leave neither side exposed to risk. Partner trust is often still what is needed to get agreement’s through, and there are times that you need to keep it real with your partner and simply say “look, I know it’s possible technically to ‘screw you’, but there’s no fucking way we’re going to do that. We’re not that type of company.” And sometimes, that’s all it takes to get the deal done.

4. Disintermediate yourself as the partner gatekeeper

At some point during the execution phase, you need to stop being a central point of failure between your company and theirs. Especially as launch approaches, start matchmaking people across you company’s disciplines with the partner’s counterparts.

Their marketing team and yours should work directly together on how to communicate the launch and grow adoption. Their support team should have “bat-phone” contact with yours for when problems arise. So on and so forth.

You are still the quarterback, but it’s poor leverage for you to be on every tactical call. Trust and work through your team.

5. Pre-book the post-launch retrospective

I’ve seen quite a few partnerships go dark after launch. Partner communication slows to a trickle, momentum is lost, and teams get reassigned. This can often mean that the ultimate vision of the product never gets fulfilled and a substandard version persists in market, sometimes forever.

The dirty truth is that some stakeholders are only in it for the press release. Once that’s out, they feel they got their value and put a checkmark on their roadmap. But not you, Mrs. product manager, you’re in it to build something valuable for customers.

So 3–6 months after launch, ensure another partnership meeting happens with all stakeholders in the room. Cover metrics to date, user feedback, and opportunities for quick wins. If you don’t think the product ever reached the vision of the partnership, re-affirm the vision and begin to influence both sides into committing to finishing the work.

It’s also really cool

Taking a step back from all the problems you’ll face working as a partnership PM, I feel compelled to say that the opportunity to work on them is really rewarding. You get amazing exposure to other company cultures, work with smart people all over the world, see your share of dope offices, and get to innovate on products completely outside your domain.

It’s challenging, and fun.

Oh, and Shopify is hiring.