Should There Be A Healthy Tension Between Product and Engineering Teams?
Recently our friends from CTO Craft hosted a webinar titled “Unpacking the Tension Between Product and Engineering Teams.” The webinar featured the following panel:
- Zoe Cunningham, Director at Softwire (moderator)
- Sarah Hale, Director of Engineering, Unity Gaming Services
- Sergey Soloviov, Director of Engineering at Lohika
The title of a well-known book is “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” Can we say the same thing about Product and Engineering teams?— Lohika (@Lohika) January 17, 2022
Join us tomorrow for this @CTOCraft Bytes session featuring @soloviov. Register: https://t.co/wqig4nBmCh#engineering #engineeringteams pic.twitter.com/hhfnI8rdMT
In this post, I’ll summarize some of the key points made by Zoe, Sarah and Sergey.
Defining the tension between Product and Engineering
The premise of the discussion was that a healthy tension should exist between Product and Engineering. Product is focused on commitments for the next release. While Engineering needs to meet the commit date on that release, their focus tends to be on excellence and software quality.
Zoe began the discussion by asking Sarah and Sergey to describe this tension at a high level. Sarah noted that Engineering and Product have a shared goal: both teams want to deliver delightful customer experiences. The difference is that each team comes at it from a different perspective. Sarah said it’s important that each team respect the other’s viewpoints while remembering the common goal they both want to achieve.
According to Sergey, “Product and Engineering can seem like opposing forces. They each pull in their own direction.” Sergey said that Product wants more and they want it sooner, while Engineering wants to invest more time making the platform and systems better (e.g., less buggy, more reliable, better-performing). This, to Sergey, is where the tension lies.
Can’t we just eliminate the tension between Product and Engineering?
Zoe presented Sarah and Sergey with an interesting question: what if we could eliminate the tension between Product and Engineering?
Sergey said that this may not be possible or desirable. According to Sergey, “Tension is ultimately good, as long as it’s a healthy tension.” He compared it to how competition in a given market is a good thing, since the consumers in that market win. For Sergey, tension between Product and Engineering ought to exist. The key is to find the sweet spot between the two teams’ perspectives and goals.
Sarah said that tension doesn’t have to mean conflict. According to Sarah, “We’re not striving for conflict. We’re looking for collaboration, a strong partnership.” Sarah said it’s important to have a trusting relationship to deeply discuss a topic and raise different perspectives. These perspectives can come together to drive towards the same outcome. When tension results in conflict, it can create an unhealthy environment.
The definition of healthy vs. unhealthy tension
Sarah said that unhealthy tension can make teams dysfunctional. When teams think of challenges as “someone else’s problem,” it creates siloed thinking. The result is that challenges don’t get addressed. A dysfunctional environment is also created when teams strive to be right (vs. wrong). When the motivation is to always be right, then teams aren’t collaborating.
A healthier and more functional environment, said Sarah, is when teams are grounded in respect and have empathy for each other’s positions. Functional teams discuss and validate the problem they’re trying to solve, rather than competing against each other.
Sergey answered the question this way: “Product and Engineering are really a single team with a single goal. Does tension help you make progress in a meaningful way? That’s healthy. If it hinders, then it’s unhealthy.”
How to build trust between Product and Engineering teams?
To build trust between Product and Engineering, Sarah said that the teams first need shared goals. Rather than dividing teams, a common goal unites them. Both teams need to understand that they’re collectively working to achieve something.
Sarah once had challenges with a counterpart on the Product team. The challenge was rooted in a misunderstanding of each other’s motivators – they misunderstood why their counterpart was making certain decisions. Further complicating the matter was that their respective bosses had different interests. For Sarah, the resolution was to better understand each other’s perspectives and to bring the focus back to a common goal.
Zoe introduced the concept of a “trust first” model. If you place your trust in other people naturally, then trust might be reciprocated. Of course, this doesn’t work if other people don’t reciprocate, but it at least starts the relationship with trust in mind.
Watch the full recording of the panel discussion: