If you can’t have a product manager, think like one

“The first thing we think about is: What do our users want? What do they need to get the job done? And, how are we going to deliver that?”

No, this is not a Product Manager at a company like Facebook, Amazon, or the next hot startup. This is Ross Chippendale, the Head of Workplace Technology at Atlassian. That’s right, Ross works in IT, an industry whose first questions tend to be, “Can we deliver this on time?” “How can we stick to budget?” And, “will this project deliver on our goals?”

Ross leads a team of 35 service desk agents, engineers, and support specialists that support over 2,000 Atlassian employees around the world. When Ross joined the team, they tried something new: bringing product management strategy into IT.

This is a fairly revolutionary choice for a field that has always been regarded as a cost center and whose primary concerns are time, budget, costs, and SLAs. And Ross understand this — in previous roles he was accustomed to “just building things and putting them into practice.” That used to work out just fine. But, with more and more people bringing their personal technology preferences to work, IT teams need to put user needs first or risk getting left behind when users turn to their own devices. (Pun intended)

The good news is: Ross’ agile thinking in IT has paid off. In just 3 years, Ross’ team has improved employee satisfaction from 58% to 90%. Here’s how they did it, and how you can, too.

Agile methods meet IT

The Workplace Collaboration team, the sub-group responsible for the technologies that Atlassians use at work, had to figure out the best solution for video conferencing. Atlassian staff around the world had to be able to video conference from their personal computer, conference room in the office, or even their mobile device. With strict requirements and so many products out there, it was a hairy project from the get-go.

Instead of going heads-down on the project, the team enlisted the help of a product manager at Atlassian who would encourage them to think of this video conferencing solution as a product for their users. This product manager ran the team (which originally did queue-based ticketing work) like a software development team, conducting user interviews, gathering requirements, and using agile methodology to move the project along.

Some of the agile methodologies that the team used include: daily standups within the engineering team, sprint planning, and the Atlassian team health monitor, an activity developed internally to assess the team’s overall productivity and ability to hit its goals.

Doing customer interviews

The IT team talked to their users — people at Atlassian who had a lot of meetings — to learn what their needs and pain points were. They organized user groups, did journey mapping, and created project posters to understand the problem they were trying to solve and how their users would interact with their solution.

One of the biggest pain points they uncovered was that people were having a hard time simply getting the video conference meeting started, a huge issue for many knowledge workers today.

In response to this pain, the team did a spike to enable “one-touch” video conferencing, a feature that’s made everyone’s life at Atlassian just a little bit easier.

Communication and constant feedback

Not content to just ship the feature, Ross’s team also thought about how to communicate the launch to employees and gather feedback. They put how-to guides and posters in each conference room, created an information hub in Confluence, and set up a feedback mechanism so that the team could turn feedback into features.

Technical upside

Taking an agile approach to IT projects brought benefits on the technical side, too. Using agile thinking, the team was careful to pick a solution that was flexible enough from an architectural perspective so that Atlassian didn’t have architectural dependencies. Which, of course, is an underlying cause of a lot of legacy IT issues: you want to change and adopt a new technology, but you’re already servers-deep in on-premise solutions. It was important for the team to be agile not only in sourcing the tech, but also in maintaining it.

Think like a product manager

Of course, not all IT teams will have the luxury of a product manager on their team, but Ross doesn’t think you need one. He says, “If you can’t have a product manager, think like one” meaning that simply using some of the techniques that product managers use will help send your team down a user-centered path.

If you can’t have a product manager, think like one

And this is a benefit he’s seen in his own team’s health as well. Ross reports some great team-level benefits that have come from this shift in thinking, including increased motivation and job satisfaction among team members who get the chance to broaden their skills and own IT projects. Of course, Ross knows that IT will always require ticket-based work, but the way that the work is being done brings more participation in and excitement from the whole team.

Here are 3 ways to get started weaving product management principles into your team, IT or not:

1. Take a user-first approach when tackling new projects.

Conduct user interviews to understand the pain points of your users. Create journey maps and project posters to outline what your projects will accomplish for the user, and what their experience will be like.

2. Use the agile methodology in your way of working.

Do agile practices like daily standup, sprint planning, and retrospectives. Start small and ship your projects in increments as opposed to launching everything at one.

3. Check in with your team to determine its health.

Run a health monitor to make sure your team is aligned on priorities, has the resources they need, and knows what to work on and improve.

Now, get out there, start thinking like a product manager, and watch as your customers sing your praises.


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Originally published at Atlassian Blog.