Collaborative Writing for Product Managers

How to inspire your team and generate better ideas.

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Open Google Docs. Start writing. Break. Continue where you left off. Take a few days to let the content settle. Edit. Turn on link sharing. Send the link to the team.

If you're a product manager and this is the routine you follow when writing, you aren't getting the full value. Writing in product management is something that should be done in public, with feedback provided early and often. Your writing should have the etchings of others all over it.

Building a product is a team exercise. It is rarely something that should be done alone. Even from the very start.

Why write in public?

Writing is something a product owner is very familiar with. Requirement documents, acceptance criteria, ticket descriptions, product demo slides, product vision statements, product strategy, data analytics reports... the list goes on and on. However, most product managers are only familiar with writing on their own. It feels comfortable, minimizes the risk, and is much less scary than making everything open from the first word. Presenting your ideas to the world (read: your team) in a formal document after you have done most of the work is too late.

Write in public, (almost) always.

Sometimes it's appropriate to share it with a subset of your audience. Most of the time it's appropriate to share with all of your audience. Either way, sharing before you get started is the name of the game.

Writing in public does a few things, some of which benefit others, all of which benefit you.

Note: “public” in this article simply means the ultimate audience for your work. It does not mean the greater public.

Generate Better Ideas

Getting an email about a comment on your newly shared Google document is exciting! Your mind races wondering how the document was received. Until you realize it's a question you should have thought of. One that pokes a hole in your core argument and will require more rewriting to flesh out. “Why didn't I think of that earlier?”, you ask yourself.

Getting comments on your work before it is finished means avoiding the ultimate facepalm moment after it's finished. Others might write a different ending to the story you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Once you set a specific solution or direction in front of your team, you are planting that as the default solution in their mind. This means that some members of your team won’t even chime in and offer a different solution at all (especially if they are quieter members of the group). Silence isn't good. There should always be some dialogue around the ideas you write about.

Giving the team the ability to see the progress on the story you are telling leaves things open-ended. Before you even get to the end, your team is writing the end of the story in their mind. The human brain doesn't like unresolved problems. That means your team will use all of their mental models and put them to work at solving this novel problem. Your novel problem. You might be surprised what some members of the team suggest: New roadblocks you were blind to; Potential solutions that didn't even cross your mind. Your work will be better automatically by sharing early with the team.

Let People Read Your Mind

You are constantly having to convince others why your ideas are the ones to put resources on and spend money toward. Being influential and inspirational is a primary part of the job. To make this work, you have to be ready to rock and you must be convincing.

This isn’t the case with a team of peers, however. Your peers are wanting to know how you got to the end result and what else you considered along the way. Writing in public enables your team to literally read your mind as you flesh out ideas. They can see which parts you struggled with, which ideas flowed easily, and how you resolved the toughest problems. Don’t let the burden of perfection stop you from giving your team the insights they are asking for.

Spend Less Time

Writing pieces of work that are polished and ready for executive review takes time, sometimes more time than is available. Most product folks (myself included) like to have things polished up and ready to roll before we unveil it. But, writing in public and letting others think about hard problems with you enables you to get much more done. Sometimes you need to stop the madness of making sure every single T is crossed and I is dotted before it needs to be. The developers on our teams call this premature optimization. Don’t fall into the same trap and wait to unveil your work until it is too late. Just like your product, releasing early and often leads to better results.

As a product leader, I encourage my team to bring me their half baked ideas and their hardest problems as early as possible. Breaking down the wall of perfection helps make this possible.

Build Team Ownership

When the team sees the product manager building ideas from scratch and gets to participate in that process, they own the ideas more. Product leaders are constantly trying to find ways to increase the sense of ownership amongst the teams. Writing in public gets you there. It shows more of your thought process, the challenges you are trying to solve, where you started, where you ended, and invites your team to join in for the journey. Who knows, you might even incorporate one of their ideas along the way! Talk about increasing the sense of ownership.

Answer Questions Once

Having your team comment on your writing while it is in progress is a hidden superpower. Inevitably, every PO has written a long doc or designed a large system feature only to be met with a multitude of questions out of the gate that are easier to answer in a live conversation. When you write in public, you get the benefit of those questions getting asked early on and the responses are recorded for all to see. No more answering the same question multiple times.

The old saying from our grade school teachers rings true, “If you have a question, someone else in the room probably has the same question”. Using a tool like Google docs or Confluence allows you to track the history of your document automatically and have a record of all comments and conversations on that document. Everyone on the team gets to stay in the loop and nobody has more insights than anyone else.

Enable your writing to answer the questions in the room before you even show up. This makes your end product clearer, and more effective.

Thinking Out Loud

One of the things that I have found to be the hardest in leading a product team is to teach decision-making skills. Everyone uses a different set of models and understandings of reality which can lead to very different decisions getting made. (In fact, that is one of the reasons I write this newsletter… to help myself think through the best ways to make effective product decisions.)

I would argue that, perhaps, the most important reason to write in public is to give your teammates the ability to watch you reason about and wrestle with a problem. When you open up your writing process for others to see, you are “thinking out loud”. By doing this you can teach your decision-making process to the other members on the team. This will not only increase the alignment on your team, but may also help your peers improve their decision making while you let them help improve yours.

It Breaks Down the Barrier

Publishing something you have written is intimidating and nerve-wracking. All sorts of questions circle in your mind: “What will others think of it?”, “Am I any good at writing?”, “What if I have missed something and get embarrassed?”. All of these are feelings that even the most prolific writers feel. The difference is that they pushed through it and kept writing anyway.

Informal writing is one of the best things you can do to cultivate a culture of writing in your company. You can help your team feel like they don’t always need to have things completely put together before they begin sharing and writing. The ideas they have will flow out onto the paper more easily and you will get better insights from your team as a result. Once this happens, it is just a matter of time before everyone is writing effectively. This one practice will increase the communication factor of your team many-fold and is worth the effort it takes to get there.

What About My Ego?

Writing is a skill that is significantly underdeveloped in most adults. We are all over-conscience of our writing, whether it is good or not.

Here is a tip: If you are writing at all, you are already ahead of most people.

Don’t worry about letting people see your first draft. If anything, it might inspire them to start writing as well, helping develop that culture of writing at your organization. When others see a rough first draft turn into a product design that is lauded throughout the organization, they see how hard you are working (bonus points) but they are also inspired to action themselves. And that is part of your job as a PO... inspire the people on your team to action.

Just Get Started

Open up a Google doc, send it to your team and let them know you will be working on your next product document there. It is that easy. Some of them won’t look at first, so you will get a bit of a head start anyway. But eventually, they will see all the hard work you put in and be inspired to action.


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