On Solidarity and Product Success
What queer activism can teach product teams
Let me start with a disclaimer.
Human rights and social justice activism is not equivalent to for-profit organizing in the form of companies. If anything, they are often at odds ideologically and politically. This text is not an attempt to bridge that gap and pinkwash product management, or an attempt to let companies leverage the activist struggle to generate more profit.
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But work is an integral part of our lives. Most of us have to work to earn a living, and until we’re all living the fully automated luxury communism of internet lore, or the singularity takes over, figuring out how to improve labor conditions and organize our work lives remains highly relevant.
What Is a Product Team?
The classic answer is that a product team is a durable, cross-functional group of people working together to develop a product and deliver value to customers in a way that sustains a business.
Product management, product design, engineering, sometimes product analytics, data science, quality assurance, and other functions come together to build and ship software products.
The reality is, of course, much murkier than that. Product managers are often confused with product owners, product designers can be more focused on user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) skills — not to mention interaction design or service design — while engineers come from a vast array of functional focuses, tech stacks, frameworks, and programming languages.
It’s a hodgepodge of folks assembled to serve the needs of an organization and their assembly much depends on the level of product maturity within that org. In brutal honesty, it depends largely on how outdated the organization’s practices are.
But above all, product teams are groups of people working together and collaborating on a shared goal. Group and power dynamics apply. In a tech startup context especially, the group is more likely to be at the very least ethnically diverse, but often also diverse in every other sense. While that’s a beautiful thing in and of itself, it also creates the kind of positive tension and healthy conflict that ultimately makes everyone a better team member and member of society.
What Is Queer Activism?
LGBTIQA+, or sometimes queer, activism is the organized struggle against the discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and asexual people, and others who self-identify outside cis heterosexuality.
Activism brings people from all walks of life to unite in making a collective stand against injustice and inequality.
This manifests in many shapes and forms: from organizing protest marches over lobbying for human rights legislation, outreach and counseling centers, to social work, community organizing, and other activities.
Queer activists often act side by side with other civil rights and human rights groups, and their approaches and methods can be similar or the same.
How Does Activism Fit into Product?
As a former queer activist and organizer, I often think about all the techniques I learned working with a group of committed individuals on a shared goal often in high-pressure (or downright aggressive) environments.
Let’s explore some of the basic precepts that product teams can learn from activists.
n. unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.
A job is a job is a job, and most people work because they have to, not because they want to. For a lot of people, the choice of what they can do is limited. In many ways, those of us working in tech are privileged. That’s not to say that a great deal of tech folks haven’t offered blood, toil, tears, and sweat to get to where they are, particularly if they belong to an underacknowledged group.
Ultimately, you’re doing a job because it’s a matter of survival, financial security, access to opportunity, healthcare, etc. Activist groups arise out of various reasons, but fundamentally out of the need to survive in an often hostile society.
For a team to be successful, they need a shared agreement and a feeling that they can rely on the others around them. They need to express solidarity with each other in both formal and informal ways.
Activist groups will sometimes co-design an internal working agreement. In a product team setting, this can be achieved with a team charter workshop.
A team charter can be developed in an interactive workshop by answering the following questions:
PEOPLE: Who are the people on the team? What are our roles?
VALUES: What do we stand for? What are the common values we want to place at the core of our shared work?
PRINCIPLES: What principles guide our work?
PURPOSE: What is our purpose as a team?
AGREEMENT: What do we agree we should always do? What should we never do?
I’ve created a handy template you can use with your team here: Team Charter Workshop 🔗
It’s good to start a workshop with an icebreaker to ease any tension and help people relax before they get started going into the specifics of their collaboration. My recommendation is to activate multiple centers of the brain. Ask people to draw what as kids they wanted to grow up to become or do. Turn it into a small gallery and exhibition of each other’s works. It doesn’t matter if you draw well or not — the point is to get to know each other and have a bit of fun.
A document such as this makes the act of mutual solidarity intentional and formalized. Each group is different, so these documents will vary greatly from one team to the next, but the activity of collaborating on their development tends to improve the quality of the relationships, and consequently the work the team is doing.
Conflict Resolution and Mediation
Working with other people will inevitably cause conflict. There is no avoiding it. But there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict.
Healthy conflict opens up space for constructive disagreements that can be beneficial for product teams. The discussion that this engenders leads to new ideas, new perspectives, and innovation.
Unhealthy conflict, on the other hand, only brings harm. And as such it requires conflict resolution.
Queer activists often find themselves in public conflict with a great many different people and groups. Sometimes they are under attack, verbally and/or physically. It’s not always possible to resolve conflict. But where there is an opportunity, where the conflict hasn’t turned violent, there is always the chance of — mediation.
Mediation exists in many forms and formats. It requires a neutral party to help two or more groups find a way in which to constructively communicate. A mediator directs the conversation by asking questions, or creates space for the parties to engage with each other, reminding them of their purpose if they lose their temper or their cool.
For product teams, mediation can happen on several levels.
There is interpersonal conflict. Two members of a product team, or two individuals on separate teams, can find themselves in disagreement, especially after a difficult period at work. Perhaps they are delayed, or the product is failing. Maybe adoption is low, or usage metrics are disheartening. And as problem solvers, members of product teams are simply trying to move things forward. Of course, unless for this or that reason, they’ve become disengaged, demotivated, and sometimes frustrated.
There is conflict between groups. Perhaps one team launched a feature that undercut the metrics owned by another team. Maybe they introduced dependencies that slowed down another team without warning the other team upfront. There are many opportunities for conflict to arise in fast-moving tech environments. Tech, after all, likes to move fast and break things, and that sometimes breaks people, too.
In a product team context, a mediator can be any of the members of the team if the conflict is between two team members. If more people on the team are involved, it can be a trusted member of another team.
The mediator does not need to be a leader.
While any good leader has to be a good mediator and someone who actively develops conflict resolution skills — and hopefully has developed the same by virtue of having become a leader — the best way to resolve conflict is to do it between peers, without the introduction of hierarchical authority figures. The power dynamics inherent to that situation can strip the effort of its legitimacy in the eyes of those affected and their broader community of colleagues.
Mediation is complicated, and there is no canvas I can share that will help you achieve it. You have to adapt to your unique context. And identify allies for individuals and teams who can help navigate a complex emotional situation.
Allies and Allyship
There are no solo acts in product management. Successful product managers are integrators who understand their environment as a series of interlocking systems. This involves a great number of people. So it's crucial you meet your allies.
For LGBTIQA+ folks, that can mean people who support the struggle for human rights.
But an ally is also a benevolent coworker, colleague, and sometimes friend with whom we develop a candid rapport. A person with whom we can discuss work events, relationships, and spar on a number of work-related topics.
An ally is a fellow problem solver. We support each other in order to do our best work and grow personally and professionally.
An ally can sometimes be a mentor. The greatest mentors are the truest allies.
Allyship is a flavor of human connection and friendship. A mutually supportive relationship that rests on a foundation of openness, vulnerability, and camaraderie.
So to build allies, we have to open ourselves up to those around us. It requires taking a step into candor, with all the awkwardness and vulnerability that that may require. With our acts of friendship, we create opportunity for friendship in return.
An ally is somebody we support as well. We are a friendly ear interested in their stories of success and of trouble. Sometimes we’re a shoulder to cry on. Occasionally we are mentors. But then we are also mentees.
Working with people brings the chance to get to know humans you might not have otherwise met. It expands horizons. And forges new and unusual friendships that can last a lifetime.
Some of my work allies have become close friends. Collaborators. Partners in crime. And they come from all areas of life and work.
Don’t limit yourself to your small world. Branch out.
There’s a whole universe of allies out there.
What Does It All Mean?
Let us recap.
Product teams are cross-functional and diverse, and they work with many people within and beyond their team. Product management is not a solo act.
Queer activism works in groups, based on explicit agreement, consent, and mutual support.
The tenets of activism that can help any group — and thereby product teams — are:
Conflict resolution and mediation
Allies and allyship
Does all this now mean you and your product peers are turning into company activists? Will all this make the world a better place and solve all of its problems? No, it probably won’t.
But it can make your day-to-day more honest, open, and pleasant. It can give you tools to handle and manage conflict in and out of work in a healthy and productive way. And it was help you build better communities of workers, colleagues, and ultimately, friends.
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