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Organizational awareness: 9 tips for product teams
In the second quarter of 2021, we surveyed our customers to get insights into their day-to-day experience working on a product team. We learned that organizational awareness is one of the most challenging aspects of being a product team member.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time10 min
A lack of organizational awareness often becomes apparent when you have poor communications and weak team alignment.
For example, have you ever been part of a product team that spent a great deal of effort building a product, only to see it seriously underperform during launch? Besides skimping on user research or not running product tests, it could be that your team didn’t properly communicate with stakeholders, or didn't align your objectives with other teams'.
Keep reading for some tips to avoid misalignment in the future and to improve your product team's organizational awareness.
What organizational awareness is and how it can help your product team
Organizational awareness for product teams is the practice of 'reading the room' in your organization to understand informal hierarchies, communication channels, and inter-team and cross-functional team dynamics.
Kate Leto, product management coach and consultant, describes organizational awareness as the “ability to sense the unwritten tone, tide, and climate of an organization.” This emotional intelligence capacity helps you understand the informal communication channels and hierarchies in your organization. When you know they exist and know how they work, you can remove obstacles and enlist help from others outside your team to get things done.
Every organization has an official hierarchy described by its organization chart, but the org chart doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to understanding team dynamics or whether teams work cross-functionally.
Organizational awareness can help you connect with your team—and other teams across the company—on a deeper level, opening up opportunities to:
How organizational awareness helps you make the right decisions for your product
You spend a lot of time as a product manager making decisions to ensure your product’s success—but you may not be in a position to make every decision.
Here's how organizational awareness can help you and your product team make the best decisions for your product and customers:
Tip 1: identify the decision-makers
In most high-functioning product teams, decisions aren’t always made by the same person. Team members who understand technology make feasibility decisions, and people with design experience make usability decisions, while product people typically make value and viability decisions.
To make the right choices for your product, identify the right decision-maker. You can gain some high-level insight into who that might be from an org chart, but you need to understand some of the informal networks and team connections to know who's best positioned to make key decisions for specific situations.
We talked to Kent McDonald, a product manager with experience working in a variety of organizations, to get his perspective on selecting the right decision-maker. According to Kent, you need to determine key decision-makers early on so you can pick the right person based on their knowledge and experience—not based on how you think they’ll decide:
“Whenever possible, you should determine the decision-makers for different types of decisions when you start a new effort. If you wait until you reach a decision point, you’ll find that choosing a decision-maker will be much more difficult.”
Tip 2: understand what information is needed to make a decision
Organizational awareness is a huge asset when it comes to making timely and informed decisions.
When you understand your organization, you know who you need to talk to to get all the necessary information. You also know exactly who you need to share specific information with to ensure the best decision is made for your product.
For example, if your product has a few workflows tripping up your users, you need some additional information to know which customer pain point to tackle first. You and your research team can help each other out—the product experience insights you get through using various user research techniques and PX tools (like Hotjar!) provide the information you need to make an informed decision about next steps.
💡 Pro tip: making timely decisions doesn’t necessarily mean making immediate decisions.
When you become aware of a pending decision—and you’re the decision-maker—the first question to ask is, 'when do we need to decide?'
When you make a decision, you are choosing between a variety of options, each of which requires a certain amount of time to implement. The best time to decide is while you still have time to exercise any one of your options.
For example, let’s say you have three options available:
Option One will take one week to implement
Option Two will take two weeks to implement
Option Three will take three weeks to implement
You can wait to make your final decision until three weeks from when you need a solution, to keep all three options available. Use the intervening time to discuss each option with stakeholders and teams that have the information you need to make the most informed choice possible.
Try to find out the impact of your decision on others in the organization, too, to ensure the decision you make is aligned with other teams and business objectives.
Tip 3: build support for the decision
Okay, you've made a decision. Good! But your job as a product manager has just begun:
Now you need to get buy-in and build support—which may be the aspect of decision-making where organizational awareness plays the biggest part.
You’re inevitably going to make decisions that aren’t agreeable to everyone. To make sure your tough decisions result in the proper action, use your organizational awareness to build support for your choices:
Talk to people outside your team who could be impacted by your decision and make sure they know why you made the choice you did.
Ask your team members to do the same with people they have strong relationships with.
If someone higher up in your organization has an issue with a decision, schedule some one-on-one time with them to listen to their concerns—and be ready to back up your decision with quantitative and qualitative research to ensure them that the decision you made has the customer at heart.
How organizational awareness helps you communicate in a way that resonates
Product managers are often viewed as leaders in their organization, but that leadership position often comes from influence rather than authority.
One of the best ways to get things done for your product is through strong, influential communication skills—and you need organizational awareness when you’re communicating with people outside your team to understand the best way to communicate with them.
Tip 4: adjust to stakeholders' communication preferences
Actively seek to understand how the people you work with prefer to communicate and adjust your communication style with each person or team to match those preferences.
Kent McDonald makes it a point to explicitly ask, “what’s the best way to keep you informed?" when he starts working with new stakeholders:
“I’ve worked for and with enough people by now to know that not everyone absorbs information in the same way or at the same frequency. Learning that fact was a bit painful at times. Some people prefer frequent, short updates via Slack. Others prefer more formal updates on a weekly or biweekly basis. Still, others have told me ‘I don’t read. Just come tell me when you have an update.’ Sometimes all of those people exist for the same product.
“I’ve become a communication chameleon, constantly adjusting my communication style for each different stakeholder. There are times I wish people would adjust to my style just once, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.”
Editor's note: the necessity to become a 'communication chameleon', as Kent puts it, isn't unique to the product world—it's something many of us struggle with.
Instead of re-adapting your communication style for each individual every time you need to convey a new idea, merge your communication style with the preferred styles for each team and stakeholder.
Learn how to communicate in a way that can speak to everyone, every time. This may mean more work upfront—you might need to provide a detailed written document (with a concise summary), alongside a timeline, alongside a Miro board, alongside a Kanban template, with a Loom to add context; across Slack, email, and a company Wiki—but meeting the needs of your audience by communicating with them in a way they'll all understand will save you time in the long run.
Tip 5: understand stakeholders' interests and influence
Now you know what your stakeholders' communication preferences are, you need some independent perspective on how frequently you need to communicate with them, and the nature of your communication.
You can use a stakeholder map to help you determine your approach:
Consider each stakeholder's influence and interest concerning your product and use their classification to guide your approach to communication.
Monitor: let people in this group know where they can find information and check in with them periodically to make sure they have what they need.
Keep informed: understand the needs of the people in this quadrant and solicit their input.
Keep satisfied: understand and engage with people in this group and satisfy their needs, especially when their needs align with your outcome.
Manage closely: fully engage people in this group. They should probably be part of your cross-functional team.
How organizational awareness helps you effectively collaborate across the organization
A strong product team is made up of people with the skills necessary to deliver the outcome you seek. But cross-functional collaboration doesn't end with your product team—you need to work with other teams in the organization, too.
Here are some tips on how to use organizational awareness to make that happen:
Tip 6: gauge the support your product has in the organization
Use a stakeholder analysis technique like the commitment scale to gauge how supportive people in your organization are of your product, and what level of commitment is needed to ensure the product’s success.
But approach with caution—Kent gives a warning about using the commitment scale:
“The commitment scale should be used as a way to frame a discussion within your team rather than an official document you publish. Because you’re reflecting your team’s impression of stakeholders' support for your product, there could be some controversial information recorded on it.”
If you find some people don’t support your efforts as much as you need, determine ways to increase their support (reference Tip 3).
Tip 7: build support for your product
In addition to the stakeholder buy-in you need at the decision-making stage, you also need to build support and get buy-in for the product itself—and a shared understanding of its purpose and the value it offers your customers.
To build support for your product, speak directly to the people whose support you need. When you talk to them, share the insights you’ve gathered from PX tools like Hotjar Surveys, Session Recordings, and Incoming Feedback.
Listen to stakeholders' concerns and consider your product from their perspective. When they see you making an effort to understand things from their point of view, you’ll build stronger relationships with them and experience more support as a result.
How organizational awareness helps you build shared understanding
If you have any hope of creating customer delight with your product, you need to build shared understanding among the product team: you all need to have the same picture of the outcome you’re delivering and how you'll deliver it.
Here’s how organizational awareness can help you build that shared understanding:
Tip 8: listen to understand
To effectively build shared understanding, you need to know where everyone is starting from—don't try to force your view of the situation on everyone. Help your teams reach a shared understanding of your product's objectives and value by listening to understand others' perspectives.
One product manager, who preferred to stay anonymous, suggested that to build shared understanding, organizational awareness will help you with your interactions:
“I ask a lot of questions and have to be patient with responses. I listen and watch for verbal and nonverbal cues, allow lots of space for responses, and follow up when I need clarity. I also have to continually remind myself not to fill in blanks or assume. It's about pulling the information out of others and then documenting, finding trends, and analyzing.”
Tip 9: help team members express the goal in their terms
To build shared understanding, it’s helpful to start from where your team members are—and formulate a new, shared understanding as a group.
Use techniques like the problem statement to give your team members a chance to describe the outcome in their own words:
Then facilitate a discussion with your team where you start with each person’s perspective and reach a single, shared outcome.
This shared understanding helps you build the necessary coalition to make things happen. Everyone involved understands the outcome you’re striving for and their role in getting there.
How to strengthen your organizational awareness
The tips on this page show you how organizational awareness can help you get things done and drive success with your product. To make effective use of these tips, Kate Leto suggests a few ways to strengthen your organizational awareness abilities:
"Use the same observation skills you apply in customer interviews during meetings with people inside your organization."
"Take a few minutes each day to connect with what’s going on with your team and around the organization. If you happen to be in the office, that means walking around and observing things (without your head buried in your phone). If your team is remote, check out those off-topic Slack channels to see what’s going on in there, or strike up some non-work-related conversations with people in your org."
"Use the work you’re doing to understand what’s going on in the organization, and continue working on some emotional intelligence capabilities such as self-awareness, empathy, and emotional self-control."
Finally, keep in mind that organizational awareness is an ongoing journey. It’s not something you do once or twice, but it’s a soft skill you need to continue to improve. You'll always have opportunities to practice and get better.