Stop Collaborative Dysfunction Across Product Teams

Software development today is a collaborative process across a broad range of groups (XFN), including Data Science, Artificial Intelligence, User Research, Product Management, Engineering, Product Design, Design Ops., Architecture, Program Management, Content Strategy, Product Marketing, Network Operations, Marketing Communications, and Legal, to name just a few.

In addition to the requirement of organizational collaboration, the pressure to ‘move fast’ is always present. ‘Done is better than perfect’ is the famous maxim by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Businesses need to innovate faster to keep growing their market reach.

The tension between optimal collaboration XFN and the need for speed creates various challenges for individuals, teams, and especially their leaders.

Symptoms of Dysfunction Across Product Teams

  • Individuals may experience a lack of trust and accountability and feel more significant conflict and stress when goals are unclear or change on a dime.
  • When roles, ownership, and accountability are unclear, teams can become less efficient, less coordinated, and less supportive of one another.
  • New leaders and leaders of teams that are ‘in service’ of other teams – large, influential, or revenue-driving teams – may not be at the table when critical decisions are made.
  • This can lead to the perpetuation of silos of domain expertise
  • The Arbinger Institutes’ “Leadership and Self Deception” book has shown that silos lead to individuals feeling “self-justified for bad behavior, like exaggerating other people’s faults or inflating their virtue.” This, in turn, can produce negative sentiment among teams:
    • User research takes too much time
    • Designers work independently from engineering
    • Engineers build UI’s for the designers to clean up after the fact

Creating high-quality work under these conditions becomes very difficult. According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study of leading corporations, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

Where to Put Your Leadership Focus?

Without a doubt, the need for speed and cross-functional collaboration is challenging.

  • Should you focus on building your team and reaching your goals?
  • Or should you focus on building relationships with cross-functional partners to support better collaboration?

These goals don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

If you experience collaboration problems like those in your team, consider forming an alliance with your XFN partners and carefully craft your working relationship.

By definition, an alliance is a union or association formed for mutual benefit between partners based on an affinity, typically of shared interests. Additionally, a partnership empowers each party to declare where their boundaries lie and how to work with them optimally.

How to Build Alliances

An alliance works best when you begin the process with a conversation and ask open-ended questions:

  • What challenges do you face with your team?
  • What currently works well for your team and communications?
  • What excites you and your team about the work?
  • How was the experience when our teams last worked together? Do you have suggestions for improvement?
  • What are the optimal conditions for our teams to work together effectively?
  • What would you like to know about my team and me?
  • How will we structure mutual accountability?
  • What is the best response when a problem arises between our teams or us?
  • What is the best way to share complex information with you?
  • Will you continue to look at how we work together and give me ongoing feedback?

No one likes to feel like an item on your ‘to-do’ list. For this alliance conversation to work, you must listen without interruption, without jumping to conclusions or problem-solving. Most importantly, be genuinely curious about the person and what they say. Avoid jumping in to fill an awkward silence; give the other person time to complete their thoughts.

“No matter what we do on the outside, people respond to how we feel on the inside,” The Arbinger Institutes, “Leadership and Self Deception” book.  Creating an open and collaborative conversation to launch an alliance will allow the best of both people’s “insides” to connect with the other.

The Benefits of Building Alliances

When we join a company, we bring our skills, expertise, and expectations of how things should work. In a fast-paced, collaborative environment, it can feel rough until we acclimate to the culture and build relationships with others on whom we can depend. The value of designing an alliance with other people is time well spent and will create results that reflect well on you over time.

  • People see that you value them for who they are, not what they can do for you
  • You earn the trust of others
  • Your positive behavior contributes to a better work environment
  • You can ask for support in times of need from your powerful alliances
  • You are fully productive and engaged with clarity about the work that is informed by the work of others
  • By championing others, your perceived value increases exponentially.

How to Apply This

Try this experiment. Ask someone the three questions below, whether an employee, a peer, a cross-functional team member, your boss, a date, or a stranger in line at the airport:

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What gets you (and your team) excited about what you do?
  • What do you truly want?

Then, could you take a step back and assess where you are in the conversation?

  • Have you created a connection with this person?
  • Do you understand them more thoroughly than you did before?
  • Did they gain insights into themselves and how you communicate with them?

Congratulations, you’re on your way to tremendous success as an XFN leader!

Let me know how this helps you connect with key people in your work and home environment. Good luck!


This article was first published at the Design and Innovation, Design Thinking conference proceedings on March 29th, 2019.

Have an Imposter Moment, Not an Imposter Life

Have you ever been promoted, taken a new job, or started a business and felt like a fraud? This is called imposter syndrome.

Anyone can have it. The comedian Tina Fey said, “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’”

Former Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, revealed, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

I experienced imposter syndrome while attending a daily stand-up meeting with an executive team from Yahoo! I felt like a fraud in front of this group of brilliant minds.

You know you have imposter syndrome when you discount or diminish your own abilities. It can feel debilitating when you doubt yourself. Under stress, your brain is trying to predict what action to take: flight or fight. You have to release your stress through exercise, relaxation, wellness practices, and sleep.

Left unchecked, stress will lead to impaired functioning, poor decision-making, black and white thinking, and isolation. Basically, you’ll stop doing all of the things you used to love.

No one likes to fail, to not have the answers, or feel unable to master something. Imposter syndrome is a productivity killer.

In her TED talk, Thinking Your Way Out of Imposter Syndrome, Valerie Young recommends reframing the negative conversations going on in our head by replacing unhelpful thoughts with more positive or adaptive ones. She encourages thinking like someone who is not feeling like an imposter; they know they can’t be brilliant at everything, and they are fine with that.

Practice reframing the negative thoughts to positive ones, and over time you begin to believe your new thoughts. It’s much better to have an imposter moment than an imposter life!

What’s on the other side of imposter syndrome?

  • Getting your confidence back and feeling great about yourself again
  • Being connected to yourself and the people around you
  • Feeling free to speak, be creative, and be the best leader you can be

Extraordinary leaders, like you, who shatter glass ceilings, don’t allow themselves to remain a hostage to imposter syndrome for very long. They recognize the pattern when it rears its head, and they use tools like reframing to work it out of their system.

Businesses depend on leaders to make decisions based on fact, not beliefs brought on by feeling like an imposter. If you’d like a free coaching session to discover if it’s a fit, please book a call below.

Illustration by Chris Do


Ready to level up your relationships and expand your sphere of influence?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not how full your calendar is that leads to your success; it’s how you level up your relationships and expand your sphere of influence that leads to your success.

During my first six months working at a new company, my executive assistant, Anna, had complete control of my calendar. In no time, my calendar was full.

My meetings began at 7:30 a.m. and continued in 30-minute increments, mostly back-to-back, until 5:00 p.m. Lunch was an apple, coffee, mozzarella sticks, and yogurt grabbed from a vending machine.

I ran from meeting to meeting, interviewing people, receiving updates, giving presentations, holding 1:1s, and running product reviews.

On the hour and every half hour, employees would emerge from meeting rooms, their faces glued to their phone screens en route to their next meeting. Ask anyone on Friday what meetings they had on Monday, and no one could tell you.

I was used to working in fast-paced, rapid-growth companies, but this was a whole new level of calendaring craziness. My perfectionist, creative spirit was unhappy. With no time in the day for reflection and thinking, I felt behind the curve and my performance suffered.

In three months, I’d gathered information about the operational and organizational status of the teams I led. Organizationally, we took a back seat to product management and engineering who made the decisions that mattered about the products my teams designed. Excluding product designers and their partners from content design and user research was an organizational oversight I needed to correct.

I knew that if I was going to get product design included early in the decision-making process, I’d need to level up my relationships with cross-functional peers and their leaders. How could I do this if my calendar was already full?

I needed to find another eight hours in my week. By taking an inventory of who I was currently meeting, Anna and I could see the bigger picture. To devote time to meeting with other executives and cross-functional partners we reworked my calendar to:

  • Reduce the frequency of meetings from weekly to monthly or from monthly to quarterly.
  • Delegated some meetings to my direct reports. This expanded their influence and leveled up their responsibilities, leaving me free to do the same.
  • Promoted two individuals to managers so they could expand their careers while reducing my time interviewing candidates.

Having found the eight hours I needed, I began having lunch or coffee with my cross-functional peers. I kept the meetings informal and used them to learn about the challenges, opportunities, and goals they were facing.

In making the focus of our conversations about them, not about me, it showed that I valued them for who they are, not what they could do for me. In time, these cross-department loose ties contributed toward more positive work behaviour. Seeing the benefit of including me in decisions about product direction early on was a win for everyone.

Very successful people’s calendars change constantly. It allows them, in real time, to level up their relationships and expand their influence. Business relies on leaders being willing to reach out, pull in, listen, and speak to the client, advisor, coach, lawyer, employee, and investor to advance the best interests of the company.

Is it time you leveled up your relationships and expanded your sphere of influence? If so, start by taking a look at your calendar and ask yourself:

Are you spending time with the right people?

What’s on your calendar that you can cancel?

Which meetings will you delegate and empower someone else to lead?

Who are you avoiding meeting with?

Are you staying busy so you can ignore a difficult conversation?

If you’d like to change your relationship to how you manage your time, please book a complimentary coaching consultation below.

Photo by Nico Jacobs for Unsplash

lost without your team

Would You Be Lost Without Your Team?

My executive career was spent leading others, and when I lost my team, I lost myself. Creating product design teams in three countries over four years has been one of my greatest professional achievements.

When my position as chief design officer was eliminated, I was devastated. It felt like my life was slipping through my fingertips. The ladder I’d climbed and the glass ceilings I’d shattered were all gone within the span of a single conversation.

Although a new job opportunity came, which I accepted, I knew going in it wasn’t the best fit, and I left within a year.

Deep within, I knew another executive role was not the answer.

Slowly letting go of all that I knew myself to be, I reluctantly began the process of redesigning my life and redefining what leadership meant for me.

As the armor I created after losing my teams began to soften, I invited my “leader within” to step forward and speak again.

What I discovered changed my life…

You don’t need a team reporting to you to be a leader. This simple revelation helped to restore my self-identity. This revelation inspires me to coach extraordinary leaders in transition and redefines what leadership truly means.

Whether you are stepping into a new leadership role, or transitioning out of the corporate world, doing the work of leading from within is the catalyst for creating a more fulfilling life.

If you are going through a career change, my three-month 1:1 private coaching may be the perfect program for you.

Are you ready to live your life by design, activate a new set of leadership skills, and manifest the vision you truly want to bring into your reality?

If you are, please set up a quick below, and see if coaching is a fit.

Photo by Christian Fregnan

coaching a leader

Coaching an Extraordinary Leader

When a client reached out to me to discuss coaching, I was excited. She’d recently taken an executive role at one of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies. She is at the top of her career and an internationally recognized leader in her field. What makes her an extraordinary leader, which we uncovered through coaching, are her strengths in the following four areas.

Able to Execute on a Vision

She has the ability to turn an idea into reality, and she does this by organizing all of the pieces and resources for maximum productivity. The ability to implement a solution and get people to work tirelessly to get it done makes her invaluable as a leader.

Influences Others Easily

She is great at influencing people. She’s a natural storyteller who puts her team’s interests first and actively promotes them at work and in the industry. This attracts respect and creates opportunities for her team that they would not have had without her support. This inspired leadership creates superb results from her teams who love her inspired leadership.

Great Relationship Builder

She consistently creates organizations that are greater than the sum of their parts. She cultivates the potential in others, noting their strengths and giving feedback, so that individuals derive satisfaction from these improvements. By learning the unique qualities of each person and what makes them excel, she is great at creating diverse teams that work together productively.

Big Picture Strategic Thinker

She has an incredible capacity for absorbing and analyzing information that she uses to help her team make better decisions. As a result, she expands their thinking about the future. By keeping everyone focused on what “could be,” she improves the productivity of her teams, because the goals they are aiming for are inspiring and actionable.

Where is the Problem?

The problem is, she took a job that wasn’t a good fit for her. We discovered through coaching that she values working for companies that are built on modern technology platforms, focus on customer experience and agile development, and have a flat organizational structure. That the company she joined had not made these changes came as a shock to her.

At the end of her first week, she wanted to quit. She knew deep inside that she is meant for greatness, and it hurt when the reality of her new role didn’t match her vision. Fortunately, before she quit, she reached out to me and we began working together as coach and coachee.

At first we met every week to help her mitigate the extreme challenges she had brought on herself by taking the role. After a month, she was ready to stay in her new role and see what the job had to teach her. This way she wouldn’t make the same mistake at her next job. These are some of the things we worked on together over the next six months, meeting once a week or every other week depending on her schedule.

Applying My Coaching Process

Who are you today? (Discover)
This included an assessment of where she was and how she could improve. Some of these issues included: learning to detach from outcomes, making decisions without being driven by fear, finding her voice at the new company, knowing with confidence that she is enough, uplevelling her leadership team, and prioritizing who she gives and does not give her time to.

Your vision for change? (Design)
Next we discovered who she was as a leader today. This had changed over the years, becoming broad and deep, and her underlying passion for her domain had never diminished. It remained her “why.” Around her passion we refined her personal brand to reflect her current skills, mindset, strengths and business value.

Actionable steps for progress (Deploy)
Lastly, we put together an ideal job description in the most minute detail of what she wanted. It included things like location, a complementary boss, her onboarding experience, her team size and make up, the type of company and its operational style, reporting structure, and what her role and title would be, along with the impact she would have based on her ideal responsibilities.

After six months of working on herself with my support, she was offered a role that matched the ideal role we had co-created for her. This role was worthy of her skills, talents, and experience, where she would have the impact she wanted to make as the great leader that she already is.

I feel honored to work with creative thinkers and extraordinary leaders who have the willingness and humility to invite professional third party support into their life to champion them as they make the adjustments they need to remain the absolute best leaders and thinkers of their generation.

If you are a smart, driven, and successful senior executive with a lot of responsibilities like my client, changing how you do things may not be high on your list of priorities!

Know that you don’t need to overhaul your leadership style or way of managing to work with me.

Invest in an outsider’s perspective on how to successfully support yourself and your unique challenges. I will show you best practices that are honed from years of leadership and operational experience gained at Facebook, Apple, and Yahoo!.

I support you in learning effective strategies for bettering your company, your teams, and yourself. Contact me for a complimentary discovery call.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska for Unsplash

feeling like imposter

What’s on the other side of feeling like an imposter?

“Our history is on a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization, and sociopolitical control.”

I was reminded of Joseph Tainter’s quote whilst coaching an extraordinary leader this week. She has a PhD from an Ivy League school and 15 years work experience leading high-profile teams for a leading technology company.

She is a wife, mother, and a published author. Recently promoted, she was asked to join an executive think tank that explores the future of technology.

Among this group of executives, my client feels like an imposter caught up in this trend toward higher levels of complexity and specialization.

  • How should she communicate with senior leaders to earn their trust?
  • Are the skills that got her to the executive table enough anymore?
  • How will she learn how decisions are made or be included in the decision-making process?

When stepping into an unfamiliar high-stakes business environment like my client, you don’t know what success feels like yet. And since you haven’t yet achieved success, you feel the need to prove yourself. Under this kind of stress it’s easy to feel like an imposter and think you are a fraud.

To prevent this, Valerie Young, in her TED talk Thinking Your Way Out of Imposter Syndrome, recommends reframing the negative conversations going on in our head by replacing unhelpful thoughts with more positive or adaptive ones.

  • Instead of thinking “This is too hard” try thinking “This may take some time and effort.”
  • Instead of thinking “I’m not good at this” try thinking “What am I missing?”
  • Instead of thinking “I made a mistake” try thinking “Mistakes help me learn.”

The good news is that you don’t need to feel confident to act confident; the body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement. So one thing you can do is reframe your thinking.

What’s on the other side of getting your professional happiness back?

  • Getting your confidence back and feeling great about yourself again
  • Feeling connected to the people around you and yourself
  • Having the confidence to speak up and know your voice will be heard

Extraordinary leaders, like you, who shatter glass ceilings, don’t allow themselves to remain hostage to imposter syndrome for very long.

Are you interested in shedding your limiting beliefs as you step into your next level of leadership? Please book a free a free coaching call below and learn if coaching is a fit for you.

the Leading by Design Newsletter

What Is the Leading by Design Newsletter? Great question.

Leading by Design is a blog for creative leaders working in tech. It’s not a “Why You Should Use AI in Design Thinking” or “How to Hire and Retain Product Design Teams with Impact” type of blog. There are enough of those.

I write about the challenges you can’t safely discuss as creative leaders working in tech. The stories come directly from my experience leading teams at Apple, Meta, Yahoo!, and some start-ups and from the executive design leaders I coach today.

I have written about the stressful magpie boss, hateful cross-functional peers, creative burnout, the shame of job loss and survivor guilt, and the fear of becoming irrelevant in the marketplace.

I publish once a week and offer strategies to reframe your challenge so you can return to being the creative leader your team loves you to be.

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