Just about every organization has the potential to be a high-powered community of people who are engaged in their work, oriented to achieving results, and connected in deep and meaningful ways.

What kind of community are we talking about here?

First things first.  I know the word ‘community’ is a loaded term on the Internet. In this article I’m not going to be talking about the concept of building an online groups of reactive fans. I’m not talking about setting up a social media following and generating interesting content that drives traffic and online engagement.

Instead, I am going to talk about your organization as a community. That is, I’m going to explore the idea of harnessing the capacity of the people you work with every day to serve your audiences and achieve your goals together. You may not consider this group a true ‘community,’ but I think you should. And in this article I’m going to offer you some thoughts on how product managers can help in that process. 

The reality is that many organizations don’t feel like a community. This is a shame because I know that some of the best experiences of my career were with organizations where everyone felt a sense of belonging, where everyone felt like their unique contribution mattered, and where everyone felt like they were doing important work to build something new and valuable for the world. Once you’ve felt the energy that comes from being part of such a community you see a whole new level of capacity being unlocked in people.

And then when you don’t have it, you really miss it. 

Product managers are only as effective as their teams

As product managers in large and small companies you know the power of having every mind aligned with the work. We know that product managers have no real authority over people. So to be effective, we have to become experts in reading the mood and motivations of the people in our organizations. We have to understand the people on a personal level. And we have to drive collaborative efforts forward across boundaries to get things done. In essense, our role is to put this community to work on meaningful things for the organization in a way that everyone feels empowered, inspired, and connected to achieve our goals.  

Where do product managers fit in the building of community?

As I’ve matured as a product leader, I’ve started to realize that having the best strategy or the most innovative ideas doesn’t matter if your organization (or team) is a disunified mess. I have seen the most effective products I’ve ever worked on were usually the ones with the most effective teams. And I’ve learned that those most effective organizations were the ones that felt like a true community.

So I have wondered how I could help build a stronger community as part of my job as a product leader. I wanted to know how I can help people work better together to achieve our goals, create a healthier workplace, and get the best work out of people.

Accepting responsibility

Over the years, I had to admit that I haven’t always been the most proactive in this area. Sure, it’s fine to go out for coffee, lunch, or drinks with people once in a while, but does this truly build community? I don’t think so. It’s mostly superficial chit-chat.

Things changed when I started my own companies and became a manager of others. I had to take more responsibility for the workplace overall.  I started to wonder about ways I could contribute to the cohesion and effectiveness of the organization as a whole. I realized that helping to build a community was a critical part of the equation.

Introducing the three building blocks of community

Some people define a community as any group of people with a shared interest. I think that definition doesn’t cut it.

So for this article, let’s focus on building effective communities. We can define it as a group of people with strong connections between members who are focused on learning together how to create something ‘better’ in the world.

To get there, we’ll focus on these three distinct building blocks of an engaged community: (1) connection, (2) learning (3) co-creation.

I think product managers can have an important role to play in each of these three aspects, but it has to be taken on as an added responsibility. It means extra work to bring more people into the process and to expose yourself, but I think it’s worth it. And after a while, I think most people will find that it makes your job a lot more fun and meaningful. So let’s explore each aspect a bit, and I’ll try to offer some suggestions on how product managers can contribute value.

Community Building Block #1: Connection

Humans are a social species. Many scientists believe that homo-sapiens won out over our neanderthal cousins, in part, because of our ability to adapt to a changing environment and our capacity to cooperate more efficiently. So our connections are literally one of our defining features as a species.

Connection comes from several factors including curiosity, commonality, compassion, and consistency. Many effective organizations try to help people create the conditions to practice these factors by offering better onboarding processes, fostering more mentoring relationships, and cultivating groups around mutual interests. 

The fact is, it can be really hard to build meaningful connections in the modern workplace. But as a product manager, it is essential to our success. We cannot be effective product managers without connections across the organization. The good news is that it is not a question of being an extrovert or an introvert when it comes to building connections. I’ve seen all personality types succeed. It just takes time and a willingness to put yourself out there, be vulnerable, make mistakes, and put in the time to get to know the people you serve alongside.

Community Building Block #2: Learning

Many organizations aspire to be ‘learning organizations,’ but few of them know how to really do it. Too often this is left to department heads and human resources to offer a set of classes or tuition reimbursement programs for each individual to make some progress on their path of development. People take classes to fill gaps in their knowledge or experience, or they can develop new areas where they want to grow. This is important and a good thing to do, but it is not community learning.

Community learning is different. Community learning is about harnessing the collective intelligence of the organization. It is about building the ‘hive mind,’ as it is called in some circles. Community learning needs to take place over time. It builds on each new member. And it is more than the sum of its parts. When people come together to learn together, they fuse their ideas, experiences, and insights. They are bouncing concepts back and forth. They are challenging each other to new levels of understanding. And in the process, they are all learning. They are all getting better. And they are all growing.

Product managers can be critical to helping create opportunities for community learning. We bring people together to ask the hard questions about what we’re working on, why we are doing it, and what options do we have? We are often the people who bring our teams together to consult, research, gather insights, and conduct analyses of what is going on in the world and explore how we should respond. 

Community Building Block #3: Co-Creation

Co-creation is kind of a fun buzzword-type term, but I’m using it here on purpose as something distinct from just being more productive at delivering new features or capabilities.

Community co-creation is about making something new together. It is a collective act that brings something that didn’t exist – into existence. When you think about it, every product team aspires to innovate and add value to the world, and when we think of ourselves as not just maximizing our velocity as a technology team, but as a group of artists, engineers, designers, writers, and other creative actors working to use our talents, insights, and diverse perspectives together to ‘make’ something useful, it creates an awesome dynamic that people want to be a part of. As I’ve talked about before, a product manager is critical in aligning all your amazing people to create our own story of value creation together.

Next steps

As a product manager, you sit at the nexus of the community-building process in your organization. So as you set out your goals for crafting an ideal roadmap and delivering a value-creating backlog of features, I hope you also spend time thinking about how you can use your position to inspire a new level of effectiveness for your organization’s community.