Before I joined Postlight, I was on a team of five people that worked together for years. During that time, we developed a kind of ESP among us: With only a handful of people in the company, we knew implicitly how it felt when business was good, or when things were wobbly. As a product manager, I knew how long the engineers would need for a ticket without asking, and I could envision what my designer meant without seeing their sketch. We had at most two meetings a week, but we were always on the same page.
That all turned upside down when I joined Postlight and began leading a product team of 17. Those 17 people have 138 relationships between them — that’s 23 times as many as I’d previously had to monitor. With a team of this size, a few things happen: work becomes siloed, scheduling gets tricky, and sharing knowledge becomes ever more critical.
I prefer the tangible nature of meeting collectively to gauge opinions and to check the overall wellbeing of my team. However, as a remote team for the foreseeable future, we’ve had to adjust and adapt. By orienting my workflow around writing, I have seen a marked impact on the team’s autonomy and growth. Here are just a few ways I’ve found to better manage product teams by writing everything down.
Sync up team members in Slack
Now more than ever, we’re communicating asynchronously — whether that’s providing a weekly update to the broader client team, organizing a batch of release notes, or deploying user testing. The entire team has to be looped in so that everyone can plan their workload. Documenting every step in Slack, in public channels, keeps us aligned: whether it’s around critical bug fixes or celebrating meeting a milestone.
And we sure do all need those moments of celebration. With a team of our size, inside a larger company working on several other projects, there is always something exciting happening, but it can be easy to miss wins, especially for those who are heads-down building the next big thing. When we take time to shout about our successes in Slack, it helps everyone feel connected to the wider team and builds momentum for the product.
Let the tools do the hard work
As a client services firm, Postlight employees move off and on various client projects regularly. Team leaders need to be able to bring new team members who arrive at your project’s door up to speed quickly and easily. Writing thorough details in engineering tickets is table stakes. It’s also helpful to write and update a centralized product specification document for anyone to reference, whether they’re new to the product, or just new to a particular feature set.
Taking the time to create a document for your team members to review and reference can pay dividends in a way that meetings can’t always provide. Using the right tool for the job can save a lot of time and headaches, too.
For example, I often sketch out thoughts on a Whimsical board to share with the team. Whimsical makes it easy to create flow charts, sticky notes, and mind maps that look good by default. A Whimsical board can capture elements that don’t always fit well into a traditional Google Doc or PDF. A concept can take relatively little time to sketch out, but can be referenced by team members for days (or weeks or months) to come.
With a large team, scheduling meetings with the right attendees gets trickier, and sharing out an agenda beforehand and notes afterward saves everyone time. Navigator is a meeting management tool that’s popular at Postlight for organizing agendas and meeting notes, especially for recurring check-ins.
After a meeting, I upload minutes to a shared space that anyone on the team can view. Sometimes these minutes can be bare-bones, but the essential elements I capture are attendees, date, and any decisions made: a design signed off, a new path needed, or a technical constraint discovered. With these in hand, we have a searchable archive of who discussed what and how a decision was made. Later on, if a decision comes into question (as they often do!), having these receipts at hand is key.
Beyond big-picture documentation, using the right tools is essential to capture small details. At the outset my team used Jira, but we found it increasingly slow and decided to trial Clubhouse instead. Clubhouse is incredibly fast and has some nifty features — like automated reports, burndown charts, and diffs that allow you to compare the differences between the original and added updates to stories. After only using the tool for a few weeks, we noticed more and more of our feature conversations happening in Clubhouse tickets and comments rather than Slack. This is a dream, as it keeps things focused and tracks the history much better than a bunch of threads can.
Writing things down doesn’t just help your team
Another way that you can level up as a product manager (or truthfully, as any member of an organization) is to keep a running document of positive feedback. Any time someone says something good about your work, paste or transcribe the feedback into a document.
Having this reference makes writing a self assessment so much easier. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which areas you’ve made progress in, and now you’ll have a fully-baked collection of things that have gone well. For some of us, it can be challenging to say positive things about yourself without coming across like a braggadocious Brontosaurus — so let other people’s words speak for you. Having feedback like this gives you qualitative data to make the case that you provide value.
Crystalize your point of view
Writing things down is an actionable way to strengthen your communication skills and help your team and yourself grow. It can feel scary to put yourself and your thoughts out in plain text where everyone can see them. If it makes you more confident, lean on software like Grammarly for space to edit and think things through.
Putting thoughts, decisions, details, and feedback on “paper” helps you crystalize your point of view — and makes you crystal-clear to your team.
Jojo Giltsoff (@jojogiltsoff) is a British product manager, embroiderer, and avid reader living in New York. Want to chat about team management, or building great products? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.