The Power of Effective Collaboration

Small Talk with Jenny Martin (Transcript)

This blog post is the transcription of the chat we had with Jenny Martin about her Product Owner Collaboration Toolkit Workshop on 27 October 2023.

The conversation has been slightly edited to better fit the written format. Enjoy!

Avanscoperta: Hello Jenny and welcome. We are here today to talk about your new Product Owner Collaboration Toolkit Workshop. What is it about?

Jenny: The title is kind of self-explanatory. It's a whole series of techniques and practices that help you - as a product owner - navigate the whole product delivery life cycle from start to finish, using a set of highly collaborative techniques that help everybody get work done properly, focus on value, accelerate delivery, and align everybody to the same outcomes.

We take the journey of product delivery through product definition, continuous discovery, into iterative product delivery, working through examples and case studies, but using a whole load of tools and real proper concrete practice that you can take away and go and have a go in your own environment. This way, you'll be able to bring people together and build your confidence in your role, and develop more as a product owner.

Avanscoperta: As you mentioned, this workshop is mainly for product owners, but we know when it comes to collaboration and putting people together, a product owner is just one part of the picture. We have many people involved that we refer to as stakeholders, but we refer to the product owner in this case as I would guess he or she is the leader of the facilitation process, is this correct?

Jenny: One of the key roles of the product owner is sort of hunting the value and pursuing the successful outcomes of the teams, and these techniques are well suited to that role because often the product owner is taking the lead - getting people together from different parts of the organization and trying to get things moving, so it does very much suit that role.

Sometimes these techniques are also really useful for agile coaches or anybody on the team who wants to be confident to have great conversations towards valuable outcomes and have a structure for collaboration.

Most of us nowadays value collaboration a lot because of the power of collective intelligence, diversity and working together. But often how to collaborate successfully is a bit wooly.
You know you need to do it, but you don't necessarily know how to solve a particular challenge at this part of the life cycle, you don't necessarily know how to go about that.
And so it could be helpful for other roles in the team as well, where they feel that they need to steer those conversations and help the productivity of the team.

Avanscoperta: One of the things we highlight in the workshop description is that we are aiming at people who are not first-time product owners. It requires some degree of experience.
How would you describe this? Why is this some kind of requirement?

Jenny: Because I think it'll help ground the challenges that these techniques solve. Once you've been a product over for a while or working in a product or an agile team, you're pretty frequently coming across these challenges of there being a big divide between the business teams and the development teams and the product teams, or struggling to get people to work together, or struggling to involve team members early enough.

If you've got a bit of experience, you can really see how these practices can properly help address those challenges. And also, whilst we do go through a lot of best practices about product development in order to frame the different parts of the lifecycle and the techniques and challenges that exist there, we don't go into massive depth about each one.
We’re assuming that you've had a bit of experience on an agile team, either as a product owner or a coach or something like that, where these sorts of challenges are going to be familiar to you.

Folks eager to join the workshop are looking to level up. You might be thinking, “Okay, how can I be really valuable to my organization when I get back from this? How can I drive the product forward? How can I be a collaboration catalyst for my organization? How can I do all of this stuff?”
A beginner would still get some stuff out of it, but I think that you're going to get most out of it if you've got a bit of experience

Avanscoperta: From what you're saying, I guess a beginner would be trying and imagining something rather than having experienced it first hand?
It's not that a beginner wouldn't understand what we’re talking about, but it would be more on an abstract level.

Jenny: Exactly, it would be a lot of content to digest, a lot to take away. And one of the things with these types of workshops is that you really want folks that are doing it to be able to get back and apply what they've learned straight away.
I think those with a little bit more experience might be more likely to get really hands-on and start making a difference when they get back rather than learning the ropes or kind of doing all the rest of the early product owner stuff that you might do early in your role.

Avanscoperta: Absolutely, you already mentioned one of the key points of our offer as Avanscoperta when it comes to training courses, which is doing stuff and being able to take what you just learned in your own context from day one - straight after the workshop you need to have something to do in practice that gives value.
This is also thanks to a framework that I know you also use in your training which is Training from the BACK of the Room, which really helps in shaping training courses that are fit for doing stuff, learn how to do it and reproduce it in your own context.

Jenny: Yeah, absolutely. It's not just the steps of Training from the BACK of the Room in terms of making sure there are more hands-on activities than in a regular training course.
And particularly, these days, information that's out there in the public domain, you don't need me to teach.

It's much more about learning from each other, thinking thoughtfully about different things that come up, and having the chance to try them, discuss and share ideas. But it's also about mixing up the approaches so that everybody stays engaged and has fun. I really believe in having fun when you're having these learning experiences.

Avanscoperta: The next question refers to the workshop title, and so what tools are we exactly talking about? Because “collaboration toolkit” might mean lots of things.

Jenny: We’re talking about workshopping techniques, collaborative structures that you can use in order to work through a problem.
A lot of it builds on different best practices as well, so if we break it down, and we look at product definition, this will include:

  • visioning techniques, where you can really expansively think around your product vision and get the best input from different stakeholders around you,
  • product strategy techniques, looking at things like lean canvas, outcome-based road mapping, things where you can get people together and harness the collective intelligence of the group and come out with a strong alignment.

We’ll be looking at these techniques in a workshop format, doing work together - individually together, come out with something that you can use.

So what I notice is that lots of folks who run workshops, they might say, “That was a really good workshop”, but they might not come out with anything. Or they might not come out with a decision or anything that is clear and that actually represents work done.
With all that we’ll see and experience together, you’ll be able to go into a particular session and come out feeling like you've taken the next step in terms of the product journey.

There are also sections on:

  • product discovery, which includes things where you're examining the problem space, examining the solution space, working your way through those things, and looking at customer behaviours and personas,
  • design sprints, and we know it can feel really intimidating to run a design sprint. But you know, you should leave the workshop feeling that you could have a go at that,
  • iterative delivery, which we’ll cover as we get down to the sharper end, when we'll be looking at things that help you break down work,
  • OOPSI, my own technique, that some big consultancy companies are using, which helps you break down work and navigate to value and know how to fit the thinking around the iterative delivery thing.

We’re gonna practice a lot of workshopping technique, and you'll also have a whole set of Miro templates that I've been using for a long time, tried and tested, which will be a highly valuable takeaway. This comes with the kind of best practice theory that they all fit into so that you'll know when to use them.

And it's not prescriptive at all. So we'll also spend time looking at all the factors that play in terms of product maturity, uncertainty, complexity, and the different sorts of organizations that you might work in.
In this was, you can deliberately think about how you might use these different techniques or if they're even appropriate rather than just blindly following a framework.

There's also some content about:

  • pure facilitation, how to structure any workshop, how to solve any challenge that comes up and those principles. You'll also come out of it feeling tooled up as a facilitator ready to take on any kind of challenge and solve it together.

Avanscoperta: A new question from the audience, “Will the workshop be focused on in-person tools or remote ones? Or some of those could be applied in both cases?”

Jenny: I've run both in-person and remotely all of the techniques that we’ll deal with. As we entered the lockdown, I thought, “I could never do this online, it will never work”. And it was so proved wrong.
During that time, I developed a really rich set of online tools to get the best possible outcomes from a remote session.

The session itself is remote, right? So when we're doing it together, we'll be using the Miro boards, but all the techniques can be applied in real life with sticky notes, tape, wall space. We'll get time to talk about those and the different things you might need to consider in terms of online versus in-person.

Avanscoperta: One thing I wanted to point out is that it's not only about knowing what to do but also when not to do something. We don't like prescriptive, one size fits all approaches. You also need to be able to have the maturity and we are aiming with our workshops, and with yours too, to teach people some kind of judgment, when and where you should do something rather than applying X technique or framework and complain that everything went wrong. In this specific example, maybe it was not the right time to do it or the right context.

Jenny: One of the problems working in this environment of product delivery and agile is that there's so much methodology and frameworks, and it can be really overwhelming. And there's also lots of arguments about who's doing it right, who's doing it the best.

And of course, it all depends, doesn't it? Whether you use techniques that are very much based on experimenting, probing, testing and hypothesizing, you're going to use those sorts of approaches much more when there's lots of uncertainty or your product is newer or you're figuring out if there's even a demand for it, versus something that's really established where there's a lot of complexity, but something's been running for a long time. You're going to use different approaches, some things you won't do, some things won't be necessary.

And so I think as you start growing in your roles, you start to know when to break the rules, right? You start to think, “OK, I understand the rules, I understand the principles, and I know when to break them. I know when to confidently break them because I understand the context”. I think that reflects a certain level of mastery in terms of your practice. And I guess that's really where I'm trying to help folks move them along.

Avanscoperta: Knowing the context and when to do stuff is key. If you wanted to sum it all up in some sentences or to see really why we are here and why we are doing this - what is the problem we are actually aiming to solve with this workshop?


The problem I see all the time is a disconnect between product, engineering and the business, or all three at once.

1) I really believe in this power of bringing people together, I've definitely got collaboration bias. But it's not easy to get people in a room together and start solving these challenges. And this course will help you have the confidence to do that and to be a collaboration catalyst in your organization. So that's one thing.

2) I think the other thing is about pursuing value. So if we're going to be effective working in product teams or agile teams, we need to be hunting value all the time. And it's hard to know how much thinking to do, how when to defer things ‘till later, how do you involve everybody in the right amount of detail and get that balance right.
So the second thing has to do with helping you stay aligned pursuing the value. There’s a lot of really useful prioritization techniques in there, for example, where you can get senior members together and get them aligned on something. It's gonna help you stay on the path to value.

3) The third thing I notice a lot is about teams that are in the solution space. They are not given problems to solve, they're given solutions to implement. And of course, we often don't spend long enough in the problem space.
I guess the other thing is about helping teams move into that highly productive space where they're solving problems, but also giving them the language to use, which is gonna help sort of stealthily change the mindset around them so that they can become more empowered over time.
It's not always easy to solve those problems. But if you start behaving in a certain way and using the right language around outcomes and value, then it tends to sort of have this effect where it grows from within a team. Those practices can grow.

The workshop will touch on empowering for product owners and folks that are trying to achieve those things.

Avanscoperta: This reminds me of a workshop we are doing right now, which is about basically having the confidence and language and experience to convince people and kind of prove your point, with the aim of bringing value rather than proving who’s right or wrong, which is not the point.

The other thing that resonates with this other workshop is about terminology, and you already referred to language. We are talking at least about three areas that you mentioned, which are business, engineering and product people. There are more of course, but these are the main ones.

How do we make sure that all understand each other? When to involve whom and in which level of detail? We're creating the context and all of that, which sometimes can be a nightmare.
What can be an effective way of achieving this higher goal of have these people talk and understand each other effectively, and where to start?

Jenny: In this course, we're going right through from product definition through discovery and into implementation.

I believe that it's really important to involve some key roles really early on. Because if teams have the context and understanding of the background, the environmental factors and decision-making that goes around problems and initiatives, then they tend to make good decisions.

Some of the early workshops, early on in the lifecycle of product development, will be targeting key roles, not necessarily everybody, because that's really expensive to participate. Then as you go through the different sections of the course you'll be involving more people, the roles will change slightly, and you'll know who needs to be involved in there.

It's not about the volume of people in those sessions, it's about having representation from the different areas of expertise so that you can reduce rework.
So getting people together to kick the ties on things and align to the direction and understand the vision might feel like a lot of money but it's actually an investment in terms of reducing rework later on and achieving that high level of shared understanding.

For each of the different steps that we'll go through, we'll be talking about who to involve, when and why, but also a lot of the outputs from some of the collaborative practices that are included in the course are really easy to share and get feedback on.

Let’s say you have something, you have some evidence of having done this work that then you can easily get feedback on from people who weren't there.
You should get a good sense of that coming out of the course but it's different in different environments, but there's plenty of time to talk about those things for different situations.

Avanscoperta: We’re gonna see a lot of problem-solving techniques together, can’t wait. Now a bit more on your background, how did you get interested in this, how did it start?

Today we’re talking about the Product Owner Collaboration Toolkit Workshop which is a new thing per se but things don’t happen overnight. It's part of your career and how you've been working so far, so when did you decide you wanted to work on this and help teams becoming better at communication?

Jenny: I've worked in tech for about 25 years, I fell into it with a psychology degree actually and then spent a lot of time being trained, doing boot camps and all that stuff, and I spent a long time in various big delivery roles in terms of project and product delivery.

What interests me about the agile space? This is going back 20 years when it started and I was quite involved in that in my organization. I guess I was naturally drawn to some of the practices because I've always believed in getting people together.
It always has made sense to me that why would you sit in a separate room reviewing a long document when you can get together and quickly talk about it and work through it. So I was drawn to it from there.
I’ve been training in agile practices for over 10 years and am more and more drawn to highly collaborative practices. The last three years I've been fully independent. I now work as a facilitator, a trainer and a coach.

My psychology roots are coming out more and more in terms of really appreciating that it's all down to happy, motivated, fulfilled, thriving teams. And I feel like that myself, like I'm thriving, when I'm around folks who are coming together and all of their wonderful diversity is enriching this incredible outcome through collaboration. It's something I really believe in and I notice an experience every time I work with teams who are working well together and doing this stuff.

And now I'm in this really privileged position where I can be a bit more discerning about what I do. Because I've been facilitating, doing pure facilitation stuff and high performing teams related stuff as well for a while, I can bring in all the pure facilitation techniques as well.
So it's like coming together, recognizing that in a lot of these roles in tech teams and product teams, you need to be a facilitator, you need to have that confidence.

I'm really excited about this workshop because it's a culmination of all that experience and all of those practices. Some of these workshops I've been doing for years and years and really honing, coming together with opportunities to help teams and individuals flourish.

Avanscoperta: One of the points you mentioned is that there's also a lot that even pure facilitators can take away from this. Not all the content will be ad hoc for each role, of course, some stuff might be a bit too specific for some, but in general, as we mentioned, this is suitable also for people who just want to go next level when it comes to facilitating.
The focus on remote workshop is also fundamental, not only because all of us were forced to do it in the last three years or so, but also because, like it or not, remote work it's kind of here to stay.
We all should learn a bit more of these facilitation skills as we spend endless time on Zoom calls with no purpose and no facilitation. Some tricks are very simple and can be applied straight away. And I feel it myself - when someone is facilitating a call or a meeting, rather than having it go by itself, the value of that time spent on the call is way bigger.

Jenny: I really feel that if I'm in a meeting or a workshop that doesn't have any tangible outcome, where we're not making progress, or we're not focusing on the priority, I actually start to feel quite physically uncomfortable.

When we do get together, it needs to be to do really awesome stuff and be hyper-productive, as well as have fun and be kind to each other.

Avanscoperta: One of the things we already mentioned is that we are not going to be sitting for five and half days watching slides. There's a lot of practice in this workshop. Of course, as Jenny already mentioned, you need to know the rules before you break them, so there is going to be some theory, of course.
So what's the balance you're trying to achieve and how are these five half days going actually to work when it comes to theory and practice?

Jenny: So I guess there's less than a quarter of me doing this, most of it will be actually doing stuff together, working in breakout rooms, working as a team, even sort of learning from the world, sharing knowledge and teaching each other. There will be lots of games and involvement in the techniques.

I work really hard to make sure that everybody in the group is able to contribute to their fullest, feeling comfortable to do that, to contribute, learn, challenge and bring their best.
Being on any call for three and a half hours each,  you need to stay engaged. So there will be opportunities to re-energize and hopefully that time will go quickly.
I've run a lot of online training over the last few years, so I try and structure it so that there's a real variation and you're not just sitting there nodding.

So I’d say over all - at least three-quarters practice.

Avanscoperta: A question from Marco: “How are the methods different or overlapping between product owner collaboration and domain modeling collaboration?”

Jenny: I guess there are similarities in collaboration between these different areas. And I think it's because, regardless of what your role is, you look for patterns, and you see teams using certain patterns to help understand the space.

For example, EventStorming, where you've got different disciplines in the room, and you're looking at the domain and that awesome thing happens where the business representative is wildly kind of gesturing around something they see as a particular bounded context, and you have great aha! moments…

In these practices, we're not using EventStorming, but there are practices that inspect the process and look for ways to examine it so that you can break something down quickly or know where to start.
So there aren't particular Domain-Driven Design practices sitting in it. You won't do EventStorming.
But I guess our need to unpack a problem and use specific patterns to do that, like narrative or process, could be similar.

Avanscoperta: What I gathered from what you said before is that whether it's online or remote, we still have the usual sticky notes kind of tooling. In a way we can consider it similar to EventStorming… but not really.

Jenny: There's story mapping as well, which is another similar type of thing that comes out from people trying to solve similar problems in slightly different ways. But indeed it doesn't cover the same techniques as domain modelling collaboration.

Avanscoperta: Every time we talk about communication, there's also some part of it about feedback. When we have to present something to some stakeholders, you might find ways so that you receive feedback to the point and quickly. Can you elaborate on that a bit more? Are there any tools we are going to experience about how to give and possibly receive feedback as well?

Jenny: There's feedback in a few different ways here, I think. Feedback is really central to this in terms of how it will help you optimize your product delivery process for feedback and learning. So for me, that's a really fundamental thing.

All of these practices from start to finish help you get feedback early, help involve the right people early so that they're aligned, and help remove assumptions and misunderstandings.

It's all geared for that optimization around feedback, without a doubt.

In terms of giving and receiving feedback on a personal level, it’s not something we deal with in this course. Let’s just say that the outputs from the collaborative practices should allow you to go and sense-check your understanding with somebody who wasn't there.

In this workshop we’ll deal with the concept of feedback in a way that it’s about optimizing for getting feedback from the real world as early as possible.
If you're in the context of something that's brand new or you're not sure about whether or not you're solving the right problem, then that feedback is going to be out to the real world.
One of the continuous discovery kind of principles is about the feedback loop, learning and getting the right feedback from the right people as early as possible.

Avanscoperta: How to put people on the same page is one of the key points of your workshop and of your work. Would you be happy to share some real-world experiences on that?

Jenny: I guess it comes back to the people thing again and my psychology background comes to help here. We're all very different, we all have very different personalities and ways of working and brains. When we've got different teams that might form different silos sometimes you don't have an appreciation of the challenges and needs of the other roles outside of your team or even within the team.

When I'm working with teams to help them overcome various challenges, it almost always comes down to some kind of misunderstanding or communication or some sort of assumption that was made or some perception.

That's what makes me kind of value the opportunities when we get together as humans and understand needs. It's a bit like having the customer in the room and understanding their needs, probably understanding the problems that they're actually trying to solve, and understanding how they're currently solving them and how much they're investing in that.

You're not going to know unless you ask them. And if you ask the right questions and if you have empathy for the challenges that that they have, I think we can apply a lot of that within our own teams.
Getting people together and building that environment where you can sort of authentically challenge in a space where everybody's able to contribute, and this is when you can get really amazing stuff done.

Avanscoperta: Do you have any suggested materials, whether it's books, videos or articles for our community, stuff that you would recommend?

Jenny: I have a few. One will be Bridging the Communication Gap from Gojko Adzic, about the value of getting the right roles together, that's a book that influenced me quite a lot.

Then we have Dave Gray’s Game Storming, as I became really interested in the powers of collaboration, getting together and working together.

In terms of videos, I’m always drawn to Jeff Patton's videos, podcasts and conference talks.

I love his recent analogy that I watched something a few months ago where he's saying, “Be a doctor, don't be a waiter”, in a sense of, “Tell me where it hurts and I’ll find a solution, I won’t give you a menu to pick from”. That was just a lovely little nugget from him.

Check out Small Talk on YouTube or Spotify.

Credits: Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Learn with Jenny Martin

Jenny is the trainer of the Product Owner Collaboration Toolkit Workshop (online and in live-streaming).

Check out the full list of our upcoming training courses: Avanscoperta Workshops.

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Jenny Martin

Jenny is an independent trainer and facilitator in collaborative agile and product development techniques and behaviours of high-performing teams.

Enrico Meloni

Roadie @ Avanscoperta.

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