Imagine waking up in a featureless room, handcuffed to the lone chair sitting at the center. The last thing you remember is infiltrating the mad scientist’s secret island hideout with your partner, who is no where to be found. In front of you is a menacing person, cracking their knuckles impatiently. After taking a red-hot drag from their cigarrette, they sneer, with sour breath, “Are you prepared to answer my questions?”
Confused but steadfast you croak out a brave “Gurk?”.
“Good enough,” they spit, “what are the top 5 priorities for your Product Manager?”
This is the scenario I like to use when describing what I call “the mind meld”. It is a state of being between an engineering leader and their product and design counterparts where each of the three functions intrinsically understand the team’s most important priorities. The gold standard is that if I were to separate you and ask you what are the most important priorities for your counterpart, you would answer accurately. You wouldn’t know all of the details, but you’d know the order and the shape of their answer.
The reason we have distinct roles for engineering, product, and design leaders is because there are few people who are good enough at all three, and in any case each of them represents a full-time job. But the Platonic ideal is a single individual vested with the powers of al three disciplines, who can have lossless and speedy inter-brain communication about tradeoffs, technical work, and the best approach to releasing a feature. Since these people are very rare, the next best thing we can do is come as close as possible to that state within multiple individuals.
The benefits of achieving a mind meld are huge. It means that you all can have higher leverage because you can feel comfortable that your counterpart is accurately representing your viewpoint in meetings that you’re not a part of. It means that you can present a united front to other parts of the organization, ensuring that your team is working on the most important problem at any given time. It means that you it is you and your counterparts working to solve each problem in the best way possible, instead of drawing strict lines between your areas of responsibility or (even worse) building an antagonistic relationship where each person is advocating for what they care about the most.
The mind meld can and should be realized at every level of an organization, but its one of the few processes that I believe must start from the top down. If your ultimate product, engineering, and design leaders haven’t yet achieved a mind meld, it is challenging to get there at the team level - because ultimately your leaders will be directing you to focus on slightly-to-wildly different priorities. I’ve found the best way to do this is to achieve a mind meld at the executive level over the course of 3-6 months and then ask the next level of the org to do so iteratively. The results are well worth it!
How do you achieve the mind meld? This isn’t an easy task, but some tools to help out:
- Ensure that you and your counterpart are spending a lot of time together, especially in the beginning of a relationship, and ensure that at least some of that time is dedicated to discussing the future in a strategic, rather than tactical way
- Ask questions about why something is important so that you can incorporate it into your mental model
- Do an explicit prioritization exercise (you can even use this template - it is built for engineering and product but can easily be modified or extended to include design).
To run the prioritization exercise, start by brainstorming all of the initiatives that you might want to focus on as an organization - whether they are customer-focused, technical excellence, or otherwise. I tend to find the list to be most valuable if it has 25-30 items on it; that forces you to discuss not just the top few most obvious items, but also the less obvious ones. Then, in a separate spreadsheet, stack rank them. I find the best approach is to stack rank your top 10-15, keep a squishy middle, and then stack rank the bottom 5-8 that you feel aren’t or shouldn’t be a priority. Once done, look at the most interesting deltas and use that to drive a discussion. (N.B. I wouldn’t use this as a true prioritization mechanism, or show this to others - it is a tool to help achieve the mind meld rather than an appropriate way to direct work)