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Successful Products Start With Teaching: Here's How We Do It

by Emerson Taymor

Successful Products Start With Teaching: Here's How We Do It

Jul 24, 2017

"When we teach, we learn," the Roman philosopher Seneca observed.

Don't believe it? Right now, take something you know. It could be about sports, automobiles, cooking, or whatever. Now, explain it to someone else. 

That exercise you just did? It should've made abundantly clear to you (and, frankly, to your friend) where you're an expert and where you're full of it. It forced you to examine what exactly you know in a deep, revealing way.

That's why I believe in teaching as a method for learning. In fact, I believe in it so strongly that I run my company on it.

We Teach One Another

Although I've long known teaching to be a self-improvement tool, two teammates — Russell Wolf and Jamie Caloras — reminded me recently just how powerful it can be.

Russell is a star software engineer, and Jamie is a passionate product designer. Both had skills the other wanted. So when they started collaborating on a project, they set aside time to help each other out.

Russell wanted to boost his design skills, so Jamie roped him into every design-related activity he could. Jamie yearned to be a better coder, particularly with JavaScript, so Russell handed him jobs involving JavaScript and coached him through the work.

The process was informal. There were no evaluations or managers involved. But at the end of the project, each man had leveled up his skills. Each had discovered he could count on the other.

This happens across the company. It creates a fearless, hungry atmosphere. If I've got a question, I just ask it. I don't worry about looking dumb because we're all here to help one another improve.

The bottom line? Teaching strengthens the team. We're more capable, happier, and more collaborative because of it.

We Teach Our Clients

Philosophie helps companies plan for the future by rapidly validating and developing their most promising ideas. If we were to kick clients out of the classroom, how would we equip them with the tools they need to survive?

Teaching is central to our client relationships, but not in a strict instructor-student sense. We want to show clients how to do our jobs. We consider ourselves partners and mentors.

Isn't that giving away our secret sauce? That's not how we see it. Our goal is to provide clients with the skills they need to efficiently build innovative products. For big projects, they may always need us. But many projects they can handle in-house with the right training, and the best way to get them there is to dive in together.

No matter the project, we try to teach our clients beyond the basics. For instance, we introduced one of our clients to the rich picture and business model canvas workshops that we often run. We not only talked him through the concepts, but we also explained the "why" behind them. More than two years later, he's still running the workshops with his own clients.

Much like those workshops, we use proto-personas to build empathy with our clients. Only by first understanding them can we hope to teach them. But while we've been crafting personas for our clients' users for a while, I recently realized that we could be doing more to understand an equally important piece of the puzzle: our stakeholders.

Now, in addition to end user personas, we develop stakeholder personas to head off conflicts between clients' business goals and our product team's user experience goals. We then host a collaborative workshop to discuss stakeholder personas, which helps all team members better understand one another. Then, armed with both personas, we bake stakeholder and user needs into every project.

The result? Greater team-client alignment, smoother workflow, and, ultimately, fewer fires for me to put out.

We Teach Across Teams

When everyone is expected to teach (and learn from) everyone else, single-task teams don't make much sense. 

Instead, we create balanced teams. Each includes at least one product strategist, a design specialist, and a software engineer (and, of course, the client product owner). We train every member — yes, even our engineers — to participate in and lead design thinking exercises.

If that level of cross-competency seems scary, you're not alone. As humans, we tend to play it safe. But that's not how we grow as individuals or as a firm. By including diverse voices in every product decision, we flush out ideas that would've never surfaced otherwise.

Recently, one of our product strategists, Ari Abraham, was workshopping with a client. Acting as a teacher, Ari helped the client narrow his goals. He gave the client the tools he needed to test his ideas quickly and at low cost. At the end, one stakeholder said, "Where were you months ago? I want to soak up all the things we are doing here today like a sponge."

Our employees are more than their titles. They teach, so they understand the "why" behind what they're doing. That helps them make better decisions in their work, and it creates happier clients and a stronger team.

We Make It Better

Because we believe in teaching and learning, we invest in it. We give all employees an annual stipend of $1,500 to spend on improving their craft. 

We're not picky about how employees use it, either. Online courses, books, conferences — anything they need to improve.

We also conduct weekly roundups. These hour-long sessions bring different disciplines together for professional development. Because, again, if you haven't taught it, you haven't truly learned it.

Did we set out with some master plan to differentiate Philosophie by teaching? I wish I could say we did, but here's the truth: We've valued continuous teaching and learning from the start, and it's worked for us.

If everyone is a teacher, everyone must be a learner. If everyone is a learner, there's no reason for silos — not between internal teams, not between individuals, not even between us and our clients.

It’s a simple, consistent approach. For us, it’s the right one.

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Emerson Taymor is Philosophie's Cofounder and the Managing Director of our New York office. Emerson is passionate about working with clients to create products that drive business results. Outside of work, he teaches front-end web development at General Assembly.

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