Zeljko Plesac - Solving collaboration challenges in digital product development
Zeljko Plesac is the Infinum Alliance Director at the digital agency Infinum.
In this episode, we discuss the importance of good collaboration in modern digital product development and the key challenges to tackle here. We also cover how product management tools can help, with Zeljko telling us a little bit about Productive, the platform they use at Infinum, and how it compares to other similar technologies.
Links & mentions:
“As the company is growing, you also need to introduce clearly defined processes. And that’s also the basis of culture, communication, collaboration, everything else.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. I’m joined today by Zeljko Plesac, Infinum Alliance Director at the digital agency Infinum. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing the most common collaboration challenges and how to tackle them. And Zeljko will also tell us more about the Productive platform that they use at Infinum, and how it can help tackle these challenges for project managers, product managers, business leaders, etc. So, Zeljko, welcome to the show, it’s great having you as our guest today. Do you want to add anything before we jump into our questions?
Zeljko Plesac: No, I think you did good. And thanks for the invitation, and look forward to this podcast.
Tim Butara: Awesome. It’s definitely a great topic, it’s definitely one that if it’s not super relevant for everybody today, it’s becoming more and more relevant for everybody who’s operating, who’s working in the digital. And I’m glad we have you here to discuss this with us, Zeljko. And before we jump into specific challenges and the discussion there, I want to first ask you – why is it so important to have collaboration on a very high level in digital product development?
Zeljko Plesac: In order to provide a little bit better answer to that question, I think it’s best if we take a trip down the memory lane. My career at Infinum started 10 years ago, and at that point in time I was working as an Android developer here. Do you remember the mobile phones that we had 10 years ago?
For Android, we were working on Android 2.3, it was the top operating system on the market, Gingerbread. We were still supporting Frojo, and we were preparing ourselves for upgrade to Ice cream sandwich and to Lollipop. At that point in time, especially Android phones, they didn’t have the best hardware, they didn’t have the best camera. The options and feature set that was provided by Android was not top of the market if you look it through today’s eyes.
And the complexity of the projects that we were delivering at that time was significantly lower or simpler than the project complexity that we have today. Similar story happened also on the web, so, 10 years ago, we didn’t have React, we didn’t have Angular. Most of the software was still deployed on physical servers, so we didn’t have the cloud.
And also that meant that, let’s say, software which was used by everyday user, a regular user, it wasn’t too complex. We had complex software, but we were mostly talking about enterprise level projects for which you had to buy the license and you had to install them on your desktop device. But in most cases we’re talking about systems that were simpler if we take a closer look at what’s happening today in the market.
Also, everything was changing on a slower pace. Ten to fifteen years ago you bought a license for a product, you were using it for a couple of years, and then you upgraded the license to a newer product. Today, with continuous integration, with continuous deployment, you’re pretty much deploying software, or deploying new features of your product to production on a daily basis or a weekly basis.
So, we also have this incentive that everything is changing rapidly, on a faster pace. And with evolving market, we now have bigger teams who are also globalized, scattered throughout the world. And we also have the situation that in product development we have teams of different background, people of different background – for instance, engineering, design, development, QA, project management and everything else.
So, now we have a situation where we’re developing complex products on larger teams, which is also generating bigger problems, bigger complexity, and on the other hand, it also generates more money which is coming into IT. And for that, we need to have some ground basis how to organize those teams in order so they can deliver the best product to the market.
And I would say that the basis of collaboration in those type of teams is obviously the communication. And the communication needs to be presented and well defined through a horizontal level, so everybody who is a part of the team, and also on the vertical level, so that people who are stakeholders, or who are CEOs, management or something like that, that they have full overview of the product, of the state of the product that it currently is, and what’s happening with everything. That’s just the way that the stuff is operating today.
Tim Butara: And I think that, definitely, everything that you pointed out right now has been highlighted and taken to new heights in the past three years, right. We’ve seen an increase in complexity, we’ve seen an increase in the speed of innovation, and everything there.
And you mentioned that communication is one of the key things today in digital product development, and I’m guessing that this is one of the biggest challenges in product development today. And I’m wondering, which are the other most common and most frequent ones besides communication?
Zeljko Plesac: So, communication is obviously the most important one. And one of the biggest problems that we have with communication is that, you can learn how to express yourself a little bit better, but communication is something that… It’s a natural talent. If you want to communicate better with everybody else, it’s something that has to come naturally, from the inside.
Together with communication, I would say that one of the most important challenges we also have is from the cultural perspective. Today we are working in teams which are distributed throughout the world. In most cases, companies from Central Europe or from this part of the world are cooperating with clients which are either from Western Europe or from US.
And you have some communication– or, to be more precise, you have some cultural differences that you need to take into consideration. For instance, people who are in US, they have better communication skills, better sales skills, they are better in chitchat, small talk, stuff like that.
But on the other hand, they are sometimes overly optimistic about everything that they are communicating. And with us in Europe, we are a little bit more conservative, a little bit more pessimistic, maybe even a little bit closed or not so verbal in our communication. And those are some of the cultural changes that you need to take into consideration when you are collaborating on a bigger project.
I would also say that we need to take into consideration the matter of transparency. That’s something that’s especially important in bigger corporations or bigger enterprises, because usually documentation works in a way that vertically, on each level, let’s say 10 to 15% of communication is lost, either because somebody is trying to paint a different picture, or they believe that some of the information is not important for the higher levels. And you have problems with transparently communicating all the problems that are happening on the project.
And of course, vertical is just one thing. You also need to take into consideration that whenever you have people from different companies collaborating on a project, there’s always some level of information that gets lost in the communication between two partners in the same process.
So, yeah, those are some of the most important problems I would say; everything boils down to communication and culture. But you also have to understand that especially today, in current market situations, it’s also really important that everybody who is collaborating on a product or product development, they need to share the product vision, which somebody has defined for the product they are developing.
And they need to understand that everything they are delivering or everything that they are working for that project, it needs to deliver some business value to the stakeholders or to the users or the project itself. If you’re just working something on a product or introducing new features that in the end nobody will benefit off, in the end, this will lead to problems with user retention, with passion that your users are sharing about the product, and so on.
Tim Butara: I think you really pinpointed it just before when you said everything boils down to communication, right. Because almost everything that we talked about under this question can be classified as some kind or another communication issue, right. If people working on the product are misunderstanding the product’s business value, it’s likely because the business value has been miscommunicated, or hasn’t been properly communicated.
And in a way, collaboration is almost a one to one equivalent of communication, right. I mean, you can’t collaborate without communicating. So, we’re definitely seeing this now. And it’s no surprise that we spoke so heavily about communication, since, you know, it’s kind of the basis for working together, especially across cultures, especially since we mentioned before, the past three years, the rise of globally distributed teams, which also means potential language differences, culture differences that you also spoke about. And you have culture differences, and then you have company culture differences, and you have to take both into account.
Zeljko Plesac: Definitely. I would say that each company, or each startup, it’s a living being, and it has its own behavior, its own culture. And in some cases, two companies can collaborate on the product or a project, and deliver great value. And on the other hand, if you have some misalignment from the cultural perspective, in the end, the product can be good, it can bring some additional business value, but the whole process of development will not be good for both of the sides, there will always be some problems between them.
Tim Butara: Yeah, because, right now– I mean, the main focus of our discussion today is also optimizing this process of collaboration, not just the final product.
Zeljko Plesac: That’s right.
Tim Butara: And so, in this line, what can managers and leaders do to address and tackle these challenges that we’ve pinpointed?
Zeljko Plesac: The first thing that everybody needs to take into consideration is that you need to start with yourself. You need to lead by example, and if you want to introduce some changes regarding the communication or the whole culture that you have in your company, you need to start with yourself, and you need to transparently and directly communicate those changes and those projects you are trying to solve to everybody else.
You can’t expect that your peers or your subordinates will work on their communication and their culture and transparency and everything else if you don’t do that on the management level. I’m not saying here that you need to be radically transparent, that all the information which is flowing inside the company has to be visible to everybody.
There’s always something that’s maybe better if it’s just shared between a smaller group of peers; maybe you will be even faster or will be able to deliver something to production with a faster pace and maybe with a better quality. But in general, the communication flow that you have in your company should be transparent, direct, honest and it should start at the top, and then it should spill over to all of the verticals that you have in your company.
As I already mentioned, usually you have those problems that when you are reporting something to upper levels, some information tends to be missing. And that’s usually in cases when something goes wrong, when you have some problems, when you have, for instance, problems with delivery, when you have problems with the quality of the product that you are pushing.
And it’s just human nature. It’s easier to report that everything is ok and maybe try to figure out on your own how you’re going to resolve the issues that you have. But in most cases it would be better and easier for everybody if just those problems get communicated vertically even to the highest levels, and then you can have the discussion how you’re going to resolve those issues.
Together with that, I would also say that as the company is growing, you also need to introduce clearly defined processes. And that’s also the basis of culture, communication, collaboration, everything else. I would say, from the developers’ perspective, nobody likes processes, because they are limiting, they are introducing some additional overhead.
But if you want to scale your agency or start a business from 10 to 50 or a 100 people, or on the other hand, if you want to scale the user base that you have, you need to have some clear vision of what everybody in your company is doing. You need to have defined processes, the way of working, both for internal stuff and both for the external collaboration or communication that you have with your clients.
And, based on that, that also in the end should lead with some direct and fast reporting between all of the verticals. Because, I would say as the company is growing, as you have a bigger number of people, as you are introducing more and more processes, you tend to get slower in your decision making and you need to invest more effort, more time and more money to respond to everything that’s happening on the market.
And in order to avoid those type of problems, you need to have the right reporting, clear reporting, reporting only the information that are needed, because on the other hand you have information overflow. And you need to be straight. There’s no point in lying or updating your reports in a way that everything looks shiny and perfect, but then down the line you will have problems because you are pretty much covering your eyes and postponing the decisions that could somehow make a bigger or major impact on the project.
Tim Butara: Yeah, if you’re not going to do reporting transparently, then you might as well not do it, right? Because, if I understand it correctly, reporting is what will connect all of these different layers, from management, to the developers. And you’ve pointed out several times now that one of the biggest issues here is that a lot of information potentially gets lost as you move through these layers, and proper reporting will make sure that as little as possible of this lost information actually gets lost.
Zeljko Plesac: That’s right. You need to understand that somebody needs to invest the time into reading all the reports, into analyzing the data and into making some decisions on a bigger level what to do based on those reports. And as you are going higher and higher on a vertical level, this means that you need to make bigger decisions that are going to have more impact on the general product or your company.
The level of failure or the cost of failed decisions or wrongly made decisions is increasing. And I’m a strong proponent of that either you do reports correctly, that you are transparent, direct, short, to the point, and that you are not painting a different picture. Those reports are ok, but if you’re not doing it like that, then it just doesn’t make any sense for anybody who is involved in the process.
But still, I believe that you need to have some reports, because without them you tend to get lost a little bit. Maybe you can misinterpret some of the information that you have. Maybe you have started to divert from the product vision that you would like to have. Maybe you have some problems with the team, with the culture, with everything else. And on the other hand, I think that also everybody needs to be accountable for the work they are delivering. Pretty much, with this, you are taking ownership of something that you are in charge of.
Tim Butara: That was really well said. A great point here. And I think that this is the right place to ask you if there are any special considerations if you are collaborating across multiple teams, for example, when a company partners with a digital agency or more digital agencies, with some kind of staff augmentation or outsourcing type of partnership, versus a completely in-house product development process? What’s the situation here?
Zeljko Plesac: I would say there are some differences or problems that you need to take into consideration. Every time when you are kicking off a partnership with somebody who is outside of your company – it can be a smaller startup, it can be a freelancer, it can be a bigger agency like ours – you’re introducing another partner in the story who does not necessarily share the same vision as you share, who does not necessarily have the same organizational structure, they don’t have the same communication guidelines, they have different culture, they have different tech stack.
And you are introducing something that is a little bit different or strange to the organizational process that you currently have in place. In some cases that can bring a lot of problems, because, if there is some misalignment regarding the vision, regarding the delivery, regarding the quality, regarding the communication, it pretty much results in a situation where one partner is not happy with the other one, which also in the end means that the final product will be of a lesser quality.
But I would also say that in most cases, your company, your product, it can benefit from somebody who is outside, who has a different approach, who has a different opinion about that. Because they can help you think about the problem in a different way, they can help you have a different approach or a different opinion about the role that you are taking. Maybe they’re going to help you with updating the vision that you have with the product, and they can bring a lot of new stuff to the table.
Tim Butara: So it can be a kind of double-edged sword, it has its upsides and its downsides.
Zeljko Plesac: I would say it depends on a case-by-case basis. It depends on how your company is stable and what’s the level of engagement that your company is investing into communicating and collaborating with somebody who is external, and it also goes vice-versa.
There are some common pitfalls that you need to avoid, but I would say that in most cases, at least at some point in time, it’s really beneficial if you can introduce at least somebody who is external to an aspect of your product development. It doesn’t have to be purely on the development level, maybe you can outsource finances, legal or HR or something like that. It can be beneficial for all the parts in your company.
Tim Butara: We’re definitely seeing this become a trend right now rather than the exception to the norm.
Zeljko Plesac: Yeah, with everything that’s happened on the market in the last three or four years, with Corona, with work from home, with globalization and distributed teams, I think that at the moment, this is maybe the first time in the human civilization that we have the necessary tools which can help us manage and organize distributed teams who are throughout the world without any impact on the delivery, on time, or something like that.
It’s a really interesting time to live. And of course, companies are opening more and more, people can work from different locations. For instance, I know that in 2017 or 2019, even in Slovenia, it was really hard to find an agency – let’s maybe even upscale the story a little bit, let’s talk about bigger enterprises, like banks, insurance companies, or companies that employ 5000 people, something like that. It was really hard to find somebody who was willing to engage with you if you were living 500 kilometres from the office.
Those are the situations that today are, I would say, a way of the past. Although there are some trends on the market that bigger corporations and enterprises are talking about return to office. But I would say that in most cases this will mean that you will be physically in your office three or four days or something like that, but there will still be some portion of time that you will invest from some remote location.
And also, you need to take into consideration that with distributed teams, this can also have a positive financial impact on the product, because there’s always ways to optimize the costs by maybe either outsourcing a smaller portion of your work to a company who can provide you with better rates, or maybe you can engage with people who are cheaper on the market. But it also goes vice-versa; this is the perfect situation, for instance, if you are working from Slovenia that you can really get high salaries by just working for some company who is working from US or from Western Europe.
Tim Butara: Yeah, definitely remote and hybrid work have definitely had a huge impact in all contexts. But one thing that I still haven’t yet asked you, Zeljko, and I want to take a few minutes to discuss this – the role of product management tools and what these can do to help resolve the challenges and streamline everything that we’ve talked about today.
Zeljko Plesac: So, let’s say if we were talking about the situation ten or fifteen years ago, you mostly had the situations where everybody who was collaborating on a product were physically in the same room, or distributed through a couple of rooms but in the same office. And you had product managers who could collaborate, communicate with people on a daily basis, resolve some problems, issues, and get the update about the product. With globalization and everything else that’s happening, now you need to use some product management tools in order to provide you with necessary tool belt so you can better lead your team and better resolve the problems that you’re trying to achieve.
So, what role they can play. For sure, they can provide you with a better visibility of the current state or the current situation your product is. You can get better insight into who’s working on the product, how many hours did they invest in the product, what tasks are they working on, what’s being resolved, what’s ready for production. If you have support for finances, you can also see the level of investment that the current feature has, are you profitable or not. So, it gets you better visibility and insight into the sheer number of information that you can gather from your company or from your product.
The thing that I also like which is a little bit connected to the whole story about communication and everything else is that you can also check, or get a better grasp of the accountability of a certain part of your product. Usually, when you are developing, let’s say, bigger products, where you have 50, 60 or maybe even a thousand people, the accountability tends to get a little bit lost, because as you have more people collaborating on the product, it’s always easier to hide behind somebody else.
But with product management tools, you can immediately see, ok, for our product, Infinum is delivering the mobile application, and inside that mobile application they need API or documentation from our side, from the client, and after that they can deliver the working product which will have those and those features in that and that timeframe, and they are in charge of that. And then if something goes wrong, you can see what’s happening where.
And the final thing that I wanted to mention here is that, especially today with uncertainties on the market that we have, it’s really important to act as fast as possible and everything that’s happening on the market.
So if you see that a feature you have delivered or a feature in which you have invested a lot of money and resources is not performing in the way that you’re expecting of it, that you immediately act and try to introduce some changes or improve the quality or maybe improve UX or UI or something like that. But what would be even better is if you could somehow make a forecast before even starting to code that feature what’s going to happen in production.
And with machine learning, with AI, just taking into consideration a bunch of different stuff that’s happening on the project, you can try to forecast at least something. You can try to forecast are you still, is the timeline that you have designed for the product, is it still ok? Will we miss some deadline down the road or not? Will we deliver everything that was agreed upon? From the financial perspective, will this project be profitable for us? Are we generating enough revenue from our clients or from our users? Is our company on good likes; do we have enough money to invest into paychecks, into salaries, into new office equipment?
That’s something that’s really important if you want to, on one hand, scale the company, on the other hand, improve the effectiveness that you have in your company, or utilization, something like that. It can help if you deliver on the promise that you’ve made both to your stakeholders, users, and finally, in the end, also to your employees.
Tim Butara: And you also have your own tool at Infinum, right, Productive? Can you tell us more about that? And also, I assume that a lot of listeners will be familiar with platforms such as JIRA, and I’m wondering how Productive compares to something like that, something well known.
Zeljko Plesac: So, at first, to be 100% transparent and honest since we’re talking about communication, Productive is a separate company, it’s a spinoff from Infinum that was started 7 or 8 years ago. The story about Productive, it started at Infinum because we were trying to resolve some issues that we have with other tools that were on the market. So, Productive is now a company which has 70 or 80 employees. They are growing with a nice pace and they are operating on a worldwide market.
So, what’s the advantage of Productive over JIRA or some other project management tools? So, I have to say, at least from the developer perspective, JIRA tends to get a lot of negative feedback or negative passion from the developers, because most of the comments go in the way that it’s too big, it’s too complex, it’s hard to manage and it introduces a lot of overhead which could potentially be used for some other purposes, for instance, maybe you could invest that time into developers, something like that.
Productive is still quite easy to use. It’s best suited for smaller digital agencies or for smaller digital products or for smaller startups, and it can accommodate a lot of different use cases. So, for developers, you have project management features like tasks, boards, tools for entering time entries, stuff like that.
For business development, you have the full sales pipeline, so you can check what’s happening with a lead, what’s happening with finances on the lead. For project managers, you have the option to manage the project, the task and everything else, also to manage the budgets on the project. For financial perspective, you have the full support for creating the invoices.
And, let’s say, for management, with different reports, you can really drill down what’s happening with your company, what’s happening with the projects, what’s happening with the finances, with everything else. And you can get a little bit better grasp about, are we still on the right track, are we still on the wrong track? And with that drilling down you can also improve the transparency that you have in your company. Pretty much everybody can get a little bit better insight into some of the information which could be lost during the whole reporting stuff that we mentioned before.
Tim Butara: Well, Zeljko, this has been a great conversation, and I’m sure that it will also be very valuable to everybody listening right now. Just before we wrap it up and jump off the call, if listeners would like to reach out to you, learn more about you or learn more about Infinum, where would you point them to?
Zeljko Plesac: Yeah, so, regarding Infinum, I would say that the best source of information is our webpage, www.infinum.com. We’re also quite present on all the social networks, you can follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook … I also believe that we have a TikTok account, so, for younger listeners.
We’re also quite present on the meetup scene, here in Ljubljana in Slovenia. We regularly organize meetups in our office, from management meetup to design talks that we had just two weeks ago. And our office is here in Tehnološki park, so if you’re ever passing by, you can always drop us a visit and we will be more than happy to have a chat.
And me personally, I’m also available on most of the social media. I would say that if you want to reach out to me, probably it’s best to drop me a DM on LinkedIn or maybe reach out to me over Twitter. You can also always drop me an email or something like that, but, yeah, I’m also always available for everything.
Tim Butara: Great, we’ll make sure to link everything in the show notes. And Zeljko, thanks again for joining us today, it’s been great discussing this with you.
Zeljko Plesac: Thanks once again for the invite. It was a pleasure.
Tim Butara: Likewise. And to our listeners, that’s all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
Thanks for tuning in. If you'd like to check out our other episodes, you can find all of them at agiledrop.com/podcast as well as on all the most popular podcasting platforms. Make sure to subscribe so you don't miss any new episodes and don't forget to share the podcast with your friends and colleagues.