/ Technical Program Management

What TPM Interviewees Need to Know About Cross-Functional Partnerships

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the technical program management position is what is known as cross-functional partnerships. As the name suggests, cross-functional partnerships are the working relationships that TPMs form with various team members involved in implementing their program. Because cross-functional partnerships are crucial to technical program management as a whole, aspiring TPMs should expect several questions on the subject during their interviews.

These interview questions are focused on:

  • Your previous experience working with and navigating varying stakeholders,
  • Your collaborative working style,
  • How you handle disagreements or challenging situations among team members.

To help you prepare, we wrote this article to cover all the things that aspiring TPMs will be facing, and what they need to do to ace the cross-functional partnership aspects of their interviews. Let's get to it!

The Stakeholders and Teams That TPMs Usually Partner With

Photo by Leon / Unsplash

First and foremost, to further introduce cross-functional partnerships, we should look at the departments that TPMs usually partner with. Most TPMs typically collaborate with a similar group of stakeholders. These are engineering, product management, data, and design teams, among others.

Engineering Teams

Front-End Development
Photo by Charles Deluvio / Unsplash

‌It almost doesn’t need to be said, but the engineering teams will be the keystone cross-functional partnership for any TPM. The T stands for technical, after all. In many cases, TPMs will have close relationships with engineering managers and tech leads. Alongside these individuals and the rest of the engineering teams, TPMs will help create the timelines and processes needed to achieve technical product milestones. As such, aspiring TPMs must have the ability to manage technical partnerships above all. Your interviewer will inevitably ask you to demonstrate this with examples from your previous employment, so be sure to have these prepared ahead of time.

Product Management Teams

Roadmap planning using a physical kanban roadmap.
Photo by airfocus / Unsplash

‌TPMs also work very closely with the various product managers involved with their programs. The PM-TPM partnership almost always provides a critical role in the ultimate shipping of the product. The TPM cooperates with the PM(s) to carry out the product vision and keep the product team on schedule in achieving their goals. The importance of the reciprocity of the PM-TPM relationship must be emphasized. Your respective insights as a TPM may color, for example, how a product manager sketches out the product roadmap and vice versa.

Data Science Teams

Geom by Anna Golde

No matter the particular capacity in which they do so (whether it be biz ops analysts or data scientists), TPMs will partner with the various quantitative stakeholders needed to effectively implement and analyze their programs. Together, TPMs and their data science partners will measure the efficacy of their campaigns and their parts. In this regard, the most essential skill a TPM needs is an ability to deliver actionable insights derived from the data as they help guide the program's direction.

Design Teams

Photo by HalGatewood.com / Unsplash

As you should expect, design teams are an essential component of any product development. Typically, the various design teams will have their own particular time frames that could potentially influence or hold-up the related engineering teams. As such, working with the design teams will be a critical responsibility of a TPM.  In many organizations, the design teams will have their own program manager of a kind who will work alongside TPMs to align their processes and keep the development time on track.

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However, TPMs will inevitably cross paths with many different departments outside of these from time to time. Don't limit yourself to providing past examples from only these departments. Your interviewer could potentially ask specifically about some surprising partnerships from your previous jobs. Nevertheless, aspiring TPMs can count on being asked about their track record to work well within the cross-functional partnerships critical to the TPM role. Acing the TPM interview requires demonstrating a proven track record, so be sure to prepare past experiences that best exemplify it before your interviews.

Strategies for Successful Cross-Functional Partnerships

Abstract by Tatiana Vinogradova

While the concept of a cross-functional partnership is not all that difficult to wrap your head around, the same cannot be said of ensuring they are successful. To ace this portion of the interview, Aspiring TPMs need to know how to successfully manage the partnerships vital to their technical programs. What, then, are some strategies that TPMs could employ to ensure their cross-functional partnerships are operating as well as possible? Some of the cross-functional partnership questions will surely be about your methods and strategies, so here's what aspiring TPMs should know.

Using the 6 Principles of Persuasion

Geom by Anna Golde

TPMs can find great value in the 6 Principles of Persuasion. If you are interested in learning more about these principles, you can consult Dr. Cialdini's work. Nevertheless, we will provide a general overview below:

Reciprocity

Geom by Anna Golde

One of the most basic methods of persuading someone is by using reciprocity of some kind. Generally speaking, when you do something for a fellow co-worker or manager, they may feel inclined to do something for you in return. This form of natural exchange is fundamental to human relationships. Reciprocity can be at its most effective when it is both unexpected and highly personalized. Of course, it’s good practice to be generous as your effectiveness as a TPM depends on the health of their partnerships.

Example: You offer to work late to help a colleague meet his or her deadline. This colleague may then be more likely to help you out in the future.

Leveraging Scarcity

Geom by Anna Golde

Keep in mind, many people are more likely to take some action if they believe the opportunities to do so are in short supply. Advertisers know this and frequently use phrases like "limited time offer" for that very reason. People are more willing to do something if there is a scarcity in the time they can do so. TPMs could better persuade fellow managers or team members by emphasizing that the time available to take an action or make a decision is limited. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a sense of urgency.

Example: You convince another manager to support your proposal by leveraging the limited amount of time to implement the proposal before opportunity costs become too great.

Lean on Authority

Geom by Anna Golde

Colleagues will generally follow those they believe have the most power or expertise in a particular situation. This means that TPMs must always lean on the authority that their partners respect most. They should reference the expert opinions as they try to persuade their teams towards specific goals. At the end of the day, authority is all about trust. Stakeholders and team members need to trust that the work and strategies they implement were devised with the careful foresight necessary for success.

Example: You explicitly use the advice of knowledgeable and credible experts when devising your program proposals to help them become more credible.

Consistency

Geom by Anna Golde

Nobody likes inconsistency, especially at work. If you are hoping to make the most out of your cross-functional partnerships, you should strive to always be consistent in both your words and actions. Most people will assist with things if they have already said and done so in the past. Nothing could be more detrimental to productive partnerships than that of inconsistency. It can be aggravating and confusing to partners and stakeholders. It could also be entirely counter-productive. This also means you should be transparent. Keeping stakeholders in the dark is a great way to cause resentment and resistance when it comes to implementing other actions down the line.

Example: You treat every one of your partners equally and fairly, displaying no outward or exaggerated signs of favoritism or discrimination to any one person or department. As a result, your partners can trust, respect, and honor your leadership enough to cooperate efficiently with one another.

Build Personal Rapport

Geom by Anna Golde

A TPM's life will be made much easier if they build a personal and likable rapport with their partners. It is no surprise that people are more willing to collaborate or work towards a mutual goal if they like the TPM. You can probably imagine that it would not be all that effective for a TPM to have a heavy-handed or alienating working style. If the stakeholders or team members do not like (or worse yet, resent) the TPM, they will be less likely to be persuaded.

Example: You frequently have conversations with your partners about their hobbies or personal interests, building a fruitful rapport.

Consensus

Geom by Anna Golde

Using consensus, in various ways, could also serve TPMs well in persuading their teams into some action. Usually, people are more likely to go along with a specific collective action if they feel they had a voice in the decision. TPMs that ensure all team members have a chance to provide their input will find that their requests experience less internal resistance and pushback by stakeholders.

Example: Before you more formally devise a technical program’s strategy, you seek the feedback and desires of all stakeholders.

Other Strategies

Apply Quantitative Insights

Geom by Anna Golde

As human beings, we are (mostly) rational creatures. Unsurprisingly, people are much more willing to promote a proposed course of action if they feel it can be backed up with quantitative evidence. When TPMs can provide quantitative data to support their proposals, stakeholders can trust that it is backed with some level of objectivity. It is only natural, right? Stakeholders or team members should not be unquestioning towards their TPMs. To guarantee there is a trusting relationship between TPMs and their partners, applying quantitative evidence is crucial.

Make an Emotional Appeal

Geom by Anna Golde

Not even in the hyper-rational world of tech are people immune from emotional appeals. Because of this, TPMs should know how to use emotional storytelling when persuading their partners into some action. Truth be told, this is one of the most powerful tools in the cross-functional arsenal. Not only that, but most people remember the way you make them feel, rather than anything specific about what you said in your requests. This is not to say that you should be looking to manipulate your co-workers. Not at all. But TPMs must remember that those members of their partnering teams are human, after all. As such, this means they are emotional beings as well as rational ones. TPMs that ignore this may find that their cross-functional partnerships are not operating as smoothly as is possible.

The Obstacles of Successful Cross-Functional Partnerships

Photo by jean wimmerlin / Unsplash

Lack of Trust

Nothing could be worse for cross-functional partnerships than that of a lack of trust among stakeholders. Sometimes groups of employees may display factionalism or tribalism when working in larger organizations. In organizations like these, TPMs need to ensure there is a sense of trust among these groups. Otherwise, cross-functional partnerships will fail. The best way they can do this is by building a culture of trust throughout their teams. A TPM can align the different goals and objectives of varying groups to promote cooperation throughout their partnerships.

Social Loafing

Do you remember working in group projects during your school years? Remember how they had that tendency to become frustrating as most members do nothing while others do all the work? Interestingly enough, cross-functional partnerships (especially when they become rather large) could result in this same thing. If collaborative efforts become large enough, there may be a diffusion of responsibility that causes everyone involved to act less effectively. When team efforts become too large or cumbersome, the individual team members may feel a lack of personal accountability in their work. This is referred to as “social loafing.”

This may present a formidable challenge for some TPMs. Yet, a solution can be found by developing a standard set of benchmarks by which each stakeholder can be measured. So long as team members can feel as though their individual contributions are meaningful and that their performance can be measured, social loafing should not be a significant problem.

Poor Communication

Given the fact that cross-functional roles rely on communication between many teams and stakeholders, you can imagine poor communication being a significant cause of partnership breakdown. Often, different groups or departments will not otherwise communicate that often. As such, TPMs can find that some departments may have their own vernacular, jargon, or a particular way of doing things. Cooperation between cross-function partners needs effective communication. Otherwise, a TPM will struggle to persuade their partners to act as a single, cohesive team.

Divergent Aims and Objectives

Most people within an organization or business are evaluated using metrics of goals and achievements relevant to their roles. This is to be expected, of course, but that is not to say that this cannot lead to sub-optimizing. This refers to the situation in which stakeholders only prioritize the activities that help them achieve their own local goals rather than those of the group. TPMs can find that this could leave little room for cooperative or collaborative efforts that assist other teams or the rest of the organization.

A possible solution for TPMs facing this problem may lie in the rewarding of success individually. All team members should have a clear idea of how their efforts will be acknowledged and rewarded. Otherwise, they may not be as motivated in cross-functional efforts.

Conflicting Use of Technologies

Throughout many organizations, most departments will have their own sets of technology these use daily. As you can probably expect, this could potentially lead to some conflicting or divergent uses of these technologies. It is conceivable that some teams may be using certain kinds or types of software, for instance, that may not be compatible with one another. These divergent technologies can potentially weaken cross-functional partnerships by creating bottlenecks in the daily logistics involved in larger-scale collaborative work. As such, the conflicting use of technology should always remain a concern for TPMs.

Take the Exponent TPM Interview Course

We understand better than anyone how nerve-wracking an upcoming TPM interview can be. Because it is a role at the crossroads of many different fields, it can be confusing when sitting down to prepare for the TPM interview. Yet, if candidates study up on everything that we just covered, they will have an easier time acing the cross-functional partnership portion of their interviews.

But, keep in mind. TPMs aren't only focused on cross-functional partnerships. There's a lot more to the interview that will need to be prepared for. And in the end, nothing helps prepare aspiring TPMs for their interview better than authentic practice. That's just what they can get through Exponent's TPM course and community of interview coaches. So what are you waiting for? Enroll in our TPM course today!

Anthony Pellegrino

Anthony Pellegrino

I’m a rather bohemian freelance journalist and tech content writer. Philosophy/CS student - A.I.,Consciousness, Social Sciences.

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