Both of these things are true: most of us feel like we’re good people doing the right things for the right reasons, and at the same time, we know there are organizations in the world that aren’t really living that ethos. So how are all these good people getting tangled up in bad deeds?
In this episode, Hannah Clark is joined by Samantha Gonzalez—Associate Director of Product Strategy at DockYard, Inc.—to talk about her intriguing journey and her innovative approach to team-building.
Be prepared to have your understanding of ethical product strategy completely transformed!
- Ethics in Product Strategy Integration [0:54]
- Samantha’s journey from journalism to product strategy is an interesting narrative, demonstrating the value of diverse experiences.
- Her unique application of improv to foster an environment of safety, active listening, and collaboration within her teams is truly groundbreaking.
- The ability to establish safety from the get-go, understanding when to step in and out, and maintaining an active listening environment are vital for effective team collaboration.
- The exercises she incorporates in workshops and ideation sessions have proven to be very beneficial, allowing teams to work together more effectively.
Improv is about coming as you are, collaborating with others, and practicing active listening—knowing when to step in and when to step out.Samantha Gonzalez
- The Importance of Ethical Product Strategy [3:27]
- Beyond team building, Samantha expands the discussion to the realm of ethics in product strategy. She introduces an ingenious exercise known as ‘five things’, a tool used to facilitate out-of-the-box thinking, risk mitigation, and trust-building. As product managers navigate the complex landscape of ethical considerations, the five things exercise proved instrumental in developing ethical product strategies.
- Risk mitigation is a key component of ethical product strategy. Unethical practices, whether intentional or unintentional, can severely harm a brand’s integrity and its relationship with customers. Therefore, adopting ethical practices in product strategy is a crucial part of risk mitigation.
- One of the pillars of ethical product strategy that Samantha highlights is thorough QA and user testing to avoid unintended harm.
Unethical practices, whether intentional or unintentional, will surface now or later at some point. So one of our ethical product strategy pillars is thorough QA and user testing to avoid unintended harm.Samantha Gonzalez
- Exploring Anti-Product and Psychological Safety [16:00]
- Psychological safety is another vital aspect that Samantha discusses in depth. Establishing psychological safety within teams encourages healthy conversations, feedback, and constructive conflict.
- She emphasizes the importance of creating a code of conduct, understanding team members’ communication styles, and fostering an environment where everyone feels safe to share their thoughts and ideas.
- The concept of the ‘anti-product’, an exercise that challenges teams to envision the negative aspects or ‘evil twin’ of their product, is also discussed. This approach helps to spark ideas for new features or guardrails and fosters a deeper understanding of what they do not want their product to become.
Meet Our Guest
Samantha is an Associate Director of Product Strategy at DockYard, a digital product consultancy, where she works with clients who are looking to level up their strategy ethically and sustainably to build products that perform and scale. She’s previously worked on digital transformations for brands like Facebook, Splunk, and WPEngine, and led product strategy plans and technical discoveries for a variety of growth-stage startups. Outside of work, Samantha is an improv teacher and mentor to new project and product managers through her personal brand, PM with Purpose.
In terms of establishing psychological safety, it involves humanizing everyone on the team from the beginning and asking, ‘What does safety mean to me?’Samantha Gonzalez
Resources from this episode:
- Subscribe to The Product Manager newsletter
- Connect with Samantha on LinkedIn
- Check out DockYard
- Ethical Product Strategy
Related articles and podcasts:
Read The Transcript:
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Hannah Clark: Both of these things are true—most of us feel like we're good people doing the right things for the right reasons, and at the same time, we know there are organizations in the world that aren't really living that ethos. So how are all these good people getting tangled up in bad deeds? Ultimately, it comes down to the thousands of small decisions every company makes.
And when those decisions aren't being filtered through a code of ethics, it's easy to see how things can go really wrong. My guest this episode is Samantha Gonzalez—Associate Director of Product Strategy at DockYard. DockYard is a digital product consultancy that specializes in ethical product strategy.
And what's really cool about Samantha and her team is that they're helping clients and internal teams deal with some really heavy questions, but with an approach that's grounded in curiosity, compassion, and even play. In a moment, you'll pick up some really useful exercises that you can use to engage your team, build trust and challenge your organization's assumptions about your users. Let's jump in.
Welcome back listeners to the Product Manager podcast. I am here with Samantha Gonzalez. She's the Associate Director of Product Strategy at DockYard Incorporated. Samantha, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Samantha Gonzalez: Hi Hannah, I am really excited to chat with you. Been a big fan of the blog and the work you put out and excited to talk today.
Hannah Clark: Yeah, me too. So we'll kick it off by starting of the same way we always start our show, which is to talk a little bit about your professional background and how you arrived at where you are at DockYard.
Samantha Gonzalez: So I initially got a degree in journalism from DePaul University, where I'm from in Chicago. And then I started working at a couple of different digital agencies and fell into project management as most people do, not realizing what a discipline that it actually is something that you can do. And then as I became a project manager, I started getting really interested in user research and how product decisions were made and then became a certified Scrum product owner.
And then again, from there, just kind of naturally fell into more product strategy phase. When I first started doing project management, I actually also started doing improv teaching and performing along the same line. So as my career of the last 12 years or so has evolved, that has evolved with me and been a really core part of how I lead teams.
Hannah Clark: I would love to know a little bit more about that because I know you've spoken in the past in other venues and in mediums about your experience with improv and how that's informed your approach to product strategy. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah, I think that improv, the basics of improv are really is the foundation for how great teams are built.
So in order to like, play an improv, we say and feel safe to fail. You have to establish safety right at the get go. So, improv is a lot more different than stand up where you're, you know, it's just you alone and telling jokes and you need to be funny and perform in this way. Improv is really coming as you are and collaborating with people together and having really that active listening, that knowing when to step in and step out.
You just get a lot of these good natural instincts rhythms with teams that I see translate a lot into how I lead, whether that was in project management or in product management. And so I would incorporate a lot of those exercises before workshops or ideation sessions. Even with clients, like it gets people warmed up in their bodies and ready to work together more effectively.
Hannah Clark: Okay, I've got a bit of an improv background as well. So I'm very curious how you've incorporated that into your client work and that kind of thing. What's the exercise that you've done with your team or with clients that you find is just a really useful one that anyone can just pick up and try?
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah, the one that always comes to mind is 5 things, just naming 5 things. It's a really quick one, low risk, and they don't have to be within the category that you're giving. So, for instance, if you told me to name 5 breakfast foods, I could say, and I would have to do them very quickly. Right? So you're not having to really think about what's the best answer.
You're just like going through and clearing out your mind. Right? So I'm going to say, pancakes, macaroni, cereal, fruit, rocks, and that all was right. So I really love that exercise to just like quickly get people to just like get out of their heads a little bit.
Hannah Clark: Yeah, and I can really see how that, especially if you're talking about something for a specific category, how you can really pick out what's the first thing that comes to mind and not necessarily what's like the most relevant or the best.
I really like that exercise. I'd like to try that out.
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah. And a big thing of impromptu is just saying yes, right? Enthusiastically. So you're saying, yes, all of that is correct. And you know, whatever you're going through.
Hannah Clark: Switching gears just a little bit. I know that one of the big principles behind DockYard as a company is this approach to ethical product strategy. And that's what I really wanted to dig into today. So talk me a little bit through the genesis of how that became a really prominent aspect of your identity as a company.
Samantha Gonzalez: This is a new service offering that we have developed since actually the start of this year.
So I went into an initial discovery phase as far as a product strategy audit, something that I could go into low lift to help clients work through their initial existing product strategy. If they didn't have one, how can we quickly build that for them? So I wanted to do that with clients. Something that was like a 4 to 6 week engagement.
You know, just kind of like there's an audit from a third party who's also not been working on the same thing over and over again. So we don't have that maybe tunnel vision that you might have on your existing teams that we can come in from an outsider's perspective and give her thoughts. DockYard is really based around ethical and sustainable product strategy.
And when I started to mention that in user interviews, my product leaders that I spoke to were very, very interested in like, what does ethical product strategy look like? And I started to realize that's something I needed to lean into and look at more. So that's how we came into this ethical product strategy evaluation.
We soon realized that this is where, this is across disciplines that we can establish more ethical practices. So I started doing my own research then into ethosphere. What does it take to be an ethical company? And what does that criteria look like? The Danish design center has a lot of great information around this and Pavani Reddy's book, Ethical Product Development.
And then I started just following influencers and thought leaders, I hate the word influencers, that started to look at those people that were posting about those non-negotiables of ethical production and how we can create more responsible and socially impactful products.
So Lisa Zane, Stephanie Walter, a lot of people that I just found within my circle that we're talking about this. And then we came to this larger service offering that we launched this year.
Hannah Clark: I'd like to dig into that a little further in a moment, but I know that one of the things that we discussed in the past is how can product managers make the business case for adopting an ethical product strategy?
Because I guess it all starts there getting that first buy-in. So what are some things that you would recommend to product managers who are personally interested and want to introduce that to their stakeholders?
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah, that's a great question. And a big one as product managers start to manage this up and present this to other stakeholders.
The first one would be is that, this is a huge part of risk mitigation that unethical practices, whether intentional or unintentional will surface now or later at some point. So one of our ethical product strategy pillars is thorough QA and user testing to avoid unintended harm. An example of this would be, for instance, this year, the National Eating Disorder Association was shutting down its long running national helpline promoting a chatbot called Tessa that would have a meaningful prevention resource for those struggling with eating disorders.
Now, an update to this chatbot and it was evoked a new AI update that created new responses that were not the initial pre-programmed one. And this bot was now giving weight loss advice to people who are reaching out for help with their eating disorder. Now, anyone who knows anything around eating disorders know that that is a complete red flag for any sort of help to then give that advice.
So how did that pass? People were able to access that pretty immediately on. Nita said that they weren't aware of that update, but anyway, long story short, what does testing look like? And if you're doing continuous updates, then how are you continuing to go against that criteria to make sure you're avoiding unintentional harm against your users?
What is the unintended or intended use? And I think these ethical practices can be extremely detrimental to your brand integrity too. Your customers will be aware of that. So that's a huge one as far as risk mitigation goes. It might not be something that's so public like that, but you're losing trust with your team, investors, potential investors, other users, new users.
So as we look inward across what our teams were experiencing for years and years, we realize that those shortcuts that expedited speed really affected long term success. So this is a really key part of just reducing that risk as you go into the build and upkeep of your product.
Hannah Clark: So I want to talk a little bit about some of the roadblocks or misconceptions that kind of go into building an ethical product strategy.
But before we get into that, can you walk me through when you're working with a client for the first time or when you're kind of approaching, I don't know if there's an audit process. What kinds of criteria you're looking for as far as what makes an ethical or not ethical company?
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah, so there's a lot across these ethical practices, right?
We always say that ethical is attractive in this way, right? So we're going to look at a couple of different key areas. We're going to look at how do you understand your users? And like we said, avoiding that harm in that way, whether that comes from their use of it, their privacy and data security and how they understand that.
And how are you also like validating new products within the market too? So one big thing around this is, are you avoiding manipulation? That is going to be a huge thing around because people want to have daily active users, monthly active users, right? Returning users coming back. But a really big part of this is looking at, what is like this thoughtful interactions with the product look like? And how am I really, really building not only that value, but that impact to the user and how do I understand them? So we also do an assessment of understanding your users in a different way. Again, from a third party, unbiased assessment of your users that maybe your current product team is not seeing.
A lot of times we see folks who are making product decisions based on larger business KPIs and not where the user really needs to go in. So we try to be an advocate for that and help those product leaders get up to those standards of seeing exactly, am I still really keeping that user at the center of my product? And then the business will follow from there.
Hannah Clark: Yeah, it seems to be the case. We're seeing all these Generative AI solutions that are coming out very quickly, and it seems like the guardrails are very loose. So I can see that being really relevant to today's market, especially if AI being such a prominent part of product development.
Samantha Gonzalez: Exactly. And there's a huge sector of environmental, social and governance regulations that are very strict right now in the EU that will eventually come over into California and the US as regulations tend to do. So there's going to be a lot more of a watchdog on companies with these unethical practices.
So if you're establishing this early, and this is going to start to affect companies like in the next couple of years or so, both public and private. So as people are starting to be aware more about the social, you know, the larger impact that companies are having on the world at large, you can get ahead of this now.
By looking at your ethical product strategy practices, because a lot of people think too that this is just HR's problem, or that this is something that has nothing to do with how they create or even like business requirements of creating a product. But there is a whole lot more to uncover that you can then be an initial leader for too.
Like everybody, I think we all have this sense of altruism that we want to also tap into. We want to do good. We want to feel like we're doing good in this way and part of something that's positively impactful. So there's a lot of ways that you can start to just already melt this into your existing processes.
Hannah Clark: Yeah, that's a really good point. And you touched on this being sort of perceived as an HR issue. So that kind of goes into the whole idea of there being a lot of misconceptions as well. I agree. I think that there's an altruistic streak in most of us. It kind of gets lost when you're sort of diffusing decision making among a larger team.
So what are some of the other misconceptions that we should be mindful of if we're thinking about approaching our team to integrate a more of an ethical product approach?
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah, so a lot of again, like, if you remember, I don't know if you're a fan of The Office, but Holly and Michael did that song, Let's get ethical, ethical, right?
And it was a really great nerdy example, but coming from HR, that was like, is this just like a list of rules that we have to IRL at that we have to like meet this criteria legally, right? But we want to create more just like this ethical integration into these practices. So there's questions that you're asking around product strategy like, who are you serving?
What's feasible for our team? What's the user value, right? Like, great baseline questions that you're asking with a brand new product or initiative. But I want you to just go a bit further and ask, like, What's the user impact? How will the user feel in control? How will I protect their data?
Am I collecting too much data? Am I collecting things that I'm not using? How will I avoid manipulation? Am I using gamification or buzzwords like that where it doesn't, where it's not necessary, right? So behind everything, just being a lot more thoughtful around, how can I still ensure there's this human element that I'm building for actual people even if it's a B2B product, right?
So, yeah, there's a big misconception too is that this falls on HR. This is separate from what we do and also this is a huge undertaking to start to integrate into our practices. And it's not, it's just a couple of extra questions as we start to make decisions. And then getting your team used to that too, right?
A lot of this too relies on not only your company culture, but team culture. I love to focus on that more, especially when I was a project manager, because that really bleeds outward a lot more than anything else. So like, how is your team doing your forming, storming, norming, performing around these practices?
How did they understand it? There's a really great exercise too, that you can do with your team to create a product code of ethics. So from Pavani Reddy's book, Mythical Product Strategy, she has this ethics aid that you can start to follow. Grab individual leaders from each discipline and have them start to like put this together or have your team like put this together.
Like what's going to be our code of ethics on this initiative of exactly what we're setting to do, how we will impact the user in this way, how we will test and understand that and make it accessible and inclusive in all these ways. So there's a lot of great exercises that you can also get your team doing for the buy-in for them to be looking for opportunities and raise their hand in that way for more ethical practices.
Hannah Clark: One of the exercises that you had mentioned in an interview we did in the past was the anti product. And I think that that's a really interesting way to frame your product in your own mind and your team's mind and kind of align on what you don't want to be. So can you walk me through how that exercise works?
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah, I am so glad you brought this up. I really love this. So this is going back to my improv roots and a game called New Choice, which I'm sure that you've heard of where you're going about a scene and someone says new choice and you have to think of something new for that answer that you get over and over again until the facilitator is happy with it.
But I really like this one because it kind of goes against the thinking of like the evil twin of my product. So I can also think of like, what does this look like in the wrong hands? If someone was to lead this, I don't want to mention names, but X in some ways, right? It's making me feel anti social network.
Anyway, so let's like, what's a digital product that you could think of, Hannah, that maybe used in the last like couple of weeks?
Hannah Clark: Slack.
Samantha Gonzalez: Slack. Okay, cool. So what is an anti Slack look like? And your team would just like start to either whiteboard or if you're in some sort of mural or whimsical things like that, like what is the anti Slack product look like?
It's like one individual alone in a room. They're being told what to do. Like you're shouting out features. You tell people, Hey, you're not invited to this room and you're never going to get into it. Right? That's really going to help people feel like they're a part of this community.
Like this channel is off limits to you and you'll never be in it. Like a mean girl Slack. Oh my God, I love it.
Hannah Clark: There's a sketch there.
Samantha Gonzalez: Yeah, exactly. I was just like, yes, that's great. Right? So, like I said before with improv, you're getting people playing and having fun with this, but also it might spark ideas for new features or guardrails that you want to be putting in your product, things like that, that you might not be thinking of initially.
Hannah Clark: I love that. I think that's a really good way to frame and I think that it's applicable beyond product as well to even just the practices that we have in our team's culture and some of the things that we just see as part of the status quo that maybe can be challenged. And speaking of team culture, and we mentioned before, I wanted to dive deeper into psychological safety because I think it's such an important topic that we're starting to see more conversation around that now.
And in a product team concept is so vital. So in the context of a product team, what does psychological safety mean to you? And how is that fostered at the DockYard team?
Samantha Gonzalez: There's a whole lot around psychological safety that I like to dig into immediately with my team. Much like a product code of ethics, I also have a code of conduct that I like to create with my teams of how, like, I do this team startup exercise at the beginning of every new initiative or I'm on client projects. So that would be a larger engagement that we would conduct this exercise with. I like people to open up and say, what's your communication style?
What are your pet peeves? Like I start to have these questions and this was pulled from an exercise from frog design that I pulled years ago that I love and I've done on every single project since then. What does life outside of work look like? If you feel comfortable sharing. What do we need to know around what you're experiencing right now that might affect your work?
And I've had people share extremely vulnerable things in that initial discussion that I say this is not going elsewhere. This is not for the client. This is not for managers and directors. This is just for us to have a conversation around. That really opens it up and makes people understand the human at the other end of the computer, especially since DockYard is a fully remote team.
So that is really, really critical for us as we try to establish a culture. I've never met some people in person before, and that's happened, obviously, a lot more in the last couple of years, and it's more of the norm. So as far as establishing psychological safety, it's just like humanizing everybody on the team initially and starting off the bat of like, What is safe to me?
And I do that through a couple of different exercise or prompts within that exercise. And then largely at DockYard, we have a lot of really great anonymous suggestion boxes and feedback surveys and things like that that we try to gather on the ID initiatives and culture and how are managers doing. So we really try to evoke that healthy feedback discourse, healthy conflict in that way.
It's something that we're always talking about through radical candor, which we love and have adopted, right? How do we care deeply, but still give people exactly the feedback that they need to continuously improve? So we do a lot of leadership trainings within that, both with managers and directors.
But then also we open things up to a cast a wider net. So everybody's open up to the learnings and knows what we're doing to improve our processes there.
Hannah Clark: Yeah, I find it so heartening and meaningful that companies like DockYard are starting to take this seriously. I think that all of us have at one point worked for a company where this was not a priority.
So I really appreciate just hearing that there's really some thought going in at the leadership level. I think that anyone listening who has been in an unpsychologically safe environment would appreciate that kind of treatment. So thank you for doing that.
So that kind of leaves us not a whole lot of time left. So if folks want to continue to listen or follow the work that you're doing online, where can they find you?
Samantha Gonzalez: The best place that you can find me is on LinkedIn. I am no longer using Twitter. I'm still dipping my toe into Substack and Discord. I feel like a person who is totally out of the loop with some things like that.
So, best way you can find me as LinkedIn and then DockYard is on all those socials too. We actually have an ebook on Ethical Product Strategy that you can download for free without giving your email. So that's available and accessible, and I can link that in show notes or wherever you provide that.
Hannah Clark: That sounds great. We'll happy to do that for you. Samantha, thank you so much for joining us. This was a really great conversation and I think really important as well. So I really appreciate the time you took.
Samantha Gonzalez: Thank you so much. And it was so great talking to you.
Hannah Clark: Thanks for listening in. For more great insights, how-to guides and tool reviews, subscribe to our newsletter at theproductmanager.com/subscribe. You can hear more conversations like this by subscribing to the Product Manager, wherever you get your podcasts.