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Leadership Stories

Growing a transparent team with Brett Collinson of Backpack Health

Clubhouse

Illustration by Michele Rosenthal

After 20+ years of working with companies ranging from Codecademy to Mercedes-Benz, Brett Collinson turned his experience and expertise to a new position as Senior VP of Product at healthtech startup Backpack Health, where he leads the product development efforts. The company recently launched a tool to enable greater portability of individual and family health information. As he puts it:

“We want to allow people, whether they are relatively healthy or living with a chronic or acute health condition, to have all the information about their health that’s relevant to them. We don’t want more proprietary silos of information about you that you don’t have full access to or can’t bring together to create a single, consolidated picture of what’s happening with your health. Everyone will be better off if all this information is together and we think that empowering individuals to do this is the key.”

Brett’s standard day is a mix of making sure the product development pathway is clear, scoping out new features, working in tandem with product managers and designers on their upcoming features, planning upcoming work, and adding a product perspective to other areas of the company, like commercial and user engagement.

His long career and multitude of work environments means that he has a pretty clear sense of what makes great product teams tick. Read on to learn what he values most:

“We love transparency and working in the open.”

Plenty of other teams (including Buffer) have written about the values of transparency in their communication. You don’t have to go as far as having fully-transparent email (as Buffer does), but the ability to check in and see what different teams are working on can keep your different teams working in sync and make sure everyone understands what projects are being prioritized and why.

This is often especially important in remote teams. Since the Backpack Health team is fully remote, they can’t ambiently know what’s going on from the water cooler conversation, or seeing someone’s screen.

Aside from that, it’s important to Brett that his team be open to sharing their works in progress and collaborating on them with the rest of the team (even if that collaboration is just some added comments).

“It can take people a little bit to get used to — some people are used to only revealing work that they think is done,” he says. But he stresses the importance of working in the open and letting go of the need for perfection, adding that this helps everyone because it creates a more open, relaxed environment without perfectionist pressure.

His biggest tip on making this kind of workplace transparency function well?

“Foster a culture where people are kind with their comments — honest, but kind — and where good intent is assumed all around, both from the creator and the commenter.”

Foster a culture where people are kind with their comments — honest, but kind — and where good intent is assumed all around, both from the creator and the commenter. Brett Collinson, Senior VP of Product at Backpack Health

Putting in the face time

As a fully-remote team, it’s important that the crew at Backpack Health have tools that both fit their workflow and let them stay in touch. Like many virtual teams, they rely heavily on Slack: “It’s how we stay connected — a totally virtual environment.” Whenever possible, they enable Slack integrations with other tools they use, including Clubhouse, to keep everyone updated.

They also spend a lot of time in video chats, with Zoom being their tool of choice for that. “It’s now second nature to slip into video chats, either with one person or a group of people multiple times a day.” Brett and his team have found it much easier to have a conversation and communicate clearly when you have the aid of facial cues.

“As a company, we only meet face to face probably every three or four months. Video chat really sustains us, and it sustains our connection, so we understand where everyone is coming from. It’s been a huge help.”

“We don’t want heavy process.”

At Backpack Health, Brett has also implemented a concrete process for taking an idea from concept to development. When you’re working in-person, teams can often be a bit more lax about process, since they know that they can lean on proximity and communication. Since the Backpack Health team is fully remote (and scattered across time zones), everyone needs to know exactly what’s going on with a specific effort.

“It’s not quite hard and fast yet — it’s certainly not the style you see in larger organizations. But we do write a short statement of what the business and user requirements are, build up a workflow of the user journey, and write a functional statement about what we’re working on to nail some of those details down ahead of time.”

Not only is having this documentation around important for keeping the entire team on track, they’re also very conscious (especially as startups go) about building a solid foundation of understanding how the system works. They carefully maintain functional specs for the whole system, as opposed to relying on an accumulation of completed stories over time.

Brett notes that startups often start their documentation by relying on user stories. However, this tends to cause problems a year or two down the line when someone wants to understand how something works and has to sift through multiple different stories to understand the inception and evolution of that functionality. “Stories alone don’t scale and aren’t robust over time,” he adds.

Although they prioritize documentation, the team is also very conscious of striking the right balance between too much structure and too little. “We don’t want heavy process,” says Brett, “but we recognize that doing things in a specific sequence of steps with the right level of detail and making sure that everyone is converging on the idea in an orderly way makes a big difference. Especially as opposed to having the product team off doing something by itself, and then just handing it over to development and having them say, ‘What’s all this about?’”

Growing and adding new members

One growing pain the Backpack Health team has gone through is adding team members from different time zones. Originally, the whole team was based on the east coast of the United States, but as they’ve grown, they’ve added people from the midwest and west coast. As a result of this, they had to adjust some of their workflow, because they couldn’t rely on everyone being online at the same time.

“We’ve had to be more mindful about when we need asynchronous communication versus when we need immediate communication.”

Above all, Brett’s focus is on seeing his teammates and his company succeed.

“Most people want to do great work that’s meaningful and that they can be proud of. Help them achieve that.”

Most people want to do great work that’s meaningful and that they can be proud of. Help them achieve that. Brett Collinson, Senior VP of Product at Backpack Health

How does your team decide when to use asynchronous vs. immediate communication tools? Let us know on Twitter.