Exchange programs aren’t only for Students!

A few years ago, as I entered my second lifetime at Viacom, I suggested to my management that we start up an internal ‘exchange program’ for Viacom Product Managers.  We selected four star performers from different parts of the organization – ex. a product manager from our central video player team, a UX lead from the Comedy Central brand product team – and asked them to switch locations and responsibilities for three months.

The goals were multifold but can be summarized as an attempt to ‘stir-the-pot’.  By stepping into the role tangential but different from your day-job we found that product developers contributed both to their home and away teams.  Central teams received first hand feedback from their brand customers.  Brand teams received a better understanding of the long term requirements and goals that shape central platform “software” requirements.  In both cases, employees shared and learned different styles of getting similar jobs done.

The exchange program is not without challenges.  In many cases, exchanged product managers had to do both their new job AND their old job, since it was impossible to fully on- and off-board their home-team responsibilities.  There was also management overhead added to busy teams with the burn of losing those employees at three months – just after they ramped up to speed.

That said, I believe the benefits of this program greatly outweigh the required extra effort.  Product Management is often called out as a study in empathy.  By switching seats and teams, our best performers not only cross-pollinated some of our best ideas, but got a first hand feel for the requirements of their sister teams.