If you’ve been tasked with scaling the product team, you’ve probably already spent some time thinking about the traits of high-performing product teams. Today we’ll talk about the how and explain what’s in the secret sauce of an all-star product team. While there’s no five-minute recipe to whipping up a cohesive, successful product team, a little strategic tinkering can go a long way. Here are five strategies to focus on when you want to bring out the very best in you and your people.
1. Know what makes a good product leader
Leadership—and specifically, good leadership—is on the minds of most folks right now. Regardless of where you stand along the political divide, there are probably few among us who haven’t pondered the impact of leadership locally and globally today. Generally speaking, leadership is about guiding a team towards a unified goal. More specifically, however, it’s good leadership that’s so critical to the health of a product team and the success of reaching that goal.
What makes a good product leader? Is it the inherent qualities in a person? The chemistry of a team? A little of both, or something else? Actually it’s all of the above. Experts have identified general characteristics that all leaders share, but good leadership also depends on the unique individual and the team they lead.
In 1939, Kurt Lewin, a psychologist, and his team of researchers first identified three primary leadership styles: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. Perhaps the most intriguing finding from the team’s research is that leadership can be taught and learned. Other experts have continued to research this topic, adding additional traits to the list and perspectives to the mix.
“All leaders are not created equal. There’s no one particular leadership style that makes product teams successful.”
Undeniably, all leaders are not created equal. And while that might not always result in an ideal outcome, that uniqueness is ultimately a good thing. When you think of a quintessential leader, who comes to mind? Steve Jobs, venerable founder of Apple, is considered by many to be a one-of-a-kind visionary leader. His unique flavor of leadership and dedication to innovation helped create a tech empire. We can’t all be Steve Jobs, but we can take a few pages from his playbook.
While there’s no one particular leadership style that makes product teams successful, product managers who are willing to take the time to figure out what works best for their teams will set the course for successfully reaching a unified goal.
2. Start with the right people
Obviously, leaders don’t go it alone. A leader needs a team, and you don’t have to look very far to find people. It’s finding the right people that’s so challenging (and really, this is what keeps leaders awake at night). What should you be looking for as you build your all-star product team?
Lea Hickman, former VP of Product Management at InVision (an award-winning SaaS-based product design collaboration platform) and Adobe, looks for these three traits in product managers, but they could be applied to just about any role:
- Communication skills: “Product managers need to be exceptional communicators.”
- Conviction: “The more subtle, harder thing to interview for is conviction. A great product manager believes in what they’re creating, and has conviction around their ideas. And by that, I don’t mean falling in love with your idea. I mean having a defensible conviction about your idea and being able to stand behind it, and answer the ‘why’. I talk a lot about the why. We often fall short in explaining the why to other people, and that’s part of the conviction. If you can explain why you want to do something, you have conviction.”
- Humility: “The final trait is something that’s important for me when I’m hiring and in product managers I like to work with — a sense of humility. Understanding it’s not about you. It’s about getting an opportunity to shop for the product and get it into the hands of users — letting users decide.”
It’s also helpful to establish a repeatable process for finding and vetting product managers, so you can continue to grow your team.
3. The power of product squads
If your company were a restaurant, would it be staffed with a bunch of short-order cooks who can replicate standard fare or expert chefs, each responsible for a specific aspect of a unique culinary experience?
Staying focused on a particular goal—or even a specific task—almost feels like a luxury today. And that’s precisely what product squads get to do. They don’t work across entire products or on ad hoc projects assigned by management. Squads do, however, focus entirely on a functional area, enabling the company to develop significant expertise and intellectual capital across each functional area of its offering.
Since 2012, Spotify has followed a product squad approach. Each squad is made up of eight people—developers and a product owner—and has real autonomy. Spotify has discovered that it can “develop significant expertise and intellectual capital across each functional area of its offering. In other words, it can build teams of true industry experts, rather than a single large team of coding generalists.” Spotify thinks of its squads as independent startups.
4. Where there are passionate people, there will be conflict
Now that you’ve brought together the right people, everyone is going to get along swimmingly, right? Wrong. When people work together, there’s bound to be conflict. While conflict can feel counterproductive, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the heart of most conflict is passion and conviction.
“Where there are passionate people, there will be conflict — and that’s a good thing.”
Passion in one’s work is a beautiful thing. It fuels productivity, commitment, innovation and so much more. And it often leads to conflict. If developers coming head to head over the best solution to a problem or finding team members at odds because they will never see eye to eye as they simply don’t share the same functional vantage point is just another day at the office, take heart: Conflict can be constructive. In fact, many argue that conflict is crucial to making meaningful progress towards a unified goal.
Unfortunately, many of us aren’t as well-equipped as we might like at navigating conflict (professional or otherwise), and more likely than not lacking the requisite skills to use conflict constructively. So how in the world do you work through conflict as a team and use it constructively? Joel Peterson, Chairman of JetBlue Airways and consulting professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, believes that conflict can, in fact, be quite good for business and that “the key is to convert discord into opportunities for learning and growth.” Peterson offers three strategies for turning conflict into opportunities.
Of course, not all conflict is necessary or productive. This type of conflict is usually born of poor communication or lack of transparency, and it’s dangerous because it puts teams on a fast track to losing trust, focus and time. The easiest thing to do is just try to avoid it by upping your communication game. Make sure everyone stays on the same page by leveraging tools that make it easy to access the most up-to-date information instantly and collaborate when ideas are flowing.
5. One (beautiful) roadmap to guide them all
Even the smartest people on the planet who can skillfully resolve any conflict aren’t going to get anywhere fast if they aren’t on the same page. Your vision and strategy deserve better than being trapped in a static spreadsheet or siloed on a slide.
Product roadmap software is a high-level tool designed to help product managers communicate a product’s strategy to multiple constituencies across the company. A product roadmap aligns people, vision and strategy by giving you the ability to communicate your product’s high-level, strategic view. With a tool like ProductPlan, you can create and share live roadmaps with just a few clicks, quickly update your roadmap in real time as decisions are made, easily share your roadmap to build consensus across your organization, introduce a consistent roadmap process across teams and use it to guide your all-star product team to victory.
Building an all-star product team takes focus, but it’s well worth the effort. Which of these areas will you bring into focus this year?