As a product team grows from one or two individual contributors to a larger, more diverse team, it takes some work to ensure everyone is set up for success. Different personalities, styles, and expectations can create inconsistent experiences for others when dealing with the product team. This process can hurt the overall productivity of the group, or even damage product management’s reputation within the organization.
But with a little bit of structure, a dash of communication, and some coaching and mentorship, a product team can get on the right track to level up its game. So what does a high-performing product team actually look like? Here are the dozen traits to give you an idea:
1. Transparency and visibility across the organization
When a product team is communicating to the larger organization, the subject matter falls into three main buckets:
- Where we’ve been—Quantitative analysis and reporting on how the product is being used, with consistent metrics that show progress toward goals.
- Where we are—Communication of current capabilities and how they stack up against the rest of the market.
- Where we’re going—A clear roadmap showing how the product is evolving to help the company meet its goals.
By covering all three of these on a regular basis, you’re elevating the value your team brings and greasing the gears for future collaboration and cooperation.
High-performing teams also make information accessible—both in availability and consumability—instead of holding it close in a power grab. Being seen as a source of great intelligence and insight is a major boost for the team.
2. Empowered and autonomous
People don’t usually go into product management because they just want to follow orders and constantly seek approval. Rather, they want to be independent thinkers and problem solvers with room to innovate. So if your team’s philosophy doesn’t empower product managers to take ownership and make some calculated risks, you’re both stifling your staff and reducing the value the team can offer the rest of the company.
Plus, if everyone has to constantly check with their boss before they do anything, you’re creating a process destined for bottlenecks and inefficiency. Top-down management is the opposite of agility, which is often what your organization needs to compete, react, and adjust quickly.
“Personal objectives are key, they provide a specific sense of direction and enable your team members to have a real sense of progress when goals are reached, or put in the Done column,” says Faye Benfield of Comic Relief.
Obviously autonomy and independence must be earned gradually. But as product team members gain your trust and experience success, you should be constantly letting the leash out a little longer so they can grow and thrive.
3. Aligned with organizational goals
A high-performing product team is always focused on the big-picture company mission, even when they’re deep in the weeds of their specific domain. When a team has a consistent understanding of the overarching objectives, this will guide them in the same overall direction when dealing with their individual areas of focus.
When a product team is out of alignment, it sends a mixed message to the rest of the company, causing less efficient planning. Avoid this by ensuring that everyone in the team fully understands the overarching vision everyone is working toward. And by paying attention to how the individual things they’re working on fit into that puzzle.
“It cannot be overstated how important it is that the Mission, Product Vision(s) and Product Strategy be communicated at every opportunity,” says Richard Banfield of Fresh Tilled Soil. “Communicate every single day. Until you hear your team repeating these things back to you without prompting, or observe it in their daily actions, you have not made an impression.”
This keeps people from getting too sucked into their particular domain while simultaneously ensuring every decision they make is made with that big picture in mind.
4. Top-notch people skills
Developers are allowed to be cranky, customer support have permission to be exasperated, and salespeople can be demanding. But product managers should always be on their best behavior. One of the essential aspects of the job is successfully interacting with every part of the organization and getting what they need through influence, charm, and respect.
Product managers can rarely make demands because other parts of the company aren’t accountable to them. So instead of a heated exchange or temper tantrum, they must rely on even-tempered, data-driven persuasion. High-performing teams are viewed as knowledgeable, approachable, and open to feedback and suggestions.
Teams (or team members) barking down orders from their ivory tower might get their way for a while, but long-term relationships with other departments cannot be built this way. When a crisis comes, the product team should be viewed as the source for solutions and not a drama factory.
5. Safe space enablers
High-performing product teams require the latest and greatest information from every relevant source. This is why they need both customers and colleagues to share concerns, feedback, and ideas with them on a regular basis. To keep that input coming from every corner, product teams must create an environment where suggestions are welcome and not viewed as personal attacks or criticism.
Product managers check their egos at the door and nod with a smile when they hear the same idea for the 15th time. And they must provide a positive feedback loop where suggestions are not only welcomed but encouraged and acted upon. When fellow employees recognize that the product team wants their input and will actually turn it into action, they’re far more likely to bring them ideas instead of just complaining to their spouse or discussing it with their internal team members.
“Soliciting feedback does not mean product plans change course with every new piece of input,” says startup executive Eran Aloni. “The best product managers are those who can define and articulate clear and consistent product vision while constantly evaluating it.”
6. Continuously improving
Never content with the status quo, a high-performing team will always push itself to do things better, both as a group and as individuals. This improves the quality of their output and demonstrates their commitment to quality by starting with themselves.
At the team level, many of these improvements will be related to process and communication. Think improving efficiency, enhancing quality control, streamlining processes, etc. Anything that maximizes output and minimizes useless overhead.
For individuals, this means learning about how technology works from the dev teams, gaining product insights from customer success, and tapping the sales team for information on what’s resonating with customers (and what’s lacking). Anything that allows you to become even more knowledgeable about the market, technology, and trends impacting the business and product.
7. Complementary of others
Product managers should be the ultimate team players (since they can’t do their jobs without the help of many others in the organization), yet their role can also lead them to be somewhat siloed and solitary at times. Teams that rise above this go out of their way to give credit to the individuals and groups within the organization that go over and above to make the company vision a reality.
For team leaders, praising individual contributors and making sure their accomplishments get proper visibility is also a key to high performance. Naturally, it can be very demotivating if you bust your tail only to receive little recognition or reward.
8. Staffed with top performers
One bad apple with a lousy attitude or over-inflated ego can undercut all the work you’ve done to build up your team’s reputation and perceived value in the organization. A high-performing team will consistently evaluate its talent, upgrading when necessary and addressing festering issues or weaknesses before they become problems.
“Companies often place too much emphasis on recruiting stars but not enough time on developing people into stars,” says Pranav Khanna of Capital One. “Ideally, managers are holding feedback and development conversations at least once a month and giving feedback in real-time.”
Too much turnover can damage productivity and create inconsistency in team performance. But when a new member does come onboard (either as backfill or through growth), a solid onboarding process should establish proper protocols, nurture good habits, and reinforce the “north star” all product team members use as their guidepost to align with overall company objectives.
9. Just the right amount of process
Too much process and red tape can slow a team down and limit its effectiveness, while not enough can create too much inconsistency. High-performing teams embrace processes that work and discard those serving little to no purpose.
For example, anyone should be able to suggest a product idea, but the idea must be accompanied by an actual business rationale and source. This shows the team is open to outside input but keeps things from being a free-for-all suggestion box.
10. Always customer centric
The product team should be the voice of the customer within both the business and technical pillars of the company. While everyone else is focused on making money or building something cool, high-performing product teams are always circling back to customer impact.
Not only does this keep the company’s decision-making process from becoming an echo chamber, it constantly aligns activities with the vision of improving the lives of its customers.
Product teams must be able to make up their minds and stick to plans once they’re laid. This doesn’t mean they’re dictators making knee-jerk decisions, but once the facts are in they can rapidly drive things to conclusion.
One way to imbue their team with this trait is to clearly designate the person who ultimately gets to call the shots and has unquestioned veto power. A documented and agreed upon chain of command avoids politics and back channels to focus on getting things done.
12. Challenge assumptions
Top teams don’t just follow the rules, they question why they were made in the first place. This isn’t just to be argumentative, it’s to stop the company from just doing things the way they’ve always been done due to inertia and a lack of introspection.
“That means they must have or develop an entrepreneurial streak or be willing to try different things,” according to the McKinsey and Company report, How to Select and Develop Individuals for Successful Agile Teams: A Practical Guide. “Agile teams thrive on confronting the status quo and discarding tradition in pursuit of a vision. They flourish by stretching or redefining existing constraints and by bending rules and traditions when necessary.”