When you’re just getting things started, an anything-goes, Wild West attitude can sometimes be a positive. There’s so much new information coming in daily and so many assumptions that have yet to be validated that people are just winging it to get stuff done. It feels like any action is better than inaction. But as exciting as it may be for product innovation, growth can present some challenges for product leaders.
Organizations won’t last very long without incorporating some layers of process and procedures. It isn’t to curtail or prevent progress. Rather it’s to ensure that the progress heads in the right direction and not leaving anything important behind.
From Chaos to Cohesion: Implementing Lightweight Product Processes
To maintain order while still enabling independent problem solving, dynamism, and autonomy, consider some key quandaries facing their organization. Thinking about these issues in advance versus waiting until there’s a problem is a good use of time, no matter how busy you may be.
More People, More Problems
Staffing up should be a big help. However, adding headcount requires some strategic thinking to maximize the value they can offer while minimizing any disruption or confusion for those already on board.
- Consistent pacing: Teams get into a rhythm once everyone understands their roles and responsibilities, as well as the speed and capabilities of their colleagues. When the team chemistry changes, it’s important to set realistic expectations regarding everyone’s capacity and bandwidth.
- Team structure: More people means more opportunity to divide and conquer versus flying solo. Who does what starts at this fundamental level and can impact candidates’ skills and attributes?
- Cultural consistency: Product managers are tone setters in the organization. When their numbers increase, it’s critical to deliver similar messages in similar styles and channels.
- Delegating versus micromanaging: A bigger team means product leaders must let go of some things they used to own and manage personally. Each product manager will need their level of supervision and must personally earn that trust. But without empowering them to make their calls on some things, they’ll feel stunted, and you’ll still be overwhelmed.
Process as a Plus
Providing some organization and procedural scaffolding might feel constraining to some, but it’s quite empowering when done correctly. The clarity and boundaries that lightweight product processes provide demarcate what requires approval and outside input versus what folks should be comfortable tackling individually.
When everyone understands the rules and expectations, they can just focus on playing the game. They aren’t left wondering if they should be seeking permission. Not everyone is as comfortable with asking for forgiveness after that, and they may not thrive in the limbo of ambiguity.
Stakeholder Engagement and Alignment
As product teams grow, the dynamic between product and other groups will inevitably change. The “CEO of the Product” concept goes out the window, and CTOs, salespeople, and finance folks will interface with multiple representatives of the product organization.
Since no two people will convey information in the same way, it’s more important than ever to get stakeholder buy-in early on in the process. Once they agree on the objectives, goals, and strategy, it will be far less confusing to interface with multiple product managers, each looking out for their particular areas of responsibility.
Building Your Roster and Assigning Positions
Nearly every team sport has positions, each with their own responsibilities during the contest. People end up in these positions because they excel in certain areas of the game or are deficient in others.
When a football team lines up for a field goal, they don’t just wait for an eager player to run onto the field and take the kick. Teams know exactly who’s going to do that and know they’re both superior at that task and have practiced and trained for it.
Likewise, baseball teams don’t let everyone have a go on the pitcher’s mound. The teams know it’s a specialized job that an otherwise excellent ballplayer would probably be terrible at.
By playing to people’s strengths and mitigating their weaknesses, teams get maximum value from their current roster. They can easily identify where they need an upgrade or some additional depth. They’ll recognize they lack a competent kicker or could benefit from an extra pitcher because their current ones are overworked.
The same logic applies when staffing up a product team. You don’t necessarily need clones just because the workload has grown unmanageable. Specialization is often the ticket to a more efficient deployment of resources.
But compartmentalizing and divvying up responsibilities requires a strategic approach to building out the organization. You must first determine what you need and then find the people who can do it. Only then can you assess your current talent and identify gaps that must be filled.
Out-of-the-Box Role Definition
When product teams add headcount, it’s very common to assign each product manager to specific features or aspects of the product. This person gets the APIs, that one does the front-end user experience, you handle the communication features, etc.
At face value, this makes a lot of sense, as each person can use their existing expertise in those domains and build out their subject matter knowledge while taking a deep dive into the details or their respective chunks of the product.
But another way of approaching this is by assigning product managers to specific objectives. You’re in charge of increasing adoption, that person handles increasing ARPU, and that one over there’s going to work on performance improvements.
It allows each product manager to take a holistic view of the entire product with a unique lens of achieving a specific outcome or improving particular KPIs. It will require more collaboration when it comes to allocating resources and syncing up schedules. Still, it gets people out of worrying about features in favor of concentrating on what the business itself values.
Templates, Artifacts, and Frameworks
These may feel like encumbrances for freewheeling organizations, but selecting and standardizing on a few of these will grease the skids for more overall autonomy.
When common tools and methodologies are employed across the organization, everyone is more comfortable interacting with them and has greater faith in their results. Whether RICE, MoSCoW, or DACI is the winning acronym for prioritization frameworks, familiarity and repetition will increase everyone’s confidence.
The same goes for how things are presented. Product roadmaps can be a great tool for building alignment, but the whole team should be using the same tools for building and sharing them, ideally having everything roll up into a single master product roadmap.
A Delicate Balance
Too much structure and people feel forced to go through the motions or cut corners to maintain their independence. Too little and no synergy or coordination leads to misalignment and endless meetings to get things back on track.
Finding that sweet spot of just enough structure can be tricky, but it’s worth the effort. Teams know the ground rules, understand their motivations and have common, complementary objectives. It lets leaders lead and add value instead of playing hall monitor or cleaning up messes that unconstrained team members create.
The guiding principles should be streamlining overhead and ensuring everyone is fully engaged and has a clear purpose, all while being grounded in a shared vision.
A Unified Destination
Everyone can’t all be working toward the same goals, metrics, OKRs, and KPIs if they don’t know where you’re trying to get to. Your team must also share the same vision and mission you’re trying to convey to the rest of the organization.
There should be 100% alignment on the objectives, outcomes, and definitions of product success before anyone feels comfortable working autonomously. There shouldn’t be any wiggle room or “room for interpretation” on these fundamental values.
But once they’re in place, agreed upon, and enthusiastically embraced by the team, most product professionals can internalize these and apply them to their domains and roles. Whenever there’s any doubt, they can reflect on how their efforts contribute to the common cause.
Products mature, organizations evolve, the staff comes and goes. What made sense in January and was still working in April might not cut it in October. It means there’s room for ongoing reevaluation, reengineering, and tweaking over time.
You should always welcome and seek out comments and feedback on existing product processes and structures. Notify the team there is an appetite to identify things that aren’t working anymore or are due for an adjustment.
Encouraging this input while creating forums and opportunities for it are essential for people to share what they think. Avoid assuming a “we’ve got this figured all out” posture. Instead, be open that things are always a work-in-progress that can and should adapt.
With a thoughtful approach to building structure and routine for product teams, product leaders feel much more confident. At the same time, giving their staff a longer leash and more autonomy. Both parties know what’s expected and have some guidelines on how to proceed. At the same time, they still have enough independence to flourish on their own.
Delegating is never easy at first. However, with just enough process in place product leaders can limit how far an individual product manager might roam. They still give themselves time to focus on the overall big picture and provide management support and mentorship.