Allowing teams to do their work is the hard part.
Michael and I do a fair bit of work on topics like product-market fit and validating clients’ product and market strategies. We recently completed work with a company that I would characterize as a good exemplar of a “great” product team. In fact, during one of the calls with the client, Michael pinged me on Slack, “they appear to be amazingly competent”. It’s what inspired me to write this post.
We see a lot of different organizations in both non-profit and commercial setting and always learn a ton about organization design, leadership and the impact of product teams on the enterprise’s relative success. Of course, I have my own learning experiences leading a large, multi-tens-of-millions dollars product organization as well. There are several distinct themes that separate the bad or merely good from the great, which I will try to parse out with a bit of EdTech context:
- Customer centricity vs. business centricity
- Trust vs. command and control
- Leadership vs. management
Great product teams serve the customer
Being “customer first” may seem trite or cliché to some, but it is worth being very clear about why this matters and why it is hard for some organizations to be great at it. First, many organizations do business strategy planning and the product roadmaps fall out of what the various business functions believe to be important – often claiming to be customer-centric. Here’s what that might look like in different settings:
- The sales and marketing teams listen to the hype cycle being driven by hot startups and/or innovators in the industry. In EdTech the classic example is “adaptive learning”; a category rife with widely divergent approaches. That hype cycle buzz is amplified by the media and the talk on the floor of the trade shows. That hype cycle in turn creates real and perceived roadblocks with customers in the sales process. Sales and marketing in turn demand that “product” add those features in the roadmap immediately, only to find that by the time “product” delivers, the hype has moved into the trough of disillusionment.
- The technology team emerges from business planning worried about a range of real-world threats to the tech stack, cybersecurity, tech debt and growing overhead costs associated with the delivery environments. FERPA, GDPR, and especially web accessibility offer consistent headaches for EdTech teams. The technology team believes they—not “product”—are accountable for these business risks and in turn demand that well more than half of the available roadmap is devoted to “non-functional requirements” to offset the real and perceived risks. Often this leads to risk-shifting, where one risk is solved only to push the cost and accountability (e.g., reduced product innovation, forced tech migration costs) elsewhere in the organization and on the balance sheet.
- The “product” team is really operating as an agile scrum team, which could be great, but they have become religious about a specific implementation of agile. Agile methods deconstruct customer value into smaller “chunks” for execution, based on the premise that teams can iterate subsequent releases to get customer value “just right”. The challenge, particularly in EdTech, is that release cycles do not typically allow for incremental customer validation because shipping features that change educator or learner experiences during a term is strictly verboten. The overly precious focus on the process model undermines innovation, and the “product” person becomes a de facto backlog manager, delivering output but not necessarily value.
- The leadership team believes they need a big project to talk about with the board and shareholders. They establish a “big idea” initiative and pull key talent into a “tiger team” or something similar, set them up with their own budget and tell them to go build the next generation something or other platform. I have seen this a number of times in EdTech: an LMS trying to build a content marketplace, a book seller building an ebook platform, an institution building its own LMS, ebook and marketplace. The project begins to consume all the internal executive spotlights, water cooler chatter, investor attention and generates negative energy across the rest of the organization, causing talent to flee and customers to question what they can expect.
Great product teams serve the customers in ways that are aligned to and meet the needs of the business. They are specifically a cross-functional mix of product, design, analysts, engineering and architecture, intentionally supported by other key functions and empowered to solve problems. Those problems are framed as being directly customer-centric and are lined out against customer value creation; customer utility and usability; the feasibility of organization’s ability to implement (on-time/on-budget); and the viability of the solution across dimensions of the business. The product team is then held accountable to metrics related to the solving of those problems. And everyone in the business understands the importance of supporting that product team, helping them make informed decisions, avoiding delivery pitfalls, and messaging clearly to internal and external audiences about customer value and related business results.
In the case of our exemplar client, while we do not have organization charts or much visibility into how they operate, it became clear that the product team holds true to the role of creating customer value. The other teams spoke to us of how they are contributing to a shared set of outcomes, how they are providing critical information for the product team to consider about feasibility, time to market, user interaction design. And that the product team owns the customer value creation in line with the needs of the business.
Great product teams assemble great talent and earn trust
A lot of companies hire product managers and tell them to, well, manage products. As discussed above, this might happen in different flavors, with different results, past performance isn’t indicator of future performance etc. etc.
Great product teams (and companies) realize very early on that the qualitative nature of their products holds a very specific correlation to the qualitative nature of their talent and how they are empowered. These teams place considerable emphasis on talent acquisition and management. The talent acquisition is about character equally as much as past track record, technical skills, or the pedigree of their education. Short cuts and trade-offs are not allowed, character matters a lot. Demonstrated integrity and personal motivations for wanting to be on the team are critical, but humility, or lack thereof, is a deciding factor.
And as great product teams are assembled they are set up deliberately to earn trust across the organization. There are myriad ways to do this, and if you’re following the thread, this trust is essential, it is why great product teams focus on talent acquisition and grooming to demonstrate their competence and ultimately to own the customer value creation in line with the needs of the business.
In the case of our exemplar client, we have no direct insight to their talent acquisition approaches, but we were struck by a very consistent attitude across the functional teams: they are all in it together. Often we hear functional teams at odds, and air grievances with us hoping we can “help” (which only sometimes we can, see below). Competence, confidence and ability to execute are all enhanced when the team(s) are rowing in the same direction.
Great product teams understand where leadership and management matter
All too frequently, companies believe the role of executive leadership is to provide a command-and-control model of “management”. It’s pretty straightforward, especially with experienced, and “intelligent” (frequently not humble) executives. They think they know what the customer wants, they see trends in the market to guide the arc of the business, and they start directing product teams what to build, how to build it, and when they want it. They might even require the team to work with an external “partner” that brings a technological innovation or apparent engineering competence not found in the existing team. From there the work falls to managing the “partner” and crafting multi-page decks for the regular executive update meeting, where all focus is on delivery, and very little on customer value creation. The product teams all fall into a rhythm of meeting their individual roadmap’s obligations, with little or no cohesion or coherence when it’s rolled up.
Management should not be confused with Leadership. Management of a great product team should be about what I discussed in the previous section: how you approach talent acquisition, talent development and coaching, and the goals and objective outcomes by which talent will be measured. (yes, the financial business metrics flow from this, your org is your product)
Leadership, on the other hand, begins with the transition point from well-managed team development to the grooming of trusted teams that are empowered to solve the problems that stand in the way of them creating customer value in line with the needs of the business. Leadership is the arbiter of how trust is developed within great product teams. And there is a straight line between a carefully crafted description of the company’s vision (or the product vision in bigger companies) and how product strategy and priorities are executed. Leadership sets the tone, provides the purpose and the critical points of alignment, and establishes the operating culture; that word – trust – looms large in the responsibility set of leadership.
And great leadership, in great product companies, then becomes the number one cheerleader—gets out of the way, empowers, and evangelizes. Even better, a hallmark of great leadership is ensuring credit goes where and when credit is due.
In the case of our exemplar client, again without benefit of being “on the shop floor”, we got a keen sense of teamwork and trust. Leadership providing the framework for what’s important, the value of the mission, and the goal for creating customer value and how it aligns to the vitally important strategic objectives for the business. Yes, amazingly competent.