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How do you build a successful product team? "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 17 December 2021 True Autonomy, Bias, communication skills, Empowered product teams, high performing teams, Personal Growth, Product Management, team building, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 4161 Product Management 16.644
· 20 minute read

How do you build a successful product team?

What does it take to build and maintain a successful product team, one that’s driven, motivated and ultimately successful? In this post, speaking to a range of product experts, we try to answer this question.

A combination of factors — like hiring the right people, establishing a vision, defining success in a way that everyone understands, clear and consistent communication, and ensuring the team continually grows and develops — lay the groundwork for a successful team. This article examines these factors and asks what all team members need to do to ensure that they understand and ensure success.

Hiring the right product people

Mind the Product has lots of resources to help you pin down the right people to join your team. Product coach Petra Wille, speaking in an MTP Leader panel, Hiring and developing product managers, comments that a good product manager is somebody who is always striving for clarity and seeking balance — “that’s clarity towards stakeholders, upper management, their team, the customers, clients”. On the same panel discussion, product management consultant Kate Leto adds that great product managers need a combination of human and technical skills, saying: “A great product manager has this sense of composition and they are looking at the team, making sure that each person is in the role where they contribute the best to the overall ingredients that we’re trying to achieve.”

Kate’s #mtpcon London talk from a couple of years ago, The secret sauce to hiring great product people posits that emotional intelligence (EQ) is more important than any technical skill. Kate says we all know that bad hiring decisions can be costly, and her talk examines person/organisation fit and how to hire for Product EQ so that the people you hire fit into your teams.

Alex Yang and Max Bevan from non-profit Simprints found it difficult to hire top talent with charity/NGO rates, so they treated hiring as a product and kept iterating until they had built their product team. It’s an approach which led to dramatic improvements in their hiring process, and they run through their achievements in this episode of The Product Experience podcast, Hacking the hiring process. Lastly, in another of our podcast episodes, Hire women!, Debbie Madden of Stride Consulting talks about some of the hard business benefits she’s seen from hiring for diversity. She says, for example, that by putting the job spec for an HR role through a gender-neutral wording tool, she went from 75% male applicants to 75% female applicants, with the same title, “literally overnight”.

Assess competencies at interview

Chris Mason, director and founder of recruitment consultants Intelligent People, always encourages clients to assess against a list of competencies when interviewing. This helps with consistency and clarity, and the removal of unconscious bias. It enables interviewers to get some data, and means they are able to score interviews. “Questions should be linked to things that are important for the role that you’re scoring against,” he says. “If you get a really good answer you can give the candidate a grading based on the depth of their answer, the outcome, or whatever. Then you start to get some really good data to help you understand who is best for the role.” Make a copy of our basic Interview Scorecard Template (we’ve provided some examples within).

Use blind CVs

Michael Morris, VP Global Product Management at consumer credit reporting company Experian uses a similar approach. He comments that because cross-functional teams are expensive to run and difficult to get right, there are a few attributes – what Experian terms principles – that he looks for when interviewing to help ensure the right people get hired.  The use of blind CVs also helps to remove any unconscious bias and make the top of the funnel as open as possible, he says. “We like to see people who are service minded — someone who treats everybody like the customer and thinks about being responsive, clear and articulate.”

Seek out discovery-focused people

The second principle is being “discovery focused”, meaning Michael looks for candidates who show curiosity and learn on a regular basis. Thirdly, Michael also looks for people who can articulate or demonstrate that product management is more than technology and products and that they can think end-to-end. “The business of a product means how the product idea comes about, how it is sold, supported and marketed, so a product manager must be able to think about all the layers that make a product a success,” he says. The fourth attribute is high performance, says Michael, “and by this I mean we want people who are passionate about whatever they do”.

Look for candidates who show curiosity (Image: Shutterstock)

Onboard like you mean it

Once you’ve found the right person for the job, effective onboarding is essential to the hiring process. This means more than a few introductions and training courses, because onboarding can have a hugely positive impact on an employee’s ability to integrate quickly and be effective, and on longer-term retention rates. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in the US, 69% of employees are more likely to stay with a company for three years if they experienced great onboarding, while new employees who went through a structured onboarding programme were 58% more likely to be with the organisation after three years.

Remote onboarding

It’s much harder to join a business during a pandemic when everyone is working at home — it’s much harder to navigate company culture, build relationships, and understand how things get done if you don’t meet people face-to-face – and not all businesses get this remote onboarding right. Katerina Suchkova is a product leader and coach and group product manager at 15Five, a business that has always been remote-first. Like the rest of us, she’s heard stories of new hires feeling overwhelmed by the numbers of people they’ve met virtually or uncertain of what’s expected from them in their first few weeks, and has given some thought to how effectively to onboard remote staff. She says that while the way in which new hires are onboarded is dependent on company culture, there is an opportunity for hiring managers to create a “mini culture” that supports better onboarding.

Here are three simple things you can do to:

1. Set expectations

Setting out initial expectations is fundamental, she says. “Usually a week or so before someone joins I create an onboarding document that outlines my expectations for the new hire for the first week, for the first month, and for the first three months.”

Katerina shares the onboarding document with her new hire during their one-to-one on their first day. It sits outside any official HR induction and training programmes, and makes it clear to the new hire that there is no rush, that they are in charge and in control of their own time, and that they don’t have to meet everyone on the team. It’s a reference document that creates some psychological safety and peace of mind for the new hire, she says, they know what to expect, and that there is no right or wrong, and it shows that everyone respects their time. This latter point is especially relevant at the moment she says, because people often feel pressure to be synchronous and respond quickly in a virtual environment.

2. Provide an onboarding buddy

An onboarding buddy who’s been with the company for a while is also a huge help. “It provides peace of mind for the new team member,” Katerina says. In fact, as explained in Every New Employee Needs an Onboarding Buddy by Dawn Klinghoffer, head of people analytics at Microsoft, the results of an onboarding buddy pilot program at Microsoft indicated that 56% of new hires felt they were able to be more productive as a result of meeting with their onboarding buddy just once within the first 90 days in their role. In addition, 23% of new hires at Microsoft reported being more satisfied with their onboarding experience.

An onboarding buddy should have an understanding of the department the new hire will be working in and be able to articulate organisational values and goals. Their role is to provide guidance in the first few months. In person this might involve showing them around the building, introducing them to team mates or even great lunch spots near the office. When remote, it might be providing guidance on a particular tool or explaining the team’s etiquette in Slack, for example. Check out Buddying Up for Great Employee Onboarding and How (and Why) to Build an Onboarding Buddy Program for more information.

3. Don’t overwhelm

A common and big mistake is to overwhelm new hires with information and connections in their first week. Says Katerina: “Imagine it’s your first day — you get invited to all 100 channels, then someone starts messaging you saying, ‘I’m so happy you’re here, we have so much work for you’, and you get invited to a team meeting with no context. I see people wanting to be helpful by trying to connect – the intention is good, but the impact is not.”

It can be confusing to existing team members if new hires don’t reach out right away so be sure to set expectations within your team too. Prior to your new hire starting, make clear that your team knows what to expect and why.

Setting a team up for success

Setting a team up for success centres around what product coach Dave Martin calls mission control. “It’s all about demonstrating the outcomes you want to achieve and empowering your teams to go do it, not believing that you’ve got to have the answer,” he says. Again Mind the Product has lots of resources that examine the attributes of a successful team, one that’s diverse, self organising and cross-functional, founded on trust, empathy and psychological safety.

Empower teams

A high-performing team is an empowered team. As Marty Cagan comments in this SVPG blog post Empowered product teams, “empowered teams that produce extraordinary results don’t require exceptional hires”. They require competent people who can establish the necessary trust with their teammates and with the rest of the company. You can also watch Marty’s Prioritised member AMA on Empowering Teams, Discovery Challenges, Alignment, and More.

Ensure psychological safety

Members of a successful team should communicate well with each other, focus on goals, be organised, have fun, have good leadership, and feel safe to fail. As Matt LeMay puts it in his post, Why is Psychological Safety at Odds With the Way We Work?: “Teams that feel safe to try, fail, communicate, and ask questions are more likely to do all those good things we want to do as product leaders: test and learn, focus on outcomes over outputs, and deliver customer value”.

A successful team  communicates well and has fun (Image: Shutterstock)

Lead with transparency

Ben Newell, VP of Product and Engineering at commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE comments that his goal is to run a transparent organisation, because “transparency creates trust and trust creates transparency”. Measurement is an important part of this, he says — and Ben’s top tip is always to have a visible scoreboard. He says: “By this I mean KPIs that you can track and regularly point to, and everyone on the team knows where they live and can point to them. What would a basketball game look like if there wasn’t a scoreboard?”

Experian has done some interesting work to define success and has designed a transparent process to measure it. Michael comments that ultimately the success of the product is part of the definition of success for a product manager. But a number of variables can affect a product’s commercial success — the sales people might be very good, or it might be that the market is on fire so that everyone in it enjoys some success. So the Experian approach enables the business at least in part to abstract an individual’s and a team’s success from the product’s success

At the start of each quarter each Experian product team sets out their product goal — that which  they can influence at a product or behavioural level — usage, adoption, satisfaction and so on — and all product teams know everyone else’s goal. “At the end of the quarter, they report back on how they fared against the goal, and we score their performance -— again this is completely transparent and everyone knows how they performed against everyone else’s goal,” says Michael. The initiative was implemented with the full consultation of the product organisation — in fact, says Michael, the team had felt the performance management process was a bit opaque and had a hand in deciding on the changes. He adds that initially some people were uncomfortable with this level of transparency, but two years on it’s a well-embedded process.

Product management principles

Experian also has principles — similar to those used for scoring interviews — which are used to define and articulate the approach of the product manager. These have been crafted into a survey so that designers and product managers can score their peers every quarter. It opens up discussion: “No one can get to the end of the process and say they didn’t know they were being measured or where feedback was coming from,” says Michael. Group product managers also conduct quarterly interviews with a product manager’s stakeholders and partners and take this feedback back to the individual product manager on a regular basis.

At Gojek, Head of Product Management for the Consumer Platform, Dian Rosanti, has recently completed a restructure to give clearer leadership to some areas of the consumer app. “I look at the impact I want from each team or leader, and it’s always easy to start with something quantifiable,” she says. “I look at the metrics and think of them in terms of missions for each team. Every six months I’ll ask my leaders what their most important mission is and we’ll agree metrics to measure success. These OKRs span six months but we review them on a quarterly and on a monthly basis. For example, recent feedback has been that the home screen has become less usable. I can tell my team that we need to see this negative sentiment trend toward zero in the next six months, and it’s an easy way to measure the success of the team and the team leader.”

Consistent quality communication

High-quality communication is fundamental, if communication is poor no team can be on track for success. Dave Martin says that strategic impact is the most important thing for a leader, and communication underpins everything a team and a leader does. “Communication effectiveness underpins team motivation, alignment, influence and negotiation. If you can’t communicate well, you can’t do any of those and you fail as a leader. But leaders often think about communication as a broadcast and forget that, at its best, communication is two-way.”

He says there are three factors to good communication:

1. Be very clear with non-negotiables

Many leaders skirt around non-negotiables but Dave says it’s important to be blunt, direct and clear. Jeff Bezos’ API mandate to all Amazon tech staff (take note of point 6, anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired) is a famous example of a clear and direct message.

2. Be concise and write for your audience

You need to know your audience and empathise, and that means talking in a way that the audience understands. Many people forget who their audience is because they’re used to talking to their executives. You should also be respectful of everyone’s time.

3. Live by your principles

Any good organisation and leader has clear principles that drive the organisation, and your communication is a place where you need to be seen to live by them, Dave says.

In addition, he advises that teams should not forget to communicate and celebrate success.

He adds that storytelling is at the root of good communication. He says: “Storytelling, great stories, what the leader decides to share, and how they decide what stories to tell, it all shapes the culture of the teams and the business.” Storytelling should set the scene, define the action, reach a peak, then tie up loose ends and reach a resolution. For more on storytelling see this ProductTank presentation from Anne Marie Clifton, Effective Storytelling to Motivate and Align Your Team.

Further to this, Dave also suggests that meetings should always be about alignment and planning, assessing priorities, resources, and blockers. “Always agree on the message before you all walk away,” he adds, “because too often that gets missed.” He also finds it helpful to spend the first few minutes of any meeting getting everyone to answer what he calls the “FOE” questions:

  • How focused are you?
  • How open do you feel?
  • How much energy do you have?

“It’s part of the two-way communication between a team. It brings barriers down and it helps people to empathise,” he says.

Dian says it’s very useful to write everything down. “People underestimate the power of documentation,” she says. “Not just the goal and the mission but the decisions you make as teams so that six weeks down the line there’s one place where you can reference what you decided. In my ideal world you would find a way to document everything in a way that works for both stakeholders and teams, maybe with different levels of visibility or detail.” She says that, as an example, Gojek has an overview deck that runs through the reasons for the reorganisation, the different teams and what each of them is responsible for, what metrics the organisation looks at, and which metrics belong to which team. Individual teams use Asana to capture detailed roadmaps and tasks, then cross-post only the key milestones to a shared Asana board that are shared across teams and stakeholders.

She also sings the praises of “user manuals” which have become especially helpful as the company has moved to remote working. Gojek asks its staff to write up a couple pages on who they are — how they like to work, how they communicate, what values and principles they hold most dear, what they think their weaknesses are, and who they are outside work. She says: “Our CEO and other senior leaders were among the first to publish user manuals. They were quite honest,and it set the tone for everyone else.”

Mind the Product sees the benefit in user manuals too. Feel free to make a copy of this user manual template — in it you’ll find empty slides for different team members to fill out. Edit the copy to fit your organisation and share it with your team to complete their slide in their own time. Once it’s filled out, you can set aside some time to have each person talk you through their slide. It’s a good idea to revisit the manuals as you’ll find (depending on what you ask) that things change over time. “We typically revisit our user manuals at our company off sites or when someone new joins the team,” says Mind the Product’s Director of Content Strategy Imogen Johnson. “In January 2020, we found that, despite already being a remote team, almost all of our manuals had to be updated because of changes to our working style and habits as a result of lockdown in the UK. It was really helpful for us to recognise how people had adapted in different ways over the last year.”

Vision and guidance

A product’s long-term mission, or vision, and the strategy to achieve it go hand in hand. As the vision is part of a leader’s responsibility they must also give their team the right strategic context to work successfully and autonomously. Without strategic context the vision won’t be understood. Dave cites the example of a client which has been spending money on a new initiative that left some people in the business questioning its value — because it doesn’t have the potential to be a great money spinner. “But what this initiative does is demonstrate future potential,” he explains, “and without it, the company might struggle to raise its next round of funding.” So it’s important to make the vision and enterprise value clear, and create buy-in rather than fear.

Therefore as a team member you should always be looking for an explanation of purpose. But when leadership comes from a more traditional management background, and not a modern cross-functional autonomous approach, they may not be honest about the agenda. Says Dave: “They may want the modern approach, but they fail at it, because they haven’t changed their leadership style.”

Enabling growth and development

As a team leader Ben expects to see people looking outside the organisation to learn, at conferences, training, meetups, and so on. He says: “It’s a line item in my one-on-one conversations with team members, ‘what are you doing to understand how others look at this stuff?’.” Ben says he’s asked this question enough now that it is preempted by his team, but he adds “you have to mandate it — I don’t think it’ll just happen”. He expects his direct reports to set their own goals, manage their own time and determine priorities, and he blocks out a day of time every two weeks to conduct one-to-ones with them and help them to work on their strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Ben’s sentiment is echoed by others. Michael Morris comments: “I expect people should eat up content for breakfast, but I’m surprised at how many people don’t regularly engage with all the good content that’s out there, even if it’s just to be in touch with what’s happening in the market.”  He adds that growth and development is probably easier in smaller companies, because there’s always “too much work and not enough people”. “I’ve always knocked on the door of the leadership team and asked to get involved,” he says, “maybe that’s something people can do more proactively.”

Ben says that the opportunity to connect with people he used to work with and others in his network and just “talk shop” is invaluable. “I like to hear from people I respect,” he says. “I can ask all sorts of questions — ‘what does your roadmap look like or what are you finding challenging in mobile these days? What’s tricky about the new version of iOS? What are you finding to be valuable? And what are you finding to be difficult?’. That’s something I use to keep myself sharp.”

Dian says she takes care to assess whether leaders and managers operate in a way that aligns with company values. “I take care to think about the values that my direct reports are modelling and what they need to work at,” she says. “I want to see how they think about developing their teams. I want to see that their team members are performing well, that there’s psychological safety in the team, that they’re able to achieve their goals. So I make sure that we have some recurring skip-level meetings and check-ins.”

People should look use their networks and outside the organisation to learn (Image: Shutterstock)

Ensuring autonomy

Dian also tries to get a sense of how independent a team can be by assessing how clear their mission is, how complex or risky it is, and the maturity of the team. “Sometimes it feels like you’re taking a bet, especially if you’re still getting to know team members,” she says. This ProductTank talk Scaling autonomous teams from Agile enterprise coach Debbie Wren has some helpful advice for ensuring autonomy, while in this AMA session Scaling empowered teams, Nilan Peiris VP of growth at Transferwise shares his experience of scaling and empowering teams.

There’s already a lot to digest here, even though we could dig much deeper into all of the topics addressed in this post. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Hire the right people. Assess against a list of competencies or principles so that you can build data to understand who is best for the role.
  • Onboard people with care. Set out initial expectations and don’t overwhelm new hires. It will pay dividends in terms of staff retention.
  • Transparency creates trust  — and trust creates transparency.
  • Have a visible scoreboard — everyone should know what’s being measured and be able to refer to it.
  • High quality effective communication underpins everything — team motivation, alignment, influence, negotiation, you name it.

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