There are lots of reasons why a product team underperforms. We look at some of the actions you might take to put a team back on track
- Be clear about what it is: underperformance can mean different things to different people
- Does the team understand what’s expected of them?
- Introduce constraints so that they spend less time in analysis paralysis
- Assess their priorities and whether everyone is pulling their weight
- Recognise and celebrate accomplishments
- Give them goals, ongoing support and training
- Keep revisiting expectations
Underperforming teams are typically characterised by poor communication and a lack of transparency, visibility and accountability. It probably feels like little or no progress is being made, it seems like team members are becoming less interested in their work and there are far too many meetings – where not enough gets decided.
Does any of this sound familiar? And if it does, what can you do about it?
Be clear about what it is
Missed deadlines, an increase in errors or work of a poorer quality, an absence of initiative, less innovation, greater conflict among team members, all are signs that something could be amiss. But the first step is to be clear about what underperformance is.
“Underperformance is a broad statement that can mean different things to different people,” comments Matt LeMay, product coach and Principal Product Management Consultant at Sudden Compass. One leader may think a team is underperforming because they’re not delivering enough, while another leader thinks the same team is performing well, because they’re doing discovery and have a clear sense of what success looks like for them. A more common scenario, adds Matt, is a team that people think is high performing, because they’re shipping a lot: “But a lot of what they’re shipping is crap. All this does is create a sunk cost for the business, it doesn’t deliver value to users.”
Work out why it’s happening
In product, the unit of success is the team, because the team ships the software, say Matt, so that should be where you start. There are a multitude of possible reasons why a team underperforms. Maybe leadership – or more likely the lack of it – is at fault. Maybe team goals aren’t being clearly communicated, or perhaps the team is under pressure from a particularly difficult stakeholder, or overstretched and burnt out.
Becky Yelland, Product Director at Arenko Group, says that in her experience it’s very unusual to find an underperforming team in a startup. If performance is a problem, it’s usually down to one or two outliers on a team, and has more to do with “their inability to deal with the ambiguous, and nascent nature of business we’ve been in”.
Earlier in her career, when she worked in large financial institutions, Becky found that underperformance was more likely to arise from a lack of understanding of company direction than anything else. There was a “continuous loop of transformation” and trying to produce products among all that noise and lack of direction was, she says, really tricky.
Jen Cozier, Senior Vice President, Product, at CrossBorder Solutions, starts by looking at the people. She assesses each person on a team across three categories, helping, hurting, or neutral – who’s being positive, who’s not pulling their weight or being disruptive. “Neutral doesn’t mean okay,” she says. “Everybody needs to be additive and collaborating, bringing something to the team, because product teams are usually very small.”
What do you do about it?
Throughout this process, remember to recognise the team’s accomplishments and encourage them to be accountable and take ownership of their roles and responsibilities.
Start by asking if the team understands what is expected of them, as a bit of clarity and transparency goes a long way. It may be that they simply don’t know what’s expected of them, and they’ve not been set up to succeed. Jen adds: “Product managers tend to be pretty good at delivering once they know what to do, but the hard part is getting that clarity.”
Matt also sees teams underperform when they, as he puts it, are just “spinning their wheels”: “They’re having trouble making decisions, they’re having trouble finishing documentation.”
Introducing constraints can be a really useful tactic here, says Matt. “Underperforming teams will often spend too long on things. And it’s very hard to get them to spend more time on the right things. It’s easier to force them to spend less time on the wrong things by putting pretty solid constraints in place.”
He cites a team he worked with some time ago. They weren’t shipping anything, just working on decks and plans for all the things they were going to ship. “This isn’t an uncommon scenario for low-performing teams,” he says, “they weren’t sure what success should look like and they were afraid to make decisions. They were spending a lot of time on administrative work, making plans, and not making software.”
So he introduced constraints. “For example, the team said they were really busy working on a deck for another team who wanted to know what they were working on. I asked their product manager if they could just spend an hour on it and then send it off.” He also suggests other constraints – like a maximum of three slides in a presentation, for example – can be really useful to get a team to take their focus off the admin.
Jen starts by looking at the people. She assesses each person on a team across three categories, helping, hurting, or neutral – who’s being positive, who’s not pulling their weight or being disruptive. “Neutral doesn’t mean okay,” she says. “Everybody needs to be additive and collaborating, bringing something to the team, because product teams are usually very small. Even though it’s painful on a small team, sometimes moving someone to a different project or different team is what’s required.”
Assess the priorities
It may be that someone more senior needs to step in to give the team some direction and sort out their priorities. Jen cites a team she once worked with that “spread the peanut butter very thin” across all their projects, doing a bit of everything that was asked of them, but not moving fast enough and not being successful.
Says Jen: “We had to stop and reset, which is a scary thing to do. The team had a hunch that they needed to prioritise, but they were listening to so many different people and trying to keep them all happy. We had to focus on one project and let the others go. Then the team was able to make progress on one project and made lots of progress. Their success meant they grew in confidence and got some swagger back. They ended up getting more important responsibilities given to them.”
Jen also finds that the “spinning wheels” and analysis paralysis of an underperforming team is often a symptom that the team isn’t close enough to its users. “Typically, if you spend a lot of time with users, whether they’re internal or external, you will have that clarity. I’ll ask product managers if they need to do more customer interviews or expand the pool of people they talk to. Because when you have clarity, you get efficiency. The worst thing is building something that people didn’t want. For me, that’s underperforming for me as well.”
In an enterprise where a lack of clear direction from the top is contributing to team underperformance, the options are more limited. But as Becky says, there are a few actions you can take. “I’d make sure that you celebrate successes within your own team and showcase the things that they’ve done. Talk about and socialise the achievements outside of the team.” It’s very difficult to avoid an “us against them” culture developing in this sort of environment, says Becky. “You get silos in big institutions. It’s just human nature, so you have to figure out what you can do to improve communication and connect different departments. Then you can represent the needs and the aspirations of different departments back into your team as well.” She’s used tools like blogs and portals where other departments can look at a team’s work to facilitate this communication.
Becky finds it helpful to use a buddying-up tactic across departments to improve team performance, particularly when the product team is expected to be sales-led. “Start connecting the dots between actual people,” she suggests. “Buddy up people from the sales organisation and the product organisation. Get them working together on things to improve the engagement.”
Give them goals, support, and training
It’s a product manager’s responsibility to ensure that their team has the necessary support and resources to perform their duties effectively. You need to identify any gaps in skills or knowledge and provide training or mentoring opportunities to help your team improve.
Becky says: “As a leader I make time and I offer coaching and mentoring to my direct reports. The smaller the team the more time they get. My time is capped. Otherwise, I spend too much time leaning into the team and not enough time on strategy and building out relationships with the senior leadership team.”
Keep an eye on things going forward
It’s all about communication. You need to keep revisiting expectations and maintain consistently open and honest communication to understand the challenges and concerns of your team.
You also need to revisit mistakes, says Jen. “We all make mistakes. It’s tough for product people to admit, but we’ve all had hits and misses.” It’s important when you have those misses, she says, to do a retro or look back and examine what made you think it was going to be a hit.
Becky has some sound advice to finish with: “I treat fixing these types of performance problems with a team in the same way as I used to when I was an actual product manager. What’s the problem I’m trying to solve? What is the root cause? What is the outcome we’re trying to achieve?”
What to read next
How do you build a successful product team? This article contains lots of useful advice from product coach Dave Martin on establishing consistent quality communication.
The GROW Model of Coaching and Mentoring The GROW framework (GROW stands for Goal, current Reality, Options (or Obstacles), Will (or Way forward) was developed in the 1980s by business coaches Graham Alexander, Alan Fine, and John Whitmore, and can help you structure coaching and mentoring sessions with team members