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The Key Ingredients to a Successful Product Team

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Written by Julia Sinclair-Jones

June 14, 2019

A dash of insight, a pinch of experimentation, a dollop of creative juices, and a handful of trust – that’s what a successful product team is made of. Well, it’s the start of it, at least!

When putting together a product dream team, there are some essential elements that will help ensure the product is a success story for users.

Let’s take a look at the key ingredients to a successful product team.

Define what you want your product team to be

Before you define what success means to your product team, you need to define the team itself, the structure, and what you expect from each team member.

Google’s Project Aristotle investigation into what makes the perfect team defines a team as such:

“Teams are highly interdependent – they plan work, solve problems, make decisions, and review progress in service of a specific project. Team members need one another to get work done.”

A company’s size, culture, maturity, and goals will go some way to determining what the product team will look like. From Aha: “A typical product team is led by the product manager, and includes leaders from engineering; program management; sales; support; operations; and marketing.”

This proves to be a diverse team; people who wear other hats within the organisation. This makes it imperative to build a team that communicates and works well together with the product manager to achieve outcomes, or risk them simply concentrating on work within their own department.

A strong product manager with excellent communication and collaboration skills is necessary for success. A product manager may or may not also take the role of product owner, essentially a user advocate. Here’s a good article about the differences between the two.

Choose the right people

Choosing the right product manager

The right product manager doesn’t necessarily mean choosing someone with deep technical knowledge, although with a technology product, systems knowledge is highly valued. Instead, the most important skills to bring to the product manager role is a honed set of soft skills.

As Joanna Greenlees from A Cloud Guru explains, “Soft skills are considered to be things like emotional intelligence, communication skills, social skills, etc. Like any skill, these can be improved with practice, but there’s less opportunity to learn soft skills in the same regimented, academic sense as hard skills.”

“Building soft skills requires self-reflection, analysing your reactions, managing your emotions, and thinking from others’ perspectives.”

It is vital that a product manager can interact with, influence, inspire, and obtain the right information from all functions across the business, as well as external stakeholders, including users.

“The position requires you to develop and build consensus on building products without being in a traditional position of power, such as a VP or head of department,” says Greenless. “The relationships and the trust you build become really important when the inevitable difficult conversations about prioritisation or product decisions arise.”

Choosing the rest of the product team

You might think that the best candidates for roles within the product team are the people inside the engineering, sales, marketing, etc. teams with the deepest knowledge of the area.

Again, this may not be the case. Think again about the soft skills of candidates, their networking capability within the business, influence, flexibility, and creativity. They might not be the most knowledgeable managers within their team, but they’ll be the ones able to steer product team success.

Forge a cohesive product team

Leah Ryder, Content Marketing Lead at Atlassian sums up the power of collaboration in the blog Research shows productive teams do these 3 things:

“When everyone’s in sync and productivity is high, working together is a dream. You meet your deadlines with ease, your brainstorms produce the best ideas, and working together is – dare I say it? – fun.”

Let’s examine those three things that productive teams all have in common:

1. An actively evolving team culture that values trust over talent

When people in a team trust each other, that’s when they can work together without boundaries – they know and respect each other, and how they each person operates on a deeper level.

This is the reason why team building exercises, weekends away, conferences, etc., can be wise investments. When a team gets to know each other in different environments and circumstances, they learn more about each other, and can build trust.

2. The co-own prioritisation of work, so that everyone has a say – and a stake – in what they work on.

When tasks are delegated only, instead of following a flexible, collaborative approach, team members can feel devalued and underappreciated. Trust in team members to be able to do what they do best – provide guided information about the inner workings of their departments and how to best solve product problems within these spaces. Be open to opinions from all directions.

An Agile teamwork approach can work well with the changing expectations and requirements that product teams often encounter.

3. A structured approach to the ‘how’ of teamwork that solves basic team needs so everyone can feel free to clear away confusion and get the job done.

As Ryder says, there are four needs across the team and individual level that need to be known at the outset of bringing together the team, with the flexibility to evolve as both the team and the product evolves too. These are:

  • They need to know what’s expected of them. (Basic need)
  • They need the right materials and equipment. (Basic need)
  • They need to be able to do what they do best. (Individual need)
  • They need recognition that they accomplish work successfully. (Individual need)
A Cloud Guru

"It's important to set clear parameters and measures of success before just blindly running an A/B test, otherwise you might make a decision based on incomplete information."

Maxy, Digital Product Designer

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Build a culture of curiosity

For Maxy Lotherington, Digital Product Designer at A Cloud Guru, curiosity and experimentation are key to success:

“Experiments are a great way to learn and get quick feedback on multiple ideas,” says Lotherington.

“The most common way is to have two (or more) competing ideas for the product, and then A/B test to figure out which one is more effective. One of the major issues with A/B testing, though, is that you often don’t have enough context to know why one outperformed the other, or full confidence in those results. It’s important to set clear parameters and measures of success before just blindly running an A/B test, otherwise you might make a decision based on incomplete information.”

“It’s important to determine before the experiment what the measures of success are for the team and make sure that everyone’s in agreement about those.”

Ideas alone about product strategy are not enough without solid evidence to back them up, with non-biased success metrics in place, which can be tricky. Scientific rigour is needed to ensure “successful” product experimentation represents true success – otherwise you can end up with a failed product, or if you have enough money for backing, a redesign (as anyone old enough to remember Coke’s first failed attempt at the Mother energy drink can attest to).

How else can you encourage a culture of curiosity within a product team?

As Lotherington says, let the ideas flow freely, no matter how out-there they may seem at first.

“We like to think big and then work back from there. Sometimes even the most ridiculous-sounding thought can spark an idea, so we don’t like to be too restrictive from the start.”

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Written by Julia Sinclair-Jones

June 14, 2019

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