Building Up Respect For a Product Team

November 2nd, 2015

An under-appreciated challenge in a tech company is creating a new product team and building it up from scratch into a valuable, high functioning, and well respected team. Having seen it done well and done poorly, much of what will make a team successful in doing this is pretty counter-intuitive. There is a well established sequence to doing this successfully in a high percentage way. There are two key components to optimize for:

  • team health
  • organizational understanding of the purpose of the team and its progress

Team Health
Team health is about trust between the individuals of the team and confidence of the team. It’s amazing how much of this is solved by having the team collaborate on a few successful projects out of the gate. It is tempting for a team to go after a huge opportunity right out of the gate, but this is typically a mistake as the team isn’t used to working with each other and won’t do its best work on its first project.

The right approach is to find small projects that have a high probability of success to start. This gets the team comfortable with each other, and they build up confidence in each other as well as the mission of the team as they see things ship that impact key metrics. How I like to prioritize projects is to forecast impact, effort, and probability of success. These can be guesses, but ideally a new team has quite a few high probability of success projects with low effort it can start with.

If you’re a team leader or product manager building a roadmap, you should be upfront that you’re prioritizing low effort, high probability of success projects to start for team building purposes. Otherwise, the team will be itching to start on high impact projects they might not be ready for. What happens when you start with one of those types of projects is that is by definition they are less likely to succeed, and with a new team working on it, that increases the project’s probability of not being successful. If the project isn’t successful, the team starts to doubt the mission of the team in general as that was supposed to be one of the highest impact projects for the team.

Organizational Understanding
Once a team is working well together and has some victories under its belt, it is time for the team leader to evangelize the team and its mission. I have seen high performance teams not do this second step as well, and it leads to things like organizational distrust and inability for the team to increase its headcount, which then impact overall team health.

So, how do you optimize for organizational understanding of a team? This depends a lot on the culture of an organization. What’s important to remember is that you need to optimize this understanding both above you and across from you. So, this means you need to increase understanding not just at the senior leadership level, but also to other peer teams of yours. This is not easy. I advise you start with senior leadership and optimize communication for whatever the way that team works. Do they like long strategy documents? Then write one. Do they have status updates? Leverage those.

Once senior leadership has a good understanding of why you exist, you need to address peer teams. For this, you need to understand how information diffuses at your organization. If product managers or engineering managers are hubs, start there. Email them directly with your strategy saying you wanted to give them a heads up as to what is going on with your team. Send them documents. Occasionally ask for feedback even if you don’t need it. Have a notes list? Over-communicate via that. Don’t be afraid to send emails about significant wins the team has had either. You also need to remember new employees and optimize for how they learn about things at the company.

There can be a tendency to just want to move fast with your team if you’re gelling and not invite feedback from other parts of the organization. This is a mistake. Lack of clarity for your team’s role outside your team can kill your progress if you’re not careful. You need to have the entire company on board with what your team is doing, or their lack of awareness could lead to distrust or roadblocks in the future. Addressing both team health and organizational understanding is the only way to have long term progress with a team in a growing organization.

Currently listening to Bizarster by Luke Vibert.

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