21 Tips for Leading Product Teams

By Tyrell Mara
March 03, 2016

These 21 tips will help you lead, whether you’re heading up a department or a cross-functional product-launch team.

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There is one common theme that runs through technology leadership teams, from entrepreneurs and startups to product and program managers: Nothing is the same. From listening to the market to user-feedback programs, these initiatives look vastly different from organization to organization.

Despite the different methods, terminology and processes, I have found there is a playbook of key leadership skills that transcends a team’s unique characteristics and applies to this fast-paced field as a whole. Here are 21 tips to help you lead, whether you’re heading up a department or a cross-functional product-launch team.

1. Start with why.
This is arguably one of the most critical and widely accepted priorities of product management. You must have a deep and clear understanding of the market need, the product or feature’s unique value proposition, and the total impact on the business.

2. Begin with leadership; focus on the team.
Don’t overlook the importance of gaining alignment and insight from your top leadership. Do this early and check in often. Once alignment on vision is established, amp up the transparency and ownership with your development team; this is where your best ideas will come from.

3. Facilitate the gray area.
As you grasp the scope of your product development efforts, take time to bring core stakeholders together to work through the initial strategic planning process. Focus on informing, guiding and digging into meaningful conversations that will create the most valuable product for your customer.

4. Right-size your meetings.
Keep strategic planning sessions as small as possible while still including those with a vested stake. You open yourself up to scope creep whenever you add stakeholders.

5. Guide the product plan with iterative releases.
Take an iterative approach to releasing your product wherever possible. Use this to guide conversations about how the product roadmap is continually updated and defined. Know that despite having a well-planned minimum viable product (MVP), these conversations will inevitably arise. Lean in.

6. Understand the goalposts within the goalposts.
With the launch or release of your product, you’re aiming for the specific goalposts determined back when you defined the why and created a strategy. As you work through the product development process, keep an eye on where business goalposts shift to ensure that you maintain alignment.

7. Share the story.
What’s the emotional hook your product creates with the customer? How does it link back to the why of the business? Transform this into the product’s internal story and share it. Create versions you can share in a 15-second elevator ride and during a five-minute coffee break.

8. Practice the art of communication.
As headcount and complexity increase, the need for clear, concise and consistent communication becomes more important. Leave no assumption or conflict unchecked; practice the art of constant—but not overbearing—communication.

Remember, a requirement that seems completely
obvious to you may have been missed by someone else in the room. Take an extra five seconds to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Be sure to spend time each day communicating with stakeholders. This could be a stand-up huddle or a weekly check in. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be formal, it just needs to involve a conversation and human connection.

9. Ask if it’s critical or non-critical, continually.
When your timeline is at risk, ask yourself and key stakeholders, “Is this story or feature critical? Is there iterative value to the customer without it? Can it fit in a future iteration?” What is the customer impact if you choose to postpone a feature until post-launch?

10. Create metrics and measure outcomes.
What is your measurement for success? Is it recognized and understood across the organization? And have you developed a list of criteria that will indicate a successful product launch?

What will tell you something isn’t right before it’s too late? Can you measure on-site engagement trends, bounce rate or shareability to determine whether a desired behavior or outcome is not taking place? Turn these measurements
into a KPI dashboard and share it with your engineers and
key stakeholders.

11. Harness executive superpowers.
Have a clear understanding of the mission-critical pieces of work for a successful product development plan and launch. If potential roadblocks occur, use your regular executive check-in to raise a flag and request some leadership muscle to clear the path.

12. Sprint through the finish line.
Achieving product launch does not mean the job is done. Early on, spend time considering how the product will continue to evolve through the launch date and beyond. Think small tweaks, be iterative and strive for fast feedback.

13. Empower, autonomize and then let go.
At its best, leadership sets the foundation of a high-performing team early on, providing the opportunity to inspire engineers with the product vision and empower autonomous decision-making throughout the project’s course. Great leaders know how to quietly fade into the background and allow their fully engaged team members to shine.

As you see opportunities to empower your team, be confident in the shared understanding of vision you have created. The more direct impact your team believes they have on the product, the more driven they will become.

14. Solicit continuous feedback.
Company demos should be a ritual in your process. Demos provide continual feedback from a range of meaningful perspectives and provide your organization an opportunity to rally behind the team’s work. If you understand your market problem and your solution, you can easily identify customers or users who will be a good fit for fast feedback. There are people out there who want to be your early adopters and champions. Are you finding them?

15. Bring in marketing from the beginning.
The world is a noisy place. How will your product slice through this noise and reach your market segment? If you’re thinking “Build it and they will come,” you’ve already lost. You can guide and facilitate the right launch or release strategy by involving the marketing team early on. Provide the relevant context that will empower them to bring the product to market most effectively and focus on the one or two biggest go-to-market opportunities.

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About the Authors

  • Tyrell Mara is a technology product leader at BuildDirect, the world’s largest online marketplace for home-improvement products. With a background in entrepreneurship and marketing, Tyrell has an innate customer-first approach; he combines this with his passion for building high performance engineering teams. When he’s not in the boardroom, you can find Tyrell training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in track and field, coaching peers in leadership and intentional goal-setting or travelling the coast in search of adventure and surf with his wife Natasha and daughter Olia. Connect with Tyrell on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tyrellmara or email him at tyrellmara@gmail.com.



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