21 Tips for Leading Product Teams

March 03, 2016

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.

  16. Get creative with beta.
    At first, the concept of an alpha or beta launch was intimidating. Over time I realized these terms can mean anything you want them to. The key is to define the purpose and outcomes of your beta as they relate to the entire product development process. For example, are you working out bugs? Soliciting user feedback? Running an influencer program? Measuring engagement? Ask yourself how long something will take and how it will significantly improve your public launch.

  17. Celebrate and acknowledge.
    Whether an engineer is making a final push to get a story across the line before sprint end or it’s the completion of a major integration, celebrate and acknowledge the work of your team. It doesn’t have to be a huge display, but it needs to be genuine and consistent. Take a minute to walk over and tell them how much you appreciated their effort. You’d be amazed at how far a handwritten thank-you card will go in building the morale and pride of your team.

  18. Commit to your standups.
    For these daily five-minute meetings to remain relevant, they must create value transfer between team members and stakeholders. While you may not be directly involved, you must ensure that these stand-ups are kept tight and run effectively. Some days it will feel like these meetings are the last thing the team needs to do, but have your standup anyway. The alternative is the beginning of a very slippery slope.

  19. Apply what works, then share that information.
    From the strategic planning process to the daily execution of product development, you will try things that work and things that don’t. It seems painfully simple, but if something doesn’t feel like it’s working, discuss it with the team and brainstorm alternative solutions. Don’t be afraid to question whether it is needed at all.

    Be sure to share what you’ve learned with other leaders in your organization. Chances are, you’re doing something that someone else could leverage; it’s your responsibility to share that information.

  20. Just say “no.”
    Apply the critical/non-critical lens to meetings, conversations and your work. Ask yourself: “If I don’t attend this meeting, how will it negatively impact a feature or MVP, my team and the business as a whole?” If you have a hard time coming up with an answer, you’ve already found your answer.

  21. Reflect.
    The world of technology and product development continues to speed forward. Despite this, much of your work can be extracted from the technology or method you use and distilled into a more universal leadership approach. These are the lessons to acknowledge and share with teams in the future. It may seem counterintuitive, but the ability to stop and reflect before jumping onto the next piece of work will put you ahead in the long run.

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