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The seven pillars of product team excellenceThe seven pillars of product team excellenceThe seven pillars of product team excellence

The seven pillars of product team excellence

There are many success factors that go into building great product – from the individuals on the team, to the strategy they are working towards, to the processes they use. As a product leader responsible for creating the conditions for success, but working in a complex environment, it can sometimes be a challenge pinpointing exactly what’s working and what isn’t.

At The Product Refinery, we often have corporate clients who know their product teams need to improve, and they can identify the symptoms of the team not working well, but can’t always figure out where to start and how to go about it. When this is the case, there are seven key areas at which we generally encourage them to look first. We call them the seven pillars of product team excellence.

In this article, we’ll explore the seven pillars of product team excellence at a high level and dip into some questions you can use to reflect on how well your product team is working and where you can help them improve.

Pillar 1: Product team capability

The greatest area of importance for a product team’s success is ensuring you have a team in place with the right skills for the job. You also need to ensure those capabilities are clearly defined and managed. While the mix of skills needed on a team varies by context, there are some things you need to think about, no matter what the product.

  • Core PM skills – All the foundational skills necessary to manage a product, such as: business analysis, discovery & research, prioritization, roadmapping, data and analytics, organizational skills, facilitation & communication, stakeholder management, leadership, etc.
  • Domain expertise & specialist skills – As needed, per product and industry, for example: growth mechanics, product marketing, product ops or deep industry knowledge.
  • Clarity around roles and progression – A clearly-articulated plan for what capabilities are necessary and how specific roles in the organization contribute to that plan, such as capability framework, clear job specs, and career progression guidelines.
  • Talent management – Having a system in place to continue to build and manage the team, such as hiring, learning and development, onboarding, offboarding, performance management, employer branding.

Key questions to assess product team capability:

  • Do you know what capabilities the team needs in order to deliver on the product strategy?
  • Do you have clarity on skills gaps at both an individual and a team level?
  • Do you have a plan and appropriate resources available to fill the skills gaps?

Pillar 2: Product process

With the right skills on the team, the next area of greatest import is having the right systems and processes in place for those teams to do their job. Having clear and consistent ways in which product managers work during the main activities of product management means your team has a clear idea of what good looks like and can use the processes to be as efficient and effective as possible.

While we are mostly thinking about the product team here, we also recommend thinking about the product process from the standpoint of the entire core delivery team (i.e. product management, design, and engineering together at a minimum, and perhaps specialists if they’re heavily involved as well).

When assessing a product team’s processes, we typically look at five main areas:

  • Goal-setting – Setting goals that are aligned to the product strategy, focused on outcomes that provide value to the organization, and have clear success metrics to track against.
  • Discovery – Validating and prioritizing opportunities according to greatest impact, aligned to goals.
  • Delivery – Releasing solutions in the shortest time possible that add value and align with the product and business strategy.
  • Lifecycle management – Evaluating, optimizing, and sunsetting parts of the product or portfolio to continuously maximize value to the organization and customers.
  • Supporting tools - Having the right software and resources available to manage the product.

Product process questions to consider:

  • Are there processes in place for goal-setting, discovery, delivery and lifecycle management?
  • Are the product processes and systems clear, repeatable, and scalable?
  • Do the product processes in place enable the product team to create value and do their best work?

Pillar 3: Managing stakeholder relationships

While managing stakeholders could arguably be included in either product process or team capabilities, it’s so central to a team’s ability to succeed that we prefer to separate it out and view it as its own pillar.

This pillar covers how your product managers collaborate with key stakeholder groups that input into the process, or are heavily impacted by the output, such as sales, marketing, client services, etc. The key elements to assess include:

  • Goals alignment – There is a shared understanding on the product goals and agreement on how each stakeholder will contribute to the product plans.
  • Transparent process – Stakeholders understand the product process, how decisions are made, and how to input into the process and decisions.
  • Effective communication strategies – PMs communicate in a way that works for stakeholders using appropriate data, storytelling methods, format, and channels.
  • Expectation management – Stakeholders have adequate visibility into product plans and appropriate notice of changes to those plans.
  • Clear roles & responsibilities – Everyone understands what each other does and where they contribute most value to the processes.

Managing stakeholder relationships questions to consider:

  • Is there a stakeholder management strategy in place with supporting systems and processes?
  • Do the stakeholder management systems and processes meet the needs of the broader organization while allowing them to contribute to the product in the most valuable way possible?
  • Do the teams have trusting and respectful relationships with their stakeholders?

Pillar 4: Culture

The underlying culture of a team (and subsequently of the company) is a vital part of a team’s performance. There is no amount of process or skills that can make up for poor culture, and we find it is often overlooked when thinking about how to help teams improve performance.

Each company will have its own culture, and indeed different departments and teams within a company may have slightly different cultures as well. There is no “right” culture that a team needs to adopt, but generally speaking, the following cultural characteristics will help a product team excel:

  • Accountability – Team members take responsibility for their work, don’t blame-shift, and actively seek out help when needed.
  • Collaboration – People seek out expertise and involve others in their work in the most impactful way possible.
  • Constant improvement – Acknowledging problems and opportunities to improve, then taking action based on them.
  • Psychological safety  – Ability to be honest without fear of consequence and being respectful of other’s conflicting opinions.
  • Good work is acknowledged - Both individual and team accomplishments are recognized and celebrated, with credit given where due.
  • Evidence-based decision making - Qualitative and quantitative data is prioritized above opinions when making important business decisions.

Key questions to assess product culture:

  • Is the culture communicated in a way that is easily accessible and well-understood?
  • Does the culture enable the product team to do their best work?
  • Do the behaviors of the team reflect the values? Does the team actively work to build & maintain the culture?

Pillar 5: Product team structure

As with culture, there is no one right way to structure a product team. The most effective structure will depend on company context, the make-up of the team, and the products they are working on. That said, there are some core elements that underpin the structure of effective product teams. These include:

  • Teams are are able to work autonomously – Teams own a clearly defined area of the product and able to execute goals and outcomes with minimal constraints.
  • Clear roles & responsibilities – Both teams and members understand what is in and out of their scope of work, so that no work falls through the gaps.
  • Reporting lines are well-aligned – Reporting lines are organized in a way where managers understand and are able to adequately support their direct reports, and goals between manager and direct reports are not in conflict.
  • Clear escalation paths - When a team is blocked or unable to make a key decision about the product, there is a clear path to resolution.
  • Teams are well balanced & resourced – The team is staffed with the right mix of functions, including specialists where needed, so that no one person is blocking progress for the entire team.

Product team structure questions to consider:

  • Is there an intentional product team structure in place?
  • Does the team structure and operating model align to product goals and strategy?
  • Is the structure enabling the teams to perform well now and for at least the next year?

Pillar 6: Product strategy

Having an appropriate product strategy in place is imperative for a product team to make good decisions that provide value to the company. We’ve seen over and over again, lack of clarity around the strategy leads to friction in many other areas of the product process.

While the elements of a product strategy and how it is represented can vary widely across companies, in our product strategy template we expect the following to be clearly articulated and understood:

  • Product vision – The ‘why’ behind your product is clear and articulated in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand.
  • Target audience – You know who buys and uses your product.
  • Value proposition – You can clearly articulate how your product creates value for your target audience.
  • Goals – You can articulate what you want to achieve with your work and how you will know whether you have succeeded (we often recommend OKRs for this).
  • Roadmap – You have a plan that articulates how you will organize and prioritize your work.

Key questions to assess product strategy:

  • Is there a clearly articulated product strategy that provides the necessary context and enough detail to be actionable?
  • Does the product team and the rest of the organization understand the product strategy?
  • Is the current product strategy adequately helping the business to achieve its goals?

Pillar 7: Organizational context

While you may not have the influence to change how the company works as a whole, we find it’s important to consider how that larger context impacts your product team(s). When there is misalignment between how the company works and how the product team works, it will be difficult for the product team to be fully effective.

We find there are several areas to assess, and then work with other functional groups and the senior team to create better alignment:

  • Business vision & strategy – There is a clearly articulated business strategy and supporting goals, and changes to them are communicated and managed effectively.
  • Goals – Company, department, and individual goals and incentives are well-aligned and there is minimal conflict of goals across departments.
  • Organizational design – The company is organized in a way that is appropriate for its business goals and has the skills, knowledge, and leadership in each function to achieve them.
  • Infrastructure – The company invests appropriately in the tools and technologies that allow employees to do their best work.
  • Process – There is an appropriate level of specified process balanced with agility that allows the company to achieve its goals while also being able to respond to necessary change.
  • Culture – The company has a healthy working environment in which employees trust each other, and know how to deal with conflict and change effectively.
  • Product team reputation – The company understands what product does, how it adds value, trusts them to deliver, and engages with them in a productive fashion.

Organizational context assessment questions:

  • Is there a clear business strategy and goals, and is the organization aligned to them and performing as expected?
  • Are there any other elements of organizational context that are obstructing the product function?
  • Does the broader organization engage with the product team in a way that allows them to do their job?

In summary...

With this simple introduction to the seven pillars of product team excellence, you should have enough to start identifying areas where you can improve your product team. This article only covers the highest-level assessment of each of the areas and you’ll need to dig deeper to understand the challenges your team is facing in more detail. It should give you a good idea of where to start looking, though.

If you are interested in a more in-depth assessment of your product team or have a particular challenge you’d like help with, get in touch and we’ll be happy to help where we can.

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