Secrets of the best product teams
7 min read

Secrets of the best product teams

I’ve been building digital products for the past sixteen years; as a founder, CEO, and CPO. In this post I cover the secrets that I’ve noticed in high performing product teams.
Secrets of the best product teams

Travelling back in time to 2004, the “World Wide Web” was dominated by Microsoft, AOL, and Jeeves. (the)Facebook had just launched, and it would be three more years until the first iPhone. I was just fifteen, and didn’t have many friends. I did, however, have a keen interest in computers, and was blown away by the connectivity of the Internet. It wasn’t long before I started immersing myself in the coding languages that powered it -- building websites that I wanted to use, but didn’t yet exist.

I didn’t know it back then, but I was dipping my toes in the waters of product management, or product as it’s better known now.

Product essentially being the ability to work with a multidisciplinary team of people and build a simple solution to a real customer problem in a way that meets the needs of the business. All with an understanding of how design, business, technology and users intersect and overlap.

Back then product management was more associated with enterprise software, with Product Managers (PMs) being concentrated in the likes of Cisco and Oracle.

As Internet adoption exploded over the next decade and startups became part of everyday life, PMs were no longer building highly specialised or corporate software exclusively. They were the founders building stuff that helped with everything from dating through to grabbing a taxi. They were also building products in larger corporates; for example Gmail within Google.

The PM concept had hit the mainstream.

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Tesla -- the list could go on -- have all successfully scoped out, built, and launched products that are used by billions of people. All because they have a solid product culture, that connects all the dots. It’s hard to imagine a modern-day tech company not having ‘product’ at their core.

With this context, I wanted to talk about the secrets that I’ve noticed in high performing product teams over the years. So whether you’re an early stage startup working on achieving product/market fit, or a growth stage company working on scale, or even a large corporate trying to regain your ability to consistently deliver new value to your customers, I’m sure that there will be something to takeaway.

Making sure the basics are covered

Before jumping into the secrets, I want to make sure we’re on the same page with regard to the basics. Without these being covered no product team will be able to have consistent break-out success.

def sum_product(n): 
    s = 0 
    while n: 
        vision +
        functionality +
        technology +
        user experience design +
        monetisation +
        acquisition +
        offline experience
    return s

Distilling it down to first principles, I think ‘product’ is really about evaluating opportunities and determining what gets built and delivered to customers. Everything stems from this. And to do it successfully, you must:

  1. Understand your customer,
  2. Understand the data, and
  3. Understand your business and the industry it operates in

Understanding the customer means you’re an expert on their issues, pains, desires, and how they think. Without this, you’re just guessing. And it has to be a mix of both quantitative and qualitative learning.

Understanding the data covers a wide gamut, not only the ability to understand your customer but to know what they’re doing with your product. Successful products need to be loved by your customers but also need to work for your business. This means knowing who your stakeholders are and the constraints they operate under.

Finally understanding your market. You need to know who your competitors are – in addition to key trends, customer behaviours and expectations.

Each of these principles deserves its own in-depth post – but, for now, I wanted to provide some brief context before touching on the lesser known secrets.

First, you need a big mission

It’s critical for your team to be organised around something that’s motivating.

It has to be a mission that’s worthwhile. Something that gets them out of bed. But it also has to be somewhat ambiguous, or unattainable, as well. Think of Elon Musk’s mission for SpaceX – to colonise Mars.

This helps people become missionaries. It also helps align the skills of the people that are potentially going to be working on the product. Finally, it serves as a filter. A filter for people who are able to connect the dots, from the potentially mundane tasks of today to the exciting vision of tomorrow. These are the people that you want around you. Those who can’t connect the dots, will naturally fall by the wayside.

Next, even though the mission may sound crazy, this doesn’t mean the vision is.

The product vision has to be consumer centric yet aligned with the mission. The product team are usually the ones translating that mission into reality. And that’s what the vision helps you do.

Product are usually the ones initiating the conversation around what the product vision should be, because we’re the ones talking to the customer.

So an idea might be seeded by the founders or execs, hypothesising about an area of opportunity. But it’s only once you start interacting with the customer, that you can say, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea” or, “No that’s an awful idea, let’s not do that.”

The product vision gives the organisation its purpose, and we only want people in our organisation that are excited about, and dedicated to this vision —missionaries. PM thought leader Marty Cagan describes this well:

There are many benefits of product teams, but a big goal is captured best by a quote from John Doerr, the famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist: “we need a team of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries.” Mercenaries build whatever they’re told to build. Missionaries are true believers in the vision and are committed to solving problems for their customers.

Next, a finger on the pulse of innovation

High performing product teams are always seeking improvement. They're open to adopting new methodologies (e.g. think Agile a few years ago) and implementing emerging technologies. They have a high risk tolerance, and love placing educated bets.

As an example, pretty much all the awesome product teams I know are currently, as I type this, immersing themselves in artificial intelligence and machine learning. They understand that AI is the next general purpose technology – something that will affect the world, and an opportunity that usually only comes along once in a generation.

These teams understand that scale economies accrue to first movers in AI, and second movers will find it difficult to catch up. By adopting early they reap the rewards of a positive feedback loop. They will capture early customers who, in turn, will create more data for the product. Resulting in a virtuous cycle that gives them a real, tangible and defensible advantage.

AI is transcending every industry. PMs used to be confined to just the tech sector, but the PMs of tomorrow will be needed in industries as diverse as farming and transportation;  construction and medicine. Knowing how the AI product life cycle differs from that which has gone before will be a core competitive advantage.

An ingrained culture of continuous improvement and evolution is at the heart of every high performing team. The key is to be continuously scanning the market for trends and evolutions, not just in the markets for which you are building products, but in how and why.

It’s not a finite game

Strong product teams don’t think in terms of a first or second half of the game – trying to get points on the board. But rather, they think of it as an infinite game. Always trying to get better. Understanding that there’s mastery beyond where they are, at every step.

This means they’re always going to beat their competition, because the competition is always going to be seeking this quarterly result, or that end event. Maybe ’the event’ is an IPO or an acquisition. Whereas the high performing team isn’t focussed on any particular business event, they’re seeking, “What’s the best possible outcome for this brand?”; “What’s the best possible outcome for this customer?”

This fundamentally changes the mentality of the team and the nature of how they show up every day.

It also relates to open mindedness – is your team open to new learning? Or do they assume they know everything?

The open mindset reminds your team of the idea that we’re not perfect, that we could fail, and that we may not have the answer. You need to have a culture where it’s okay to say “I don’t know” even when someone might expect you to.

Safe psychological spaces

Do your team members feel like they can express an opinion or share what they think without feeling like they’re going to be repressed by your opinion, or that of the loudest person in the room?  

Strong product teams don't look for consensus. They understand that innovation and collaboration are not correlated to consensus.

People should be encouraged to share their opinions. They can have disagreements about approaches but there needs to be an open forum where people have an opportunity to share.

A common problem is that people go to work and they don’t feel like they can express their opinions because they've got a structure, or a manager, or a situation that doesn’t allow for that to happen.

Safe psychological space is something that managers and leaders of high performing teams work a lot on. And it’s never over. You're always changing it because you're always bringing new people in. And every time you bring a new person in, you’ve got a change in dynamic. How do you make sure those people feel safe and that the people that who were previously interacting in a safe way don’t feel like they’re being adjusted in some way that’s negative.

Many other contributing factors

The selection of secrets I’ve offered here are just a few of my favourites.

Others on the shortlist include:

  1. Empowerment and accountability -- ensuring that your team members are assigned problems to solve, rather than just given lists of features to build.
  2. Communication and storytelling -- people buy stories, not products and the best product teams understand that storytelling transcends everything.
  3. Going above and beyond -- related to the ‘missionaries’ point at the start of this article, always aim for delight in your end user; if you delight and surprise them you gain their long term trust and loyalty.

I hope you found this useful, and if you think I’ve missed anything – please do tweet me!


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Thanks to Jonathan for reading through early drafts of this post.
For discussion, check out this post on Hacker News.

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