How to setup and lead a great product development team

No matter the particular methodologies, tools and practices, successful teams are powered by a single thing: a great, shared purpose, a bold vision.

After 20 years of leading software engineering teams — both in project and product setups — I can identify team fragmentation as one of the most important risks. Team fragmentation is the symptom caused by deeper cultural and organizational issues and/or the lack of purpose (or understanding of the purpose). It is the situation when team members use their formal role, level and responsibility area — consciously or not — to handle the challenges of the team, to ‘control their exposure’ and in some cases, to limit their responsibility. A team at this state, is characterized by internal ‘walls’ and ‘silos’ and is far from optimal — in fact it can be rather dysfunctional or even toxic.

As a product leader, you need an inspired, talented team, to believe in your product vision and work with passion towards the shared goal — a great product satisfying all the predefined success criteria +one more: to make the entire team proud of the outcome!

Setting up this inspired, talented product development team is not an easy task — you need to combine the right skills, characters and culture. Consider the following:

You have ONE TEAM

There should be only one team, working for an ambitious, meaningful objective. Introducing sub-teams, hierarchies, authorities, politics and bureaucracy, undermines the efforts and reduces the chances for a successful and productive ‘one team’: add a few ‘little boxes’ and some additional structure and get ready to experience symptoms like responsibility avoidance and separation of concerns (at the team level).

Communicate the vision

Whatever you are building — a product, a solution, a component, a prototype — make sure that the team can see the big picture, that they can understand the strategy and the rationale behind significant decisions: every member of the team needs to have access to the ‘what and why’ and be able to relate to the mission. And, in my opinion, the more talented the team the stronger the need for a great purpose and a bold vision.

Communicate the opportunity

As a product leader, you need to communicate the big thinking and articulate the opportunity. For example, communicate how a successful release will better serve your customers, while driving profits and creating value for the company, the team and each of the team members.

Be pragmatic

While it is very important to share the big thinking and the opportunities, you need to prove that you are down to earth by communicating the risks, the challenges and your strategy for minimize the exposure. The team, needs to see the readiness and willingness to make hard decisions when needed.

Inject some … entrepreneurial spirit

Modern project/product managers and leads must think, feel and act as entrepreneurs: the company sets the mission and provides the resources to build a great product and go to market. The entrepreneur — or better, intrapreneur in this case — needs to utilize the resources provided -talent, equipment, code etc. — in the best possible way to ‘make great thinks happen’. This startup and innovation mentality must be inherited from every single member of the team.

Communicate effectively

Keep communicating the core vision and key messages frequently. Make sure that the dynamics of the team reflect this entrepreneurial spirit — the main driver of outstanding project or product execution.

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Do not micromanage

Micromanagement is bad, especially for talented engineering teams. If you realize that there is a need to micromanage, you need to start searching for the root-cause; and this could be particular characters (including yours), or other factors — such as the dynamics or the specific state of the team.

Optimize your meetings

It is so common to join a meeting and instantly feel that there is waste of precious time. As a product lead –as an intrapreneur — you need to make sure that you are using people’s time effectively. Meetings must be meaningful and actionable — you need to avoid unnecessary meetings. For those that need to happen, make sure that you have just the right people in the room. Ensure that people join the meetings prepared and leave the meeting with action items and clear ownership. Assess the meetings and provide constructive feedback to the organizer.

Provide access to information and insights

Information sharing is critical for a powerful product development team. You need to establish a flow of updates, resources and ideas — to encourage collaboration and meaningful interactions. Yes, there is material and information that should only be shared on a need-to-know basis, but there must be a general feeling of openness and sharing: the team should be able to easily discover and access updates, ideas, critical decisions and their justification, planning, strategies and anything that could significantly impact the product development. The team needs to know what’s next and why.

Remove formalities, eliminate bureaucracy

Members need to join the team and forget about formalities, roles and levels. Employees need to deeply understand the shared objective — to build a great product — and believe in that. It is the role of the leadership to properly communicate the vision and establish this special culture.

Setting up and leading a great product development team is not an easy task. You need talent, the right conditions and a strong culture in order to unleash the energy and creativity to the right direction: a great product.