Photo: Alex Plummer — CPT Showcase

Talent win Games, Teams win Championships

It’s about the team…

It’s ALWAYS about the team. It’s never been about the individual. Nor is it about the company they work for, the products they’re shipping, or the processes they use.

The dynamic of a high performing team is a wonder to behold. A group of talented individuals looks great on an org chart, but it’s only when a team forms and begins to operate autonomously that the true magic happens.

Scaled Agile

Two years ago News Corp Australia’s Consumer Product and Technology (CPT) team set out to change the way it operated. Up until that point the product and technology teams were effectively separate; operating with different cadences, roadmaps, structures and reporting lines. Product was a commercial function and digital technology was part of the enterprise technology group. The product group in particular was a monolithic production entity working against a prioritisation list in excess of 500 tasks. To get to the top of the list, and therefore be priositiesed, you had to shout loudest. The roadmap was an out of date slide deck that hadn’t come out of the bottom drawer in months.

The newly announced CPT team needed to establish its identity while creating a more efficient, engaging and scalable way of working. It was around this time members of the team showed me an article about Spotify’s scaled agile operating model.

Why do we need to change?

In this article I saw the foundations of the answer I was seeking — how to organise the entire team so that individual product teams could be more agile and scale to an enterprise level while still providing the digital platform teams enough runway to build capabilities just-in-time.

It’s blatantly obvious now that I’ve left my role at News Corp Australia. But in the 2 years in charge of CPT, there were many days when doubters and negative influencers looked to be winning the argument. “Why do we need to change?” “We’re agile already — we already work this way.” It reminded me of the seven most dangerous words spoken at any business…

“We have always done it this way”

Looking back on my first attempt at drawing this new operating model I can see strong influences from the structures I’d inherited. While not necessarily negative, these clearly outdated models were holding the team back from achieving their full potential. With renewed confidence I set about dismantling much of the existing product team structure replacing it with something far more logical — at least to me. I would go through dozens of versions of this model before settling on the one that worked for News Corp. The beauty of a scaled agile approach is that you can easily customise it to work within organisational constraints — and I had plenty of those to over come.

CPT Scaled Agile Operating Model

At it’s core, this operating model included the concept of Product Delivery Teams (PDTs) each managed by a new role to News Corp Australia, the Product Owner. These cross-functional teams were a major deviation from the existing structure but felt familiar enough to everyone not to precipitate open revolt.

We discussed many different names for these teams but settled on PDTs because CPT exists solely to deliver. We’re measured purely on the number of product features and BAU tasks shipped. Ultimately the teams themselves came up with identities (based on Game of Thrones houses), but the purpose was established - these teams would be all about delivery. A subtle but important distinction.

Replace the wings while flying

The next challenge was to implement the changes without destroying existing cadences. Sometimes referred to as “replacing the airplane’s wings while flying”. I utilised an in-house Agile Coach and a very experienced Product Director to help fine tune the roll out. To say it was a rocky ride would be an understatement. Some of the existing team didn’t see the opportunity and resigned, while others stepped up. Be prepared to lose some good people.

I also brought in a number of new experienced and committed product owners and built teams around them. We took on the feedback, both positive and negative, and worked through some team morale issues. I actively over-communicated what we were doing, why we were doing it, and the progress we’d achieved. This involved a lot of team commmunications and one-to-one chats. Never under estimate the number of times you’ll have to repeat yourself — just to get the changes to sink in.

I’ll not sugar-coat this. The first few months after the changes were tough. It’s hard to change the way 50+ people have worked for the past few years. I naively believed I could embed the changes and see positive results within 3 months. In the end it took nearly 12 months for the Product Delivery Teams to self-organise and enter Tuckman’s Stage 4 Performing phase. After you commit — give it time to work — likely more time that you’d planned. And make sure Management is on the journey with you — you cannot do it without their complete commitment.

Product Manager or Product Owner

Articulating the differences between Product Owner and Product Manager quickly became my biggest challenge. I’d inherited a team where the title of Product Manager had been liberally applied — and not always accurately. I had a lot of Product Managers, some of whom were actually Producers and some Product Owners — but no one had ever explained the differences.

A lot has been written about Product Managers and Product Owners. When looking for a definition that best met my requirements I came across many opposing opinions. Logic won the day and I went with the following:

Product Manager — externally focused where the customer is the focus of their attention. They own the product strategy and roadmap, the requirements, the business stakeholders, the research and the analytics. Most importantly, they own the priorities.

Product Owner — internally focused so that when they come to work each day they’re thinking about their team and delivery. Once they accept the Product Manager’s requirements — they own them. They own the resources and make the call on how and when a product feature is delivered.

If you measure success based upon the last thing you’ve shipped — then Product Owners are some of the most important hires you’ll make — but they’re only as good as the teams they create and manage.

And as a manager, you’re only as good as the talent you hire. And as a leader, you win championships when that talent goes on to form teams that amaze and delight — and most importantly, deliver.

Talent win games, but teams win championships