Ingeniously Simple
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Ingeniously Simple

Matthew Godfrey

Apr 21, 2021

9 min read

Reflections on establishing cross-functional product leadership

Just over two years ago we introduced Product Trios, as a collaboration, decision-making leadership model for Redgate. This was our equivalent of what other organisations refer to as an EPD model (Engineering-Product-Design) for cross-functional leadership. Two years on, this model is now fully adopted as part of our divisional playbook and has been rebranded as “Product Leadership Teams” (or PLTs for short).

As a reminder, PLTs are leadership teams typically consisting of a Product Manager, Product Designer and Technical Lead, who collectively form the core of leadership for a cross-functional product team.

Illustration of Product Leadership Team (designer, product manager and technical lead) as part of wider cross-functional team.

We believed then and still believe now that this model leads to better product decisions and more innovative products, where there is strong representation and a balance of perspectives around the three dimensions of:

  • Desirability (do customers want/need a solution?)
  • Feasibility (can we technically build it in a scalable way?)
  • Viability (does it make commercial sense and further our strategy?)
Venn diagram of feasibility, viability and desirability.

Over time, we’ve sought to establish this as a default model for all of our product teams and more recently, have begun to scale this up to operate at the group or product line level (multiple capabilities/teams); recognising the need for a Team of Teams that can lead through the complexities of coordinating and aligning interdependent team structures.

As we’ve rolled out and iterated upon our version of this established leadership model, it felt apt to now reflect on our experiences and share what we’ve learnt in the process.

What do we expect from product leadership?

Central to this model is the concept of co-ownership and their ongoing alignment around serving the needs of their customers, whilst furthering agreed product outcomes. Members of a PLT, therefore, are peers and partners, each with an equal stake in the product’s success.

They play a key role in leading and guiding the wider team in the pursuit of those outcomes, taking key decisions around what problems to solve and in what order, what to build and how they will determine success, what’s a priority and therefore in/out of scope and when the team has done enough to move on or revisit other ideas.

They are specialists and experts within their respective fields and are expected to bring their views and opinions into an environment that is conducive to good decision-making; this being one that actively encourages constructive debate and promotes a healthy tension between their respective concerns.

More specifically, the PLT is accountable for:

  • Providing direction and alignment (problems to solve)
  • Framing objectives and key results (measures)
  • Prioritisation and determining acceptable trade-offs
  • Testing/validating/shaping new product ideas (what to build)
  • Driving customer engagement and co-creation
  • Scoping, planning and reviewing work in progress
  • Tracking results relative to desired product outcomes

The lessons of cross-functional product leadership

As we’ve gone on this journey, we’ve learnt more about what makes for a good product leadership team and what it means to translate what was a conceptual model into reality for those involved.

This isn’t just a case of putting people in “leadership” roles and asking them to work well together, the climate and conditions have to be right for great leadership practices to thrive.

6 principles of healthy cross-functional leadership.

1. Trust is a prerequisite to creating healthy tension

If you are familiar with the book The Five Dysfunctions of Teams then you’ll know that trust is the foundation of any healthy and successful team. Without trust, there is no team, just a group of individuals out for their own gain.

A leadership team, whoever that may comprise, should be seen as a team in their own right. While also members of a wider, cross-functional team, they should first and foremost recognise each other (representatives of product, design and technology) as their primary team. As a unit, they should align around a common purpose of creating customer value and driving the team towards the right outcomes.

They should view one another as peers and partners irrespective of title, status or any sense of perceived hierarchy. It’s not about stating their claim for best design, architecture or business plan, it’s about making pragmatic, well-rounded decisions that are in the best interests of the product and its customers.

As a result, they assume shared and collective ownership of the product and must work to develop healthy interpersonal relationships that are founded upon mutual trust and respect. Trust, respect and humility are key to creating a healthy environment for unfiltered debate and pragmatic decision-making.

2. Be mindful of the balance of experience and skill

When forming leadership teams, the experiences and skills of those involved can sway the balance of discussions and the outcomes of various decisions. An imbalance in the skills and expertise of those representing design, technology or product can also place additional strain on the other members of these groups, who may have to assume multiple hats in an attempt to address cross-functional concerns.

Take for example the scenario where a leadership team has a less experienced designer, or perhaps the lack of any design representation; unless either the Product Manager or Technical Lead have a background or proclivity for Product Design (UX) it’s likely that design concerns — namely a focus on serving customer needs and the quality of the resulting experience — will be underrepresented.

As such, it’s important to be mindful of the composition of a leadership team. While you may not have the luxury (or desire) to handpick that team, it’s important to be aware of their strengths, as well as any known skill or experience gaps. Once identified, think about and actively support their development needs; either as coaching/training for individual leaders or to raise the tide of the team as a whole.

3. Define the boundaries of responsibility and space in-between

Like any team, it’s worth being explicit, upfront about both who is responsible for what and also where the group have shared ownership. For example, what activities do we expect Product Management to be accountable for and how do these differ from those we might expect a Designer to own and lead? While it might feel awkward, particularly initially, these are healthy conversations to have and to continue to revisit as part of agreeing and establishing team norms.

This is not about being territorial, nor should it be seen as a land grab for power (remember, the team co-own the product, not one individual), rather, this is about being clear on where and how we play to the strengths of those who represent each discipline. Without that, we see folks stepping on each other’s toes, second-guessing their approach and not leaning into and being respectful of their relative expertise.

But this is also a fine balance. There are likely many of these activities where the leadership team is jointly responsible for a given activity (e.g. reviewing/updating the roadmap) but where an individual (e.g. Product Manager) is accountable for the output. Workshop-based activities, like our own ‘Triangle of Responsibility’ have proved a useful, visual aid; helping draw out the boundaries and overlaps in a cross-functional leadership model, while feeling less rigid than alternative methods like RACI matrices.

4. A forum that drives decisions and provides longitudinal direction

When establishing leadership teams, their scope and remit should be clear from the outset. Fundamentally, they are there to make good, insight-driven decisions that inform the direction of the product. They are there to align and lead the team towards desired product outcomes. They are there to help remove/reduce ambiguity and help the team determine where best to spend its time and effort.

As such, their interactions should bias towards how they successfully deliver on the current product strategy, what tactics (or initiatives) they are exploring/plan to explore and the impact these are having on their key results. As such, PLT sessions should bias towards driving alignment and decision-making, rather than another ceremony for operational management and delivery.

Where the wider development team and associated Agile ceremonies tend to focus on the here and now, the PLT should be more concerned with what’s coming up next, or further out on the roadmap. They should have one eye on delivery and the other on exploring, defining and shaping the next initiative(s); namely those that they believe will chart a course towards the team’s North Star.

5. Foster an empowered culture with clear decision ownership

At Redgate, we strongly believe in the empowered teams model or as Marty Cagan described, the difference between product teams and feature teams. We believe these teams are empowered to figure out the best way to solve a given problem. So, rather than being given a laundry list of features to build, they have agency to determine their own backlogs, in accordance with an agreed set of objectives.

Many teams embrace this mindset and it’s the job of the PLT to establish appropriate constraints whilst driving that sense of agency. They are there to help guide the team towards the right outcomes — leaning into their expertise in engineering, design and product — to ensure the team is making good choices and heading in the right direction.

However, decisions that fundamentally impact the shape and direction of the product (what to build) ultimately sit with the PLT.

This is of course another balancing act. While the PLT should actively encourage a mindset towards product ownership throughout the wider team — such that they are collectively invested in the outcomes of the product, how it serves their customers and its impact on the business — they (the PLT) remain accountable for its direction, what’s in and out of scope and how to prioritise competing interests.

Remember, great teams still need excellent captains!

6. Drive value creation through strong discovery practices

I’ve previously written about the critical role of discovery in modern product teams and the need for healthy discovery practices to reduce risk, remove ambiguity and drive value creation. The PLT, in many cases, should act as the “core” of any good discovery team; consisting of those with the right skills, mindset and longitudinal view, necessary to test and evaluate new product ideas.

Discovery acts as the bridge between strategy and delivery, ensuring the wider team is focusing its efforts on building out the ideas that stand the greatest chance of success. The PLT, therefore, is responsible for owning and driving a pipeline for learning and backlog of experiments to help the team determine what to build before they start building it.

Whilst others from the wider team should be engaged with and abundantly aware of what’s happening upstream — some likely taking part from cycle to cycle — the PLT is ultimately operating at the core of the team’s ongoing discovery efforts; testing ideas and shaping concepts, while the wider team determines the exact shape of a solution and focuses on execution.

Our verdict on cross-functional product leadership

So bringing us forward to the present day, what have we learnt about this model for product leadership? Fundamentally, we believe that cross-functional leadership is harder, but a better option for creating great products that customers love!

Harder in the sense that instead of the single leader, aspects of leadership are now democratised to a group of cross-functional peers. That beyond being a group these folks need to recognise and work with one another, as peers and partners; aligning around a common interest in the outcomes of the product and its customers.

Better in the sense that the decision teams are making are better balanced, more objective and are reflective of the expertise and attributes (desirability, viability, feasibility) that are central to creating great products. Sure, there are still some inherent biases that will at times skew the emphasis, but we’re confident that the right people are now involved in the right conversations at the right times.

However, there is no playbook for introducing a new leadership model and the reality is this kind of endeavour requires a concerted change management effort. Outlining a model is where the real work begins, thereafter, the job of senior leadership is to create the right conditions for those leadership teams to thrive; as well as identifying and supporting those who struggle to maintain a healthy dynamic and drive timely decisions.

I hope is that sharing our experiences, and some of the lessons we’ve learnt along the way, that this will help others chart their own course towards a more inclusive and holistic approach to product leadership; one that recognises the value of overlaying Product, Design and Engineering to make better, more inclusive decisions and ship great products.

If this approach to leadership sounds interesting, please reach out. We’d love to hear from other companies who have experience with similar leadership models.

We’re also hiring for a number of roles across Engineering, Product and Design. Please see our current opportunities page for details.