Building a high-performing product team

How to foster effective teamwork and smash your product objectives.

Rachel McConnell
Lead with Tempo
Published in
6 min readOct 13, 2023

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I’ve interviewed over 50 individual contributors this year and one of the questions I always ask candidates is ‘Tell me about the most effective team you’ve worked in, and what made it so effective?’

I ask this question because I’m keen to know what constitutes good teamwork in their eyes. Some of the responses I’ve loved include:

“We were trusted as a team as we delivered time and time again, and our judgement was trusted.”

“We have psychological safety and go to each other with our problems.”

“[We had] combined expertise…figuring it out together, felt like three parts of one brain.”

“We sometimes made mistakes, but were quick to learn and transform.”

“I’ve never had another team where everyone was so focused on the end goal.”

“We all worked together and had time for fun.”

“I loved how we were kind and did our own individual parts.”

“We have great communication and we’ve built trust and learned about each other.”

“[We have] diversity…differences but a good mix of backgrounds and abilities.”

“We had enough direction, and empowered to make decisions.”

Sounds dreamy to be on some of these teams, doesn’t it? But what if you could make your own product team somewhere everyone wanted to work?

With shared goals, the right skills, trust, safety and fun, a product team is generally in a good place to perform well. It sounds easy, but it’s actually quite hard to achieve. And while every business wants high-performing teams, very few seem to actually achieve it.

Over the last decade I’ve worked in various product teams, and have previously documented some thoughts on how you can help your team move fast without breaking things. But what about how to set your teams up for success to help you smash your product targets? Here are my tips:

Understand the contributors’ skills

In a sports team, coaches choose players for their individual strengths, and use these strengths to the team’s advantage. When you’re putting a team together, how much time do you spend learning about the background and skills of each individual? Do you have a solid understanding of their discipline and know why you need them on the team? If you don’t, spend some time learning about their craft. Perhaps you’re a product manager who has a very loose understanding of content design — why not ask the content designer to explain more about what they do and how to work with them? A team should be getting the most from each individual, so find out how to get the most from each member. This will also help you understand when to collaborate and embrace the blur between roles, and when to diverge and leverage each specialism. There may also be tasks you hadn’t even considered that someone could help with, for example could a content designer help you craft your product vision? Use their skills to your advantage.

Create a team agreement

Agree some shared values and principles for how you’ll work together. This could include anything from your ceremonies and meeting cadence, to your communication methods, and how you’ll operate in meetings. There are many tools to help you create an agreement — I like this one — but doing this at the start will help you align on expected behaviour for the team.

You may also want to run a ‘hopes and fears’ session when your team first comes together. This is a great way to surface anxieties and figure out how you can reduce them.

Define a clear mission and direction

Shared goals are so important. Team members need to understand the purpose for their work, and know where they are tracking against the objectives at any given time. Imagine a sports team playing a match but having no idea of the score and whether they were winning or losing. Does your team understand the metrics they’re trying to impact, or the end vision? Do they know how they’re performing on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis? If not, they’ll feel rudderless and there’ll be a lack of motivation to deliver. Start with a clear mission and defined goals, and check in with the team regularly on progress.

Assign equal responsibility, but agree individual roles

Whilst one person may have ultimate accountability for the outcome (usually the product manager), each team member has equal responsibility in creating the solution. Don’t assign more weight to one team member than another. Each perspective is valuable, and each skill is vital in achieving the desired outcome. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t need that skill on the team. Make sure all team members understand their role, and what they will and won’t be doing, a RACI session can help with this when the team first comes together. This can also help contributors figure out when to converge and when they’ll need to work individually on tasks.

Put faith in the team’s expertise

A team is a collective which is stronger as a whole, but each person brings specific expertise. You need to trust in that expertise, whether or not you agree. Without trust, there is no psychological safety, and without safety, there is no honesty. Team members will be afraid to share their opinions or admit when mistakes have been made, which further erodes the trust between team members. The worst performing team is one in which one person makes all the decisions, and everyone feels like their expertise is ignored. If you don’t have faith in the expertise of a team member, explore why. Is their expertise misaligned to the needs of the team? Do you have a genuine understanding of their role? Have they made a mistake? Mistakes are acceptable if the team can learn from them and adapt, but they’ll need to be allowed to mess-up from time to time without fear of failure. Empower them to make decisions, but be on hand to support when needed.

Foster a culture of experimentation

Why not let your team members suggest experiments you can add to your product backlog. It’s likely every team member has some hypotheses about why certain parts of your product aren’t performing, or can point out at least one area of your site or app that goes against usability heuristics. Run a session to capture all the things your team would like to test that could positively impact your metrics. You’ll be surprised at the strength of ideas you can add to your backlog or run in parallel with your more strategic work.

Define problems, not solutions

Often a team is given a pre-defined solution and asked to design it. At this point they’re not really designing anything, they’re just mocking up an idea into a high fidelity prototype. This is one of the biggest frustrations I hear from skilled design teams. Leverage those skills and experience, and ask them how they would solve a particular business problem. There are multiple ways to solve any problem, and bringing a few brains together will always get you to a better solution. Empower the team to solve problems. And if you’re worried that this might take longer, timebox the ideation time, or run a mini-sprint. It’s often better to find a more impactful solution, than rush into something that might only drive a very small incremental change. Your team will work much harder and deliver more impact when they feel empowered.

Don’t skip retrospectives

On that note, make sure the team has regular retros, so they can openly discuss what is and isn’t working, and how to improve. The most important thing in a retro is to define the actions you’ll take to address any issues, and follow up on them. Actions speak much louder than words, and if team members have to keep raising the same issues, they’ll quickly feel ignored and unvalued. When members feel undervalued, they’re not going to put in the effort you need them to. Listen to their needs.

Have fun

Make sure your team has time to get to know each other as individuals away from the work, whether that’s through team-building exercises or social events. The more a team can bond, the better the work will be, as they get to know what motivates each other and how to communicate effectively. Without fun, the team is just trudging through tasks and they’ll quickly lose their creative spark, diminishing their ability to innovate.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Most are very easy to implement, but will reap huge rewards as your team feels motivated, empowered, and clear on their purpose. Go forth and have impact!

Rachel McConnell is author of Why You Need a Content Team. She also curates and hosts the Lead with Tempo conference. Tickets are on sale now.

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Rachel McConnell
Lead with Tempo

Content and design leader. Found of Tempo. Author of Leading Content Design and Why you Need a Content Team and How to Build One