How to Run a Product Team

Lessons on collaboration, culture, recruiting, and alignment

pranav khanna
Aug 29, 2018 · 7 min read

This article addresses the process side of running a product team. Other key components — talent management, structure, vision etc. will be discussed in future article.

While I originally started writing this article series to develop my own framework, I decided to share for feedback from the hive-mind here with the hope that it may also help others.

1. Alignment vs. Chaos: A question of vertical and horizontal alignment

What’s the problem we’re trying to solve here?

There are many layers in any large organization or product team. On a basic level, there is a need to make sure that everyone’s goals are aligned and that the entire team is pushing towards the same objectives. In addition to this vertical alignment, product teams have to work with many partners across design, engineering, operations, marketing etc. In other words, product managers also have to make sure everyone is horizontally aligned on objectives.

How do we solve these twin problems?

  • Clear vision and strategy: Everything starts with a clear articulation of the future you’re trying to build, and how you plan to build it (more on how to build this here).
  • Objectives and Key Results: OKRs are an effective tool for making sure individual goals are clear and transparent. A nested structure—where a managers key result becomes the objective for a direct report—ensures proper alignment. OKRs have a bunch of other benefits, which I’ll dive into more later.
  • Weekly progress updates: These updates are ideally linked to OKRs. Usually on large teams there is a lot of activity, and we often don’t take the time to step back and reflect whether we’re making progress. Drafting a weekly update to your manager will help to ensure that you are making progress toward team-specific and institutional objectives, driving transparency across the team and quickly escalating issues.
  • Meetings: Meetings are considered the bane of working in corporate America, and they are a frequent punching bag. But this is excessively harsh: carefully designed meetings can be very effective. Here are the meetings I advocate for the product team: Weekly product reviews, weekly monitoring review, quarterly strategy review, and all-hands.
  • Roadmap: Publish a roadmap, any roadmap. Ideally its based on specific themes/objectives/measurable KPIs and not just a list of features. Roadmap features should be well defined for the next 2–3 quarters, and then less so. Roadmaps help especially with the horizontal alignment of letting partner teams and stakeholders know what to expect. Moreover, roadmaps delineate clear trade-offs that inevitably crop up as the company grows and new priorities come into view.

2. Defined vs. undefined: Documentation and collaboration

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

There is a need for rigor in making product decisions. One easy way to drive such rigor is through good documentation. This is not just for process’s sake or to create unnecessary bureaucracy. I am a firm believer that the act of writing pushes thinking and makes it better. Check out this awesome twitter thread on this topic. Documentation also helps with remote collaboration across geographies.

How might we solve this problem?

Our team started using this framework:

3. Proactive vs. Reactive

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

In any large company or team there are many externalities, and things vying for your attention. While it is easy to become reactive to emails, meeting invites, requests from people, etc., you have to take charge of your agenda and drive forward with clarity and focus.

How might we solve this problem?

  • OKRs: Just as OKRs help with vertical and horizontal alignment, they force people to proactively meet long-term goals. Accordingly, anything new that comes up and requires reactive actions can be assigned based on progress in OKRs.
  • Saying “no”: If projects are not on OKRs, say no, and get support from your leadership.
  • “Deep work” for deeper thinking: Deep work individually or with teams (working sessions) can help to make more progress in half a day than hundreds of emails over a month

4. Learning vs. static: Getting inspired and learning

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

Today’s environment is changing — skills are getting outdated rapidly, and like many others, our company is transforming massively. It is important to continue to learn new things, not only to future-proof your career but also to get inspired and enjoy your job.

How do we solve that problem?

  • Conferences: Conferences are a great way to get an external perspective and network. I always come away massively energized by good conferences. That said, they are expensive — so you ought to be judicious and do your research beforehand.
  • Reading blogs/listening to podcasts: This is somewhat intuitive, but some are better than others. Thankfully, there is a great deal of resources out there now and a lot of great content being produced on a regular basis. Make sure to find out what works for you!
  • Spending time with customers: The team (including PMs, engineers, operations, marketing etc.) needs to make the time to truly empathize with their customers.
  • Rewarding people: Whether it is through performance management or bonuses, people should for picking up new skills.

5. Talent management and recruiting

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

Bring in great people and develop them to be even better.

How might we solve this problem?

  • Always be recruiting and networking: The worst time to start thinking about recruiting is when you have an open role. Getting good people takes time. Ideally, we’re always networking with eye towards identifying good talent internally and externally
  • Take the time to onboard new people well: Not only will this make new recruits more productive when they start working, but it will also help them integrate into the company culture and adopt best practices from the get-go.
  • Development: In my view, companies often place too much emphasis on recruiting stars but not enough time on developing people into stars. Ideally, managers are holding feedback and development conversations at least once a month and giving feedback in real-time (e.g. pulling someone aside for 30 seconds after a meeting for both positive and developmental feedback). Formal feedback should be documented (mid-year and year end), and one of the objectives in the OKRs is around personal development.

6. Intentional culture vs. culture by chance

What’s the Problem we’re trying to solve

Building a culture that fosters inclusion, diversity of thought, and performance.

How might we solve this problem?

I don’t have all the answers, but I believe in the following quote from Doug Woodard:

“Don’t leave culture to chance.”

In addition to many of elements listed elsewhere in this post, I believe the following additional elements define a team culture.

  • Performance management (i.e. what gets rewarded): We need to be better in terms of rewarding outcomes over activity. By adding development to OKRs, we begin cultivating a culture of personal and professional growth that benefits employees and the culture as a whole.
  • Diversity: Diversity of thought, experiences, and ways of approaching a problem can transform a company. We need to build diverse teams to ensure that we are attacking a problem from different angles and making good decisions. It is not enough to hire diverse people; we also need to build a culture of inclusion where new hires and existing employees feel included and differences are welcome.
  • Team identity: Define what we stand for, our mission, and brand.
  • Decision making process: Who has the authority to make a decision needs to be clear, and the decision making process needs to be rigorous: all options need to be considered, risks understood, and mitigation and monitoring plans should be implemented.
  • Team retrospectives: Retros are a beautiful thing. They give the team a chance to take a step back and think about both the positives and negatives — and where to double down and where to make changes. They allow the team to continuously improve performance and address culture defining issues. By celebrating successes in front of the whole team, you build a culture of personal achievement.

7. Fun vs. chores: Enjoy your time at work

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

You spend way too much time at work to not enjoy yourself!

How do we solve that problem?

  • Make friends at work: I firmly believe that engagement at work depends on whether you have at least a few friends who you like to hang out with outside of work as well.
  • Informal team events: Not everything needs to be “organized” or “planned” fun e.g. formal team events. Something as simple as sending out an invite to watch a soccer game together while working qualifies.

Ultimately, how do we measure success?

I think you will feel it in your bones when you are part of a high performing team. A few KPIs could be things like talent retention, time to fill new positions (word that a good team is hiring gets out fast!), and team engagement scores on surveys.

All views, opinions and statements are my own.

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pranav khanna

Written by

VP, Product at Capital One

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