The Most Important Quality of Successful Product Development Teams

Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Much has been written on the key virtues of high-performing, innovative product teams. Attributes that show up again & again include having a strong team culture; clearly defined mission & strategy; empowerment of individual contributors; and a willingness to take risks — test, fail, and learn from mistakes.

While all of these are important qualities for companies seeking to bring transformative products to market, there is one element commonly missing — one quality that I’ve come to value above all else: Momentum.

Why Momentum Matters Most

The world is constantly changing, and the pace of change is accelerating. Advancements in technology are exponential; new hardware and software products are released at at ever-increasing rate, and consumers are adopting new technologies today much faster than they have historically. Product teams that are unable to keep pace will inevitably become irrelevant and their businesses will shutter.

“Innovations introduced more recently are being adopted more quickly.” The Pace of Technology Adoption is Speeding Up

In addition to keeping up with the rate of change in the marketplace, teams that gain Momentum are higher performing teams. They set the tone and control the direction and pace of change within an organization. An entire organization that has the ability to sustain its momentum is a force to be reckoned with. The mantra that took Facebook to over a billion users worldwide was “Move Fast and Break Things.” They’ve since softened the philosophy, but there is still an organizational push toward maintaining speed.

Outside of the space of consumer technology and product development, Super Bowl LI is a case study on the power of Momentum. The Atlanta Falcons were in complete control of the football game, leading the heavily favored New England Patriots 28 to 12 in the 3rd Quarter. The Falcons looked like they’d roll to an easy win. They had all of the Momentum until Atlanta quarterback, Matt Ryan, was leveled by an unbalanced force: Patriots linebacker, Dont’a Hightower.

On 3rd down & 1, with the Patriots down by 25 points in the third quarter, Dont’a Hightower sacks QB Matt Ryan, causing a fumble and a sudden shift in the game’s Momentum.

That sack & fumble was the play that began the shift in Momentum from the Falcons to the Patriots who went on to win the game 34 to 28 in overtime. That play was the first step in a snowball effect that resorted New England’s confidence and led to a historic comeback victory. Research has shown that “a single initial success may be sufficient to trigger a self-propelling cascade of success.” Success actually can breed success. Momentum is key.

How to Build and Sustain Momentum

How can teams get the ball rolling to create that powerful snowball effect, and generate positive Momentum? There’s a lot to be written on the topic which I’ll try to cover in more detail in subsequent Momentum-themed posts, but I’ll start with some important hi-level building blocks:

  1. Define Your Purpose: Ensure that the team has a clear mission that they can rally around — including an understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve and consensus about what success looks like
  2. Have a Clearly Defined and Efficient Process: Any time spent fumbling with the process of how to get things done is time away from actually getting things done. Action > Words
  3. Timebox Everything: In the spirit of efficiency make the most of your time by setting time limits for everything (and always give yourself a little less time than you think you’ll need). The constraint of timeboxing helps people make decisions faster, and decisiveness further enables Momentum
  4. Autonomy & Accountability: Teams that have autonomy are free from external control and empowered to make their own decisions. Combine autonomy with well-defined measures of success, roles, responsibilities, and deadlines; and you have a recipe for a team capable of building Momentum

Speaking of unbalanced forces… Remember Dont’a Hightower. As seen in the Falcons v. Patriots example, Momentum is something that can be stolen in the blink of an eye — taking the wind out of a team’s proverbial sails.

Above all, everyone on the team should be held accountable for identifying and eliminating unbalanced forces that will rob the team of its precious Momentum.

In terms of sustaining Momentum, here are some warning signs that unbalanced forces may be hurtling in your direction:

  • Team members spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings, discussing — rather than doing — work
  • Team morale decreases
  • Not regularly shipping product updates
  • Lack of measurement in terms of whether or not product releases are successfully providing value to users
  • Ambiguity about the product vision and questions about the value of the work being done
My constant reminder.

In this age of rapid change, organizations with a culture of analysis paralysis — waiting until everything is “perfect” before launching a product—are inert and doomed to be left behind. As Newton’s law teaches us, objects at rest stay at rest. Teams capable of building & maintaining their Momentum will have the greatest opportunities to make an impact.

Any stories you’d like to share on the power of Momentum? I’d love to hear about them in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter: @adjustafresh.



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