Creating a strong and healthy culture allowing teams to perform to their best potential is super important in any team and especially in product teams where cultural and performance issues may have a severe impact on other teams they interact with.
I first read Five Dysfunctions of a Team a few years ago and read it again recently. I highly recommend it to any manager or leader – it’s a light read and is quite insightful and effective in making you think about the type of culture you’d like to nurture in your team.
The book lists 5 areas that cause team dysfunctions. It got me thinking about the type of culture I’ve seen in high performing product teams.
This is the key to any functioning team. For me, trust means that team members know that everyone is working towards the same common goal and that they have each others’ backs. It means the team comes first and that accountability for success and failure is shared by every single team member.
Identifying trust issues early is crucial but can be tricky – most teams identify those issues only after ‘higher order’ dysfunctions such as lack of commitment and accountability are clearly impacting productivity. One early warning sign to watch for is when open discussions are gradually replaced by 1 on 1 conversations behind closed doors.
Actively solicit feedback at all times.
I’m a huge proponent of getting as much feedback, opinions and perspectives into the product process. A great product manager would seek feedback and new ideas that would challenge (rather than reinforce) their point of view from users, customers, developers and all other stakeholders. Processing incoming feedback is not enough, though. Active solicitation of feedback is key to getting more inputs from more sources in a shorter amount of time.
Soliciting feedback does not mean product plans change course with every new piece of input. The best product managers are those who can define and articulate clear and consistent product vision while constantly evaluating it. This duality is one of the hardest things in getting product management right.
The trick is finding the point where feedback merits changing course. Small changes are usually easy to digest and act on, but acknowledging that key parts of your vision are flawed and that so much energy and effort are about to go down the drain goes against our nature and our inherent tendency to stay on course and reach our goal, even it’s no longer the right goal. This is why so many companies fail to pivot in the face of overwhelming evidence that their business models are not working and their products fail to fit market needs.
No one enjoys conflict, but it’s essential to accept it as a natural way to iron out different opinions and views head on, quickly and effectively. The worst meetings are those where only one person talks and everyone else just sits around the table in silence.
It’s a clear sign of trust when team members are comfortable to openly disagree, change their mind, admit they were wrong or just defer to someone else. You’re in deep trouble, though, if discussions are similarly heated but due to frustration, animosity and lack of respect for each others’ opinions.
Own, Decide and Commit.
This may seem trivial but it’s amazing to see how many teams fail here. The inability to make decisions is one of the most common issues I’ve seen in teams ranging from small engineering or product teams all the way to large leadership teams in public companies. It gets worse – making decisions without the team’s commitment to execute is the kiss of death for any project or initiative.
Inability to make or commit to decisions stems from either lack of clarity as to who should make the decision or due to the misconception that a collaborative environment means achieving consensus. Nothing is further from the truth – the key to an effective collaborative environment is a razor sharp understanding as to who owns which decisions.
If you have trust, if providing feedback through open and honest discussions are part of your culture, your team would expect decisions to be made quickly and effectively and will commit to executing them even if some members had different opinions regarding the best course of action.
Accountability is key to ensure you can set the bar high and get teams to perform, acknowledge mistakes and failures and learn from them. Accountability is not about blame, it’s about ownership. If you have a strong culture of accountability you’ll never hear excuses, your team will recover much faster and more effectively from failure and will become a stronger team as they learn from their mistakes.
I love Ben Horowitz’s Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager, and especially the quote below which applies to every team and every role in the organization:
A good product manager … takes responsibility for devising and executing a winning plan (no excuses).
Bad product managers have lots of excuses. Not enough funding, the engineering manager is an idiot, Microsoft has 10 times as many engineers working on it, I’m overworked, I don’t get enough direction.
Creating and nurturing the right culture in your product team will make a huge difference in their ability to lead and execute effectively and will significantly improve their motivation and satisfaction.
The culture you build is only put to the test when things are not going according to plan, when tough decisions need to be made. This is when you need every individual and every team to perform at their best. Build the right culture early and you’ll prepare your team to be at their peak when it really matters.