Three Core Characteristics of Great Product Teams

There are many characteristics of great product teams. But when I think about what the very best teams have in common, there are a few common core elements that I think tend to lead naturally to many other great attributes. Characteristics like high levels of trust and motivation, proactive attitude, open communication and knowledge sharing – these all spring from having solved three core team competencies.

great-product-teams

Read on to see the details of each criteria and rate your team on a scale of 0-5 for each. How great is your product team?

 

Shared understanding of the customer

Great product teams understand that great products come from a deep understanding of the customer: their needs, their problems, their desires. All other things being equal, the company that understands the customer best will win the market.

It’s crucial that the customer is at the core of every decision, and that everybody has the same shared view of who the customer is, and how you deliver value to them.

Level What you should expect at this level
0 Who is our customer again?
1
  • Your Product Manager receives product ‘requirements’ from the founders/business/marketing/sales team, and consolidates these inputs directly into a backlog.
  • The priority or target users for these features are not discussed among the team.
2
  • Your Product Manager uses the customer segments provided by the marketing team to build the product strategy.
  • the PM makes priority and strategy decisions alone, or with the founders/business team directly.
  • the engineering and design team execute work from the backlog.
3
  • Your Product Manager spent some time at the start of the project out of the building talking to some customers to validate the segments provided by marketing, but hasn’t really spoken to many (or any) customers since.
  • Your design team perform usability tests from time to time, but the results are not widely shared outside of the design team.
  • the Product Manager has some rough personas, but these are not documented. The design team also has some personas they use, but these are different from those used by the PM. Engineering don’t have any personas at all.
  • Customer research results and analysis is rarely shared between groups.
4
  • Your Product Manager and designers can succinctly answer the question “Who is your customer?”
  • Your Product Manager is in regular contact with existing users as well as non-users from your target market.
  • Your Product Manager and Designers regularly use aligned customer personas when making product decisions.
  • Your designers perform regular usability tests.
  • Results and analysis of user research is presented to the team at regular intervals in knowledge-sharing presentations.
5
  • Your team shares a complete understanding of the customer. Any member of the team – from PM, to QA, to engineering – can succinctly answer the question “Who is your customer?”
  • Your Product Manager is in regular contact with existing users as well as non-users from your target market.
  • Usability testing is a regular and recurring part of your product development lifecycle.
  • All members of your team regularly take part in usability studies.
  • Results and analysis of user research are distributed and discussed widely in the team.
  • You have clear customer personas for your target segments and they are used by all members of the team when making all product decisions. All members of your team regularly say things like “What would [our key persona] Alex do in this situation?”

 

Focus

Great product teams understand that great products come from a deep understanding of the customer: their needs, their problems, their desires. All other things being equal, the company that understands the customer best will win the market.
It’s crucial that the customer is at the core of every decision, and that everybody has the same shared view of who the customer is, and how you deliver value to them.

 

Level What you should expect at this level
0 No product focus: it’s Product Anarchy.
1
  • There is no clear product roadmap or backlog. Tasks are thrown to the team ad-hoc.
  • Prioritisation is random, and is generally based on the HiPPO’s feature requests or who is screaming louder.
  • There is no clear KPI defined for any tasks.
  • Your team spends a lot of time doing low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is extremely frequent. You have a massive pile of started-but-not-finished work.
  • The majority of the design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team. You have a massive backlog of old designs that were never implemented.
  • The engineering team frequently starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are suddenly ‘urgent’.
  • The team appears to be constantly putting out fires.
2
  • There is a product backlog, but it changes every week. There is no roadmap beyond the next 1-2 months.
  • Prioritisation appears random, and is generally based on the HiPPO’s feature requests or who is screaming louder.
  • There is no clear KPI defined for any tasks.
  • Your team spends a lot of time doing low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is frequent.
  • A lot of the design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team.
  • The engineering team occasionally starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are ‘urgent’.
3
  • There is a clear, prioritised product backlog. There is a clear product roadmap for the next 12 months. The roadmap goes through major change about once every 2-3 months.
  • Prioritisation is based on business needs, but HiPPO feature requests or emergencies frequently get thrown in on top.
  • Major product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal.
  • The team only occasionally stops work on something they have started but not finished.
  • Small amounts of design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team.
  • The engineering team rarely starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are ‘urgent’.
4
  • There is a clear, prioritised product backlog. There is a clear product roadmap for the next 12-24 months. The roadmap rarely goes through major change.
  • Prioritisation is based on business needs and product objectives/goals.
  • Most product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal.
  • The team rarely stops work on something they have started but not finished.
  • Generally all of the design and specification work from the Product and Design teams is implemented into the product by the engineering team.
5
  • The roadmap and product backlog are clearly prioritised against business and product objectives/goals.
  • Changes to the backlog or roadmap are accompanied by a clear rationale that is linked to external forces or changing business needs.
  • Prioritisation is based on leverage to impact the stated goal, versus effort.
  • All product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal. You probably use OKRs or similar for articulating product objectives.
  • The bulk of your work is in the high effort/high impact area (generating core business value).
  • Your team avoids low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is extremely rare, and only happens in conjunction with major external forces.
  • A great sense of urgency in the team is based on a shared desire to deliver value to the customer as quickly as possible. “Firefighting” emergencies are rare.

 

Product, Design and Engineering Teams are 
tightly integrated

Great products are a perfect synergy of an urgent and pervasive market problem, and a solution based on a delightful user experience, enabled by technology.

Product, design and technology.

So it should come as no surprise that the teams who deliver the best products integrate product, design and technology closely.

Level What you should expect at this level
0 PM Dictatorship: subversion will be punished!
1
  • The Product Manager works alone with the founders/business teams. Priorities and instructions are given as ‘marching orders’ to design and engineering teams.
  • The Product Manager presents complete specifications, including wireframes and UX specifications, to design. Design’s job is to ‘make them look good’.
  • Engineering receives finished designs, and told to ‘implement this’. Engineering teams implement blindly and do not question, even when the design is contradictory or doesn’t make sense. (“It’s not my fault – I followed the spec!”)
  • Design and Engineering teams feel little or no ownership of the product.
2
  • The Product Manager works predominantly alone with the founders/business teams on the product strategy and roadmap.
  • Design feel some ownership of the product, but their view of the product strategy and agenda is created separately from Product or Engineering.
  • Engineering are working on a technical framework roadmap, but doing so separately from Product or Design.
  • The Product Manager involves Design in the solution definition for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Engineering are handed final specs for execution.
  • There is little knowledge sharing between disciplines.
3
  • Product Strategy, Design Strategy and Engineering Strategy continue to exist as separate entities, but they are discussed collectively and an effort is made to link them to one set of business objectives. Ownership of each strategy remains fully within the respective domain.
  • Design is involved in the problem definition phase for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Engineering is involved to provide feedback on feasibility, but is not encouraged to comment on the problem definition or solution beyond effort and feasibility.
  • Information is starting to flow between disciplines, but the flow is controlled by the respective discipline leads.
4
  • Product Strategy, Design Strategy and Engineering Strategy are combined into one overarching Product Strategy. Ownership of the strategy is shared collectively among the Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer.
  • Product, Design and Engineering are involved in the problem definition phase for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Prioritisation and solutions are frequently discussed between the three domain leads. The PM occasionally pulls rank to veto a decision she/he doesn’t agree with.
  • Everybody in the team is encouraged to give feedback on the product, specifications and designs.
5
  • The Product, Design and Engineering teams work inseparably from each other.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer work closely together daily. They constantly share knowledge, learning and advice among each other.
  • All three disciplines are involved from the start of any project or product initiative. Product strategy, roadmap and prioritisation are performed collectively.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer each have deep understanding of their areas of competence, but are comfortable discussing and challenging other areas.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer work together for all major decisions, but also trust each other sufficiently that decisions can happen if someone isn’t available for a discussion. Nobody is a bottleneck.
  • Everybody in the team is encouraged to give feedback on the product, specifications and designs. Nothing is taboo.
  • Disagreements and debates are based on an objective discussion of user value and the personas.
  • The PM never pulls rank to veto a decision she doesn’t agree with.
  • Product, Design and Engineering teams feel shared and complete ownership of the product.

 

Summary

The characteristics of good teams mostly comes down to team culture: and culture is the product of the norms and ways of working that are established in the team.

You – Product Manager, Lead Designer, founder – have more influence over this than you probably think.

Think about how you can up-level your team in each of these three categories. If you get to a 5 for all three of these areas, I guarantee you’ll have a fantastic, high-performing team and a great product.

If you have any feedback on the model, I’d love to hear from you!