Principles of Strong Product Teams

When I had my first job as engineer back in 2003 I had no idea what and how a product team actually does and also didn’t know WHY a Product team is the most important part in a long-term successful business for a tech company. During the years I started to learn and today I have a very clear picture of all that.

Product teams are sometimes referred to as a dedicated product team or as a durable product team, to emphasize that these are not created just to work on a single project or feature, or sometimes as a squad-derived from the military analogy and meant to emphasize that these are cross-functional teams.

“A product team is a group of people who bring together different specialized skills and responsibilities and feel real ownership for a product or at least a substantial piece of a larger product”

There are many ways to set up product teams, but in good product companies, you’ll find that, despite the differences due to their unique products and circumstances, there are several very important similarities.

Hence, according to my experience working for multiple corporations in automotive industry since 2003, here are my 10 very important similarities which I am sure are very applicable in any organization which develop a tech product, it can be any industry ( IT, Automotive, Aerospace, Healthcare, etc). I will just put them in 2 categories:

Group I:  TEAM BUILDING

  1. Team of Missionaries
  2. Team Composition
  3. Team Size
  4. Team Reporting Structure
  5. Team Duration

Group II: TEAMWORK

  1. Team Empowerment and Accountability
  2. Team Collaboration
  3. Team Location
  4. Team Scope
  5. Team Autonomy

In this post let’s have a look at the Group I = TEAM BUILDING

1. Team of Missionaries

There are many benefits of product teams, but a big goal is captured best as John Doerr, the famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who said once:

“We need teams of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries.”

Mercenaries build whatever they’re told to build.

Missionaries are true believers in the vision and are committed to solving problems for their customers.

In a dedicated product team, the team acts and feels a lot like ‘a startup within the larger company, and that’s very much the intention.

2. Team Composition

A typical product team is comprised of:

  • a product manager
  • a product designer, and
  • somewhere between 2 and about 10 to 12 engineers.

Of course, if the product you’re working on doesn’t have a user-facing experience-such as for a set of programmatic APIs (Application Programming Interface) – you probably don’t need the product designer. But many product teams do need this person on board.

Teams might also have a few other members such as:

  • a product marketing manager;
  • 1 or more test automation engineers;
  • a user researcher;
  • a data analyst, and
  • (in larger product organizations), a delivery manager.

3. Team Size

There’s no rule that says all product teams in a company need to be the same size. It’s true there is the notion of critical mass for a product team-usually:

  • 1 product manager;
  • 1 designer, and
  • 2 engineers.

However, some teams might justify:

  • 5 engineers and
  • 2 test automation engineers-others even more.

There is a practical upper bound on a team, which usually works out to be around 8-12 engineers. You’ve probably heard about the 2-pizza rule, which is intended to help keep teams in this range.

More important than the absolute size of the team is the balance of skills needed to ensure we build the right things, and build those things right.

4. Team Reporting Structure

Note that I haven’t said anything yet about who works for whom. A product team is not about reporting relationships – it has an intentionally flat organizational structure. Usually, everyone on a product team is an individual contributor, and there are no people managers. The people on the team typically continue to report to their functional manager.

For example, the engineers report to an engineering manager. Likewise, the designer usually reports to a head of design, and the product manager reports into a head of product. So, this is not about reporting relationships.

To be absolutely clear, the product manager is not the boss of anyone on the product team.

5. Team Duration

Of course these teams need to be durable, but what does that mean, is it for a few months or several years?

The bottom line is that we try hard to keep teams together and fairly stable. While things do come up, and people change jobs and teams, once the members of a team get to know one another, and learn how to work well together, it’s honestly a beautiful and powerful thing, and we try hard not to mess up that dynamic.

Another reason that durability is important is that it can take some time to gain enough expertise in an area to innovate. If people are moving from team to team all the time, it’s hard for them to get that expertise and to feel the necessary sense of ownership over their product and missionary-like passion.

And to be clear, a product team is not something we create just to deliver a specific project. It’s nearly impossible to have a team of missionaries when they’re pulled together for a project that lasts only a few months and is then disbanded.

That’s all for now. I will talk about the 2nd group of similarities of a product team as TEAMWORK in my next post.

(to be continued)

Published by florijn2019

I am a material science engineer working in Automotive Industry for some years and I have been doing projects in mechanical design using different CAD softwares such as CATIA V5, and NX. I have knowledge in plastics design, injection molding and automotive glass technology but I have also interests in new technologies such as artificial intelligence and aerospace industry. In my free time I like to travel the world, to learn about new cultures and make friends in different countries. Currently I can speak 5 languages : Romanian, English, German, French and Dutch. I was born in Romania but I am living in Belgium since Jan.2011.

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