The 3 Most Common Characteristics of World-Class Product Teams

Mike Stern

CEO

Connected employees working together

Connected recently hosted a Product Thinking Mixer in the Bay Area with a keynote presentation from Marty Cagan, Founder and Product Principal at Silicon Valley Product Group. Marty spoke about how the most successful product organizations are moving past Lean and Agile methodologies and practices, taking the best elements from each and then going even further in their craft. 

At Connected, we are passionate about this way of thinking and organize our project teams accordingly. It is absolutely critical to build the right culture and team structure if you want to achieve product success. No matter the size or age of your organization, any product team can benefit from the 3 main characteristics that these leading organizations share. Based on Marty’s presentation, here’s where they all align:

1) Tackling the right risks upfront

Product is all about taking risks; however, one of the most common problems that I see among product teams is that they are afraid to take risks. Instead of making drastic innovations, they opt to make little tweaks and work through their funnel, optimizing to make small improvements. Don’t get me wrong, optimization is useful and companies should be doing it – if they have sufficient traffic – but that is not a value creation activity, it’s a value capture activity. 

Marty says in order to do proper discovery work and create value, the onus is on the product team to tackle four risk areas, often starting with the first two:

  1. Value risk: will they use/buy it?
  2. Usability risk: can they use it?
  3. Feasibility risk: can we build it?
  4. Viability risk: will this work for our business?

To tackle these risks there are qualitative and quantitative methods that map to each as well as four types of prototypes: feasibility, user, live-data, and hybrid. Unfortunately, these prototypes don’t match up directly because of course, it’s not that easy.

In companies with not-so-great teams, the focus tends to be just on usability and feasibility even though those are the two risks that are easiest to test. Most of the curveballs tend to come from value and viability risks but, at most organizations, the product teams aren’t even asked to consider them. Marty states the reason for this is that in organizations without empowered teams, stakeholders who have created and are holding the product team to a roadmap are the ones implicitly taking on the responsibility for value and viability. 

In contrast, the most effective teams identify the right risks and tackle them upfront.

2) They define products collaboratively

Collaboration is crucial to great product teams. In the past, a PRD (product requirements document) would be produced and thrown over a wall to a designer for design requirements. It would then be thrown over another wall to the engineers for sprint planning. Basically, your classic waterfall approach. The reason why this is not ideal is that innovation almost never happens sequentially. It’s not simply that requirements drive design which drives implementation – it’s just as true that enabling technology drives experiences which drive functionality. 

The way to solve problems in great product teams is to promote the give-and-take between product, design, and engineering teams. Marty shared that one of the most simple and low-cost things you can do to give your team a chance at innovation is to place them together – product next to design next to your tech lead which is a practice we follow at Connected.

3) They focus on business results, not outputs

The way most teams operate is by churning out features on a roadmap. They get laser-focused on shipping in a certain timeframe or staying within budget but the reality is that those two things aren’t that difficult – what’s difficult is solving problems. Product teams exist to solve problems in ways that your customers love, yet work for your business. 

A great example of these themes coming together is the iPhone – in particular, the implementation of the multi-touch keyboard on the first iPhone. The best description of this is in Ken Kocienda’s Creative Selection. It was one of the hardest consumer tech challenges in recent memory and they used these three themes to get past a failed attempt to the iPhone keyboard the market exuberantly accepted. 

The key takeaway here is that you don’t need to be at a company like Apple or Google or Amazon to have an incredible product team – you can achieve meaningful success by just focusing on these three areas that all of the greats have identified and tackle time and time again. 

If you want to learn more about how world-class product teams operate, watch Marty’s entire presentation.

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