Monday 3 April 2023

Are Product Teams Harder to Lead?

Are product teams harder to lead than other R&D teams? This is a question that I've been mulling over recently. I've been leading teams and departments of various disciplines for many years and my experiences in product have been some of the most rewarding but have also at times been the most difficult. As I'm in a lone-contributor role right now it seems an opportune time to reflect, so in this post I'll look at what it is about managing product roles that makes it feel like so much more of a balancing act than leading other disciplines.

Product roles are mortar roles

Someone once said to me that there are two types of job in tech companies, brick roles and mortar roles and that product was a mortar role.

  • Brick roles are well defined value delivery roles that are pretty consistent from one company to the next - development and technical support are good examples
  • Mortar roles are more connective, working between the 'bricks' adding value through facilitation and negotiating decisions. These tend to have far more variable expectations according to the structure of the company

Product roles do vary hugely between companies. A product owner in one company may have full responsibility over their product where in another company they may be there to manage the backlog of priorities given by a senior exec or PM. Some product roles regularly speak to customers whereas others are limited to working with internal stakeholders who tell them what the customers need.

Product roles are highly distributed across the organisation

In teams with a common workload such as developers or technical support the team will usually focus together on a narrow set of work items. A product team is different in that it behaves more like a number of separate teams all made up of one person. This is because each individual is aligned to separate agile teams, products or value streams. The result is that often there is as much work in progress across a product team as there are members of the team, if not more.

Product roles are highly autonomous

Working across such a distributed group all with discrete workloads means that the product team are never going to work as a close-knit unit. Product owners and managers therefore have to be independent decision making roles. There is a truck load of autonomy inherent in the roles and each individual will want to adapt their approach to fit their unique context. This makes any attempt to manage by standardising processes across a product team an exercise that's unlikely to provide any benefit and could be unwelcome. Leading product is a fine balance of finding structures that give a consistent view to colleagues and customers while not inhibiting individuals in how they approach their work.

Product roles aren’t in control

Yes we can set priorities but product folk are abstracted from being able to deliver value into their products directly. The need to deliver through influence is key to success in the role but it does make it harder to assess how someone is doing. Sometimes limitations in technology or simple technical capability in teams can hinder the most capable product owner from getting value delivered.

Lots of product work is based on the effectiveness of the interactions they have with others and you can’t easily assess that influence in the same way you can the quality of a piece of code or the rigour of a testing report. For this reason understanding how well product people are performing often falls to speaking to their peers and internal customers. This isn’t helped by the fact that being effective in a product position means saying no to these very same people on a regular basis.

Product people are harder to find

The combination of technical understanding, commercial insight and communication makes product roles hard ones to fill. In fact after a lengthy study Adi Agashe and Parth Detroja in their book ‘Product Management's Sacred Seven’ found that there were seven core skill areas to being a successful product manager - Product Design, Economics, Psychology, User Experience, Data Science, Law & Policy and Marketing & Growth. Few roles can boast such a broad range of skills as the foundations to success. Good product people are therefore very hard to find.

So why do it?

While it's easy to dwell on the difficulties product leaders face, what it's worth remembering is that it is also great fun. Those characteristics which can make product teams hard to lead also reward in equal measure.

  • Product people are motivated - I've not yet met a product owner or manager who didn't have a genuine passion for what they do. Drumming up enthusiasm isn't a problem in product teams.
  • You can be a genuine servant leader - Good product people don’t require a lot of hands on management which means that adopting a servant leadership style is a natural fit. As I wrote about in ‘the Sacrifices of the Servant Leader’ being a good leader is not about telling people what to do. Instead it’s about supporting people to get the best out of them and allow them to shine.
  • Product people are creative - Good product people are a pleasure to manage as they bring ideas and spark off each other and the teams they work with. Getting to engage with talented, smart and creative people and see them driving innovation is one of the true pleasures of software development

So on reflection is leading product teams harder? I don't think so, however I do believe that it is unique. Product teams require leadership rather than management to ensure that you get the best out of a group of talented, creative and autonomous professionals. If you get the right people and support them well then a product team can create a real buzz around product in a company, and it’s a joy to watch this happen.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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