Part 3: Building the foundation for great teams

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

This is part 3 of my five-part series on scaling your product management craft (Creating Conditions, Leading with Intent, Building Foundations, Recruiting World Class PMs, Preparing for Scale).

Consider what makes a great sports team? Reid Hoffman says that while it may look like a family, in reality it is a group of people aligning under a flag, motto, or drive. Think about those fundamentals and how they are used to acquire, retain, transform and motivate people. As a leader how do you build a foundation for great teams so that they will be successful? Let’s explore that further in this post with these three tactics.

1. First, start with the scaffolding for ideas

In part 2, I wrote about risk, communication and culture. Great leaders use those pillars to assemble and motivate teams. A clear vision, strategy and definition of success facilitate the creation of goals. Industry knowledge and experience provide the scaffolding to build this fortress.

from circles to cats :)

But what if you don’t have domain experience? How do you stay creative without reinventing the wheel?

In 2018, I had the opportunity to lead a developer experience team. I’d spent most of my career building data products and web applications for the enterprise, so this was new territory for me. I researched ferociously to understand the current state of affairs, the competitive set, market factors and the overall business value. I scoured my LinkedIn to set up meetings to share ideas and gather advice on how to approach the problem set.

The result might be a SWOT analysis, a comprehensive introspection of the user journeys, a competitive comparison or evaluation of one or more Porter’s forces.

During this process acknowledge innovative software features in addition to process improvements, partnerships and operational efficiencies. This should start giving you ideas for the kind of gaps in your current product portfolio and which ones are worth filling.

An example online form builder comparison chart

2. Next, outline the org chart of the future

Looking at the competitive table or roadmap matrix, you can identify critical areas that can be combined and assembled as teams.

If you had unlimited resources, what will you select as your attack vectors? What kind of team structures present themselves?

Photo by Michal Mrozek on Unsplash

Joff Redfern of Atlassian talks about the concept of “shipyards over ships”. In addition to the product infrastructure tradeoffs in your roadmap, you also need to think about people infrastructure.

The infrastructure you will need to build a dingy will be a lot different than what is necessary for a cruise ship. What about several of them?

Setting the right bar when assembling these nuclear teams will influence future hires and the ability to execute on those goals with quality and speed.

Once you have the team structures fleshed out, which roles will be essential to spin up new swim-lanes? And in what order will you staff these teams? The answers to these questions will help you figure out the ramp velocity, sequencing and the path to ROI.

A sample org chart you can create to visualise your thinking

3. Finally, make a case for investment

In reality, we don’t have access to unlimited resources. Even if we did, recruiting and new employee on-boarding can take weeks/months.

Even if you prioritised which teams and functions to light up first, there will still be some minimal lead time for budget approval and coordination with the recruiting team. Sometimes your leaders might need a little more validation to approve the budget. What do you do then?

In part 1 of this series, I wrote about how you scale as an individual contributor. As a result of those tactics, you should have freed up some bandwidth to take on new work.

Let’s say you want to create a team that builds a new suite of APIs and web interfaces to open up a new target addressable market. Apply 20% of your working time to the product manager for that role. Write specifications, meet with customers/prospects/colleagues. And document all the time spent. After a few weeks, you should have a reasonably good sense at the pace of progress. Provide your leaders with options such as:

  • We hire a PM and two developers now and ship the new product in 6 months to open up a new market worth $20MM
  • I continue to provide PM support in a discovery fashion and slow down/stop our existing initiatives and start shipping features against the new product line in 12 months.
  • We hire a PM and developer now and deliver a down-scaled version of our MVP in 6 months to address a portion of the TAM
  • We transition an experienced developer from a different team to deliver on a prototype

This approach will foster a discussion about what’s essential. Showing up with data about how you are spending your time, it will provide additional context to the trade-offs when you are spread out too thin. It can also serve as a mechanism to highlight domain expertise gaps in the current team.

If all things go to plan, most likely you will be doing a balancing act on supporting these new product lines while at the same time participating in recruiting, which can be a very time-intensive activity — more on this in the next part of this series.

Yeah, something like that :)

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