How to Evaluate and Create Great Product Management Teams

When I think of product or market-oriented teams, I think about meetings. In fact, Product Managers are more likely to have meetings with folks outside of product management as inside it. As Product Managers, here are examples of meetings where we all wander in to address a topic. Topics like:

  • What we’re going to deliver to customers next?
  • Resolving an issue with a product in the market
  • Resolving a knotty technical or marketing issue
  • Speaking with customers about their needs
  • Speaking with potential customers about what they would like from you
  • For more ideas of team scenarios, check out Working with IT Teams and Working with Sales Teams

At times there’s a remote developer or Product Manager on a conference call. And no matter how good technology gets, conference calls are still not as wonderful as looking across at your colleague and figuring out a path forward. Because that is what most of these meetings are about.

Think about it. Even one-on-one conversations Product Managers engage in daily are about finding a way forward. And while the dynamics might change a bit, the goals remain stubbornly similar. And you don’t get there on your own. Being a hero isn’t nearly as effective as working together towards a great product or market solution as part of a great team.

Great teams vs. OK teams

So, what distinguishes great product management teams from so-so teams? The experience, the maturity, the diversity within the team? Actually, great teams come about because each member of the team works together to listen, challenges each other and creatively moves forward with the BEST plan for a given product situation.

This is harder to achieve than it is to write. In real life, not all of us see that product or market path in the same way. In fact, team members, whether in product management, development or marketing, have been known to throw up roadblocks unless the path chosen is theirs and theirs alone. Or some team members simply don’t care enough to participate fully. I’m sure you can find many different types of team participation failures in your daily product management life.

Luckily, we can rely on some solid research and techniques to determine what stage our product and market teams are in and then work on addressing the reasons that teams aren’t getting the best results possible.

In the next three sections, I’m asking you to score your chosen team (or teams!) on three different aspects of team dynamics. Breaking down where teams go off track is not for the faint hearted, but it’s important work. With this information at hand, you can make progress in building successful team dynamics that lead to great results – and, for Product Managers, great products.

How does your product or market team stack up?

Let’s start by determining where your team is today. Break this team analysis into two parts. Firstly, there’s our personal perspective. In any situation, Product Managers decide if they trust the other folks enough to state their opinion clearly. This reflects a Product Manager’s trust in the team they work with and is part of determining your team learning climate [1].

Question 1

Remember back to the last time you thought that your team was headed in the wrong direction. Did you keep quiet? Did you speak up softly, or did you state your case in clear language? Score yourself on a scale of 1-5 where 1 is that you kept quiet.

Secondly, your team has a culture of how they speak up.

Question 2

Do people freely share ideas or are they guarded? Sometimes people talk in euphemisms without directly stating this issue. Compare:

“That’s not the way we do things here” to “I believe that idea isn’t strong enough to make it through.” Again, score yourself on a scale of 1-5 where 1 is that your team members don’t speak up. Score 3 for “they speak up, but don’t speak directly to the issue.”

This analysis takes the temperature of your team. It forms the basis of answering the question, how psychologically safe are members of the team? How much do you trust your other team members to not attack you when you expose your thoughts to them?

For those of you unfamiliar with the term psychologically safe, it refers to individuals feeling safe enough in group situations to state their truth. Research by Google determined that this characteristic was critical for having great teams.

How does your team make progress?

The team learning climate takes another step forward when we look at how a product or market team learns together or their team learning behavior [2]. Here’s another couple of questions to understand where the teams you lead, or are part of, are on this scale.

Question 3

How does your team monitor progress? When checking up on the status of action items, do team members avoid the topic? Give brief evasive answers or fully disclose progress? Score the team (or each team member) on a scale of 1-5 where 1 is avoiding the topic.

Taking this idea further, certain teams are able to reflect on what they have recently learned. They use this information to test assumptions moving forward. Answer question 4 to check on this higher-level progress checking function within your team.

Question 4

How comfortable is your team at challenging current assumptions or suggesting alternative explanations? How willing is your team (or are team members) to challenge current plans and suggest ones that might be better? Again, score 1 for “no way in hell will these product plans change once they are in place,” Score 5 for “we throw out better ideas and modify plans frequently.”

Do team members benefit from being on the team?

Finally, one other consideration: do team members learn by being part of your team? For our final quiz question:

Question 5

By working on your team, do team members individually learn and have good outcomes? Given the range of team types, I will leave you to decide what a good outcome is. I suggest that it be one that is good for the person and the organization they work for. Score the team (or each team member) on a scale of 1-5 where 1 is learning bad behaviors win to 5 where team members improve their work lives.

Putting it all together

Now that you’ve identified your current state of team dynamics, you can start the work of nudging teams into taking steps to improve where necessary. To help you along, here is a list of factors that improve psychological safety [3]:

    Role clarity

    What am I supposed to be doing?

    Peer support

    How do we support each other across departments from development through to marketing?

    Interdependence

    Can we work together on product ideas that create better results than working independently?

    Learning orientation

    As opposed to a blaming orientation.

    Positive Leader Relations

    How much trust do team members have in their leadership?

As part of any product or market team interaction, insist on preparing the ground correctly by defining roles and healthy discussion rules which lead to a healthy learning-focused environment. Product Managers are usually part of a group leadership role. This gives you latitude to (gently) discuss behavior that is out of line with psychological safety – either in the meeting or separately. And remember that repeat offenders may need more than one reminder.

For more about how a Product Leader behaves, check out our blog post: Product Leader – Your Comfort Zone Kills Innovation.

What will your team get out of it?

By taking the time to analyze and improve team interactions, the outcomes that the teams are about to create improve dramatically.

  • Your teams and team members become better at sharing information.
  • They are more satisfied with their work and spend more time thinking about how to improve the situation vs making sure that they are safe from embarrassment or ridicule.
  • They are engaged with the team’s goals.
  • Best of all, performance improves.

The detailed work of team management is a critical skill for all Product Managers. In our experience, it’s the issue that Product Managers bring to us at 280 Group time after time. That’s why it’s worth spending time to improve your skills in this area. Join us for our co-hosted webcast with Becoming Expert: Are you the Product Leader your team needs?, where we’ll tackle what it takes to create great teams in more detail.

NOTE: This webcast has passed but you can view the slide deck below.

Sources:

1: Edmondson, A. C., Kramer, R. M., & Cook, K. S. (2004). Psychological safety, trust, and learning in organizations: A group-level lens. Trust and distrust in organizations: Dilemmas and approaches, 12, 239-272.

2. Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

3. Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta‐analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(1), 113-165.

About the Author

Pam Schure People Skills for Product Owners

Pam Schure
Director of Products and Services

Pamela Schure is the Director of Products and Services with 280 Group. She is a 25-year Product Management, Product Marketing and international business veteran with companies such as Apple, Sun Microsystems and Adaptec. She has worked with many companies, small and large, in diverse industries to determine what the key success factors are. She has deep expertise in how to use Product Management and Product Marketing skills to transform businesses and products.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

2 Replies to “How to Evaluate and Create Great Product Management Teams”

  • Very good article, thanks so much for sharing it here.
    Just one more thought on how PM teams should develop the culture of “Being logical and data driven – with some intuition”. Maybe it touches some of the communication / speaking up aspect that you mentioned, but product managers themselves look for logical reasoning in their discussions and debates; make decisions that have data or look out for more data when they feel it is not sufficient. This I believe differentiates the ok-ok PM teams with great PM teams culturally.

    • Thanks, Varchas for your comment. You’re right that great teams start from a basis of data mixed with what I call empathy for their customer’s pain points. In some organizations, intuition doesn’t have the positive spin that empathy and customer pain points does. This insight is the background that you bring to any work you do with teams. The key to great PMs is that they avoid pitfalls of bad team dynamics. For example, you can have great data, great empathy and lousy team interactions that flush away most of the hard work that the first two parts bring. This highlights just how hard it is to be a great PM!

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