Insider Insights: High Performing Product Leadership Team

business_success_or_growth_56fe3da834418There is much talk about how an organization should drive product direction and execution.   I am currently involved with quite a few companies who are looking to tweak their performance in this area.  Product teams strive to provide the right direction and it is that critical analysis of the holistic product situation which is crucial.  Some think all it takes is a killer product with features that spellbind the user.  Others focus on the go-to market and the right strategy.  Still others spend an inordinate amount of time polling the existing customers for the future innovation.  Instead of investing in new features we can buy this company to complete our strategy and so on.  Often our stakeholders do not completely identify the business goals or they want to kill five birds with half a stone.  But I digress…

This blog is about experiences I have had at three companies facilitating/running a product leadership team.  The story is an amalgam of the best practices from those three companies.  We could have been running a $5M product line or a $1B all in business.  There is much discussion on the internet about the role of the Product Management Team, or product owner versus product manager or marketing versus product management.   There is little published on how to commission and run a high performing Product Leadership Team.  This could be for a Mode 1 waterfall enterprise software on premise product or a Mode 2 agile SaaS service for consumers.  The key aspects of getting a team of cross-disciplinary people to work together to drive the holistic product and business was an eye opener for me.  I was asked as the Product Manager leader to run the Leadership Team; in some cases this was a new role, in others it was a continuation of a previous setup.  Many of the ideas here are not mine, but were institutionalized by the organization across multiple teams.  Many products in the Business Unit had a Product Leadership Team in place but the results were mixed and perhaps this blog will shed light on why this particular team was very successful.   Let me use a time-tested approach to break down the Product Leadership Team experience.

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the Product Leadership Team

Who:  Team Membership

Many leaders and architects want to be on the team.  Even more want to have access to the wiki where the meeting notes were taken.  Damn, this stuff and the inner workings is complex and the room is indeed smokey.  Everyone wants to know what we decided; A or B and what were the reasons.  However, membership was clear:  voting players were the key leaders for this product line in the product management, product marketing, engineering and CTO office.  All of these roles (yes I mentioned roles, not individuals, as sometimes an individual had multiple roles) exist in large and small organizations.  If you are missing one of these roles in your leadership team you may have a bigger problem.  There were observers in each of these areas, but typically no more than one from each area and they did not vote unless delegated by the relevant voting member. If a key vote is not at least 75% (3 out of 4 people) the team escalated to the stakeholders, typically top leaders in the business unit or company.  Like it or not, these four people hold the future of the product in their hands.  No one else does.  Do not abdicate and let the senior leaders make decisions with the exception of setting business goals.

What:  Exact Scope of Leadership

Okay, so you get your 4 voting and up to 4 non-voting people together and start talking about features in the next release.  Wrong. Wrong.  Wrong.  This is an expensive meeting, people are taking an hour out of their week.  SVPs and VPs are waiting with bated breath for the key decisions and changes you are making to make your business exemplary.  People on your staff want to know if they need to change the topic of their 9AM meeting tomorrow morning.  Product feature analysis is best done by the lower level teams.  This meeting is about running an all in business:  product license, professional services and technical support.  It is ultimately about increasing the number of customers,  revenue  across the entire organization and keeping customer satisfaction high.  While the discussions may focus on product issues this team heavily weighted professional services and support as a key indicator of product line health.  We had topics such as:

  • Should we extend the end of support on this old release?
  • Which of these two 3rd party integration methods and modules should we use (with impacts on partners, services and support)?
  • What are the strategic imperatives for the next year?
  • How do we respond to the recent rash of competitive threats from competitor X?
  • If you had $100 where would you invest it, EPICs or small features?  Or is this product in harvest mode?
  • How and when will we align with our corporate standard for technology module Y?
  • Providing feedback on pricing and packaging for the next launch, and so on

They key to this high functioning leadership team was to over pivot heavily towards topics that could be discussed in 20 to 30 or 60 minutes and have a decision made in a single meeting after appropriate briefings over 1-2 meetings.  We shunned general updates and tried as much as possible to prevent chewing the cud on controversial topics that were out of our direct control.   This was a meeting to get stuff done.  It was one of the meetings you looked forward to each week.

When:  The Weekly Meeting and the Product Lifecycle

The weekly meeting was carefully managed, with clear agenda items, limited to no more than 2 or 3 topics a meeting.  The meeting was not recorded so that frank conversations could occur.  Key notes were taken and distributed to the meeting participants.  Follow up emails were sent to SVP/VP execs and key lower level team members when key impacting decisions were taken. We did invite special guests to present as subject matter experts.   Those invitations were signs that the leadership team highly valued those individuals.   It was an invite with career limiting or promoting implications for the rank and file.  In some cases we invited other organizations to listen in to a segment or even present.  We waited until all 4 key voting members were present.  If they could not attend, a delegate was chosen either from the observers or cross delegation (marketing gave product management their vote, or CTO gave theirs to engineering, for example).  If there was no attendance or delegation we cancelled the meeting and executive sponsors were informed via meeting notes.  Nine weeks  out of ten, voting members made sure we were productive.  If a topic was so controversial that the main four had to be present for opinion sharing or for a vote, we rescheduled.  The agenda topics rotated around so that each of the four core members had absolutely critical topics in their area addressed.

Where:  The Fireworks of the Weekly Meeting

High performing Product Leadership Teams are not rubber stamp book clubs.  The goal during the weekly meeting is to get everyone’s unabashed feedback on the table and come to a consensus if we could.  Often times this means riding the bus over a bad idea, and possums do get killed.  Other times we negotiate an intermediate conclusion such as an end of life date.  I have seen both cleanly running meetings where we accomplished a lot, as well as meetings where we never got past the first item and some people, subject matter experts included, feel like they have gone through the gauntlet and lost a finger. See my blog on constructive confrontation to get a feel of the model I used in getting the facts and truth on the table.  No doubt about it, you need a strong well-respected leader running the meeting or the minority will be snowplowed under.   One of the key reasons for keeping the attendance small and unrecorded (except for the meeting minutes published) is to encourage the engineering, marketing, CTO and PM folks to get their real opinions and facts on the table.  The debate on the topic often got to exploring the hidden messages between the bullets of our strategic plan.  Yes there were sometimes when I needed to intercede much like breaking up a fight between your kids.  Other times I let the fight go on and waited just before the player hit the ice to break it up.   How do you know as a leader/facilitator when to step in?   This is the art of your leadership style that you develop over the years.   The ability to provide  “Adult Supervision” is something you gain when your early career is a contact sport.

Why: Is This an Update or Do We Need to Make a Decision?

All too often we would get caught up in an update on some strategic threat, another product team infringing on our sacred ground, or just a political debate on strategic direction that was out of our control.   We tried to focus the Product Leadership Team on making decisions.  We also tried hard to ensure that when we made a decision there was very little probability of reversing direction in the next year.  This litmus test of decision making  was our standard, and it was a high one. This required clear review of materials where a crisp decision was to be made.  I would review most if not all of the presentations and provide feedback days beforehand.  I would also coach the presenter (if they were outside of the core four members) on what they would experience during the meeting and most importantly not to take anything personally.  We tried to push updates off of the Product Leadership Team agenda, but about 10-20% of our time were these key updates, ostensibly to prepare for a future decision making session.

How:  Housekeeping and Care of the Leadership Team

I bet your are thinking that the composition, personality and disposition of the core members of the team are key to the success of the High Performing Product Leadership team.  Right on, but as a product leader you have to make do with the ingredients you have.  Not everyone has the same needs or disposition or triggers or coping mechanisms to get through an intense debate which will result in a career-owning decision.  It takes the team leader/facilitator significant time to prepare members with content, and as will all well-run teams, do a lot of work before the meeting in coffee or scotch infused surroundings. Ensuring that key players are available and accessible (running through an airport security checkpoint during a key discussion would most likely postpone a decision) to get full buy-in critical.  Balancing a meeting delay with getting a key individual to delegate to another core member or their formal observer so that the decision can move on is an art that is best practiced and optimized over your career and experience in running product teams.

Four Things You Can Do Tomorrow Morning to Improve Your Product Leadership Team

  1. If there are non-contributors, kick them off the team and tell them why.
  2. Review your strategic scope and if there are questions or gaps, resolve with your VPs right away.
  3. Get all updates off the agenda, focus only on decisions.
  4. Encourage safe constructive confrontation at the meetings.

It has certainly been a long journey from my first experience in running a Product Leadership Team where it was simply a prioritization and validation exercise of what Engineering could delivery in the time we gave them to a more modern and structured decision making collaborative group.  While I didn’t discuss the challenges and differences in driving a product team in an engineering versus a product management driven organization, stay tuned for a blog in the near future on that conundrum.

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