August 7, 2018

The 4 Characteristics of a Healthy Digital Product Team

Several weeks ago, I found myself engaged in two separate, yet eerily similar, conversations with CEOs struggling to gain the confidence they needed to scale their product development teams.

In both instances, the product teams were struggling to keep up with market demand. As a result, each CEO felt the urge to invest in increasing the size of their engineering teams. They both struggled to do so, however, because they lacked confidence that they were getting their money’s worth from the existing team. They were both hesitant to invest more in product development because they had no idea whether what they already had was even a “good” baseline to build from.

What struck me most about these two conversations was that it wasn’t just the market-facing CEO that was struggling with the question. The second CEO, interestingly enough, had grown up as an engineer, moved to product, and was now running a multi-million dollar startup for which he had written the first line of code. Yes – even technologists don’t always know what good looks like.

Over my 20 year career in product development, including the last 12 years running an organization committed to building high-performing product development teams, I have witnessed, over and over, teams that deliver on their potential and teams that do not.

Here’s what I have found, and, what I look for in a “Healthy Team:”

Healthy Teams are Predictable

It is nearly impossible to assess whether a team is delivering on its potential if the output that they produce is sporadic. It is absolutely impossible if their output can not be measured.

Healthy product teams have a defined timeline for each of their development “iterations” (typically a two week period of time in which the team delivers a small handful of features, though variations can and do exist). They consistently deliver roughly the same amount of feature development during each one of these iterations. They have a standard means for measuring this development (typically by using “velocity points”) and maniacally manage to, measure, and report on it.

Teams that consistently deliver on mutually understood, and quantitatively measured, feature commitments meet my minimum bar for a “healthy team.” Those that do not (or, even worse, those who don’t even have an agreed upon expectation), are not healthy teams.

In my experience, less than one out of every three digital executives are able to articulate what they expect, in terms of measurable output, from their development teams. Even fewer have confidence in their teams’ ability to consistently deliver, within a reasonable margin of error, against that expectation. (Note, one of the biggest mistakes I see made by executives is to push to maximize velocity as opposed to insisting on consistent velocity).

The best teams are reliable and consistently deliver value to the market at a sustainable pace.

Healthy Teams are Manageable

It takes a Herculean effort to manage the output of dozens of people. It’s nearly impossible to optimize the output of a software development team made up of dozens of people.

Healthy product teams are made up of between 4 and 12 professionals – ideally 7 or 8. The team members work closely together, collaborating effectively and efficiently via conversation and real time collaboration. The teams are small enough to have productive discussions but numerous enough to bring different experiences, expertise, and opinions to the table.

Manageable teams are able to react quickly to change. They self-manage and minimize the overhead burden of coordination.

In my experience, many digital executives fail to consider team construction when they are building their product development organization. They tend to think about individuals, capacity, and cost. They fail to think about the power of team and those individuals working together in concert. At the onset of an initiative, they may try to build product with only one or two rock stars. As they scale, they end up with 30 professionals working without any cohesion.

The best teams consist of 7-8 individuals, working together to produce more than the sum of the parts ever could.

Healthy Teams are Cross-Functional

It is difficult for a team to deliver on its potential if team members do not possess the correct proportions of expertise required for successful product development. It’s even harder if various aspects of that expertise are missing altogether.

Healthy product teams are made up of an interdisciplinary team that is trained in defining, designing, and developing the product. They include product management, user experience, engineering, and operations professionals. They have the ability to build the right product and they have the ability to build the product the right way.

Cross-functional teams are empowered to self optimize. They possess a holistic capability that enables them to respond quickly to feedback from each other and the customer. They are able to act without dependencies and as a result can be held accountable for producing consistent velocity.

In my experience, many digital executives tend to overvalue engineering capacity. Simultaneously, they undervalue product and engineering management. The end result is a team of hungry engineers ready to build, but, without the guidance they need to ensure they build the right thing. They are like a team of construction workers hammering away without an architect or a foreman.

The best teams are embedded with product management, engineering management, user experience, and engineering expertise.

Healthy Teams are Malleable

It’s hard to cook a three-star Michelin meal with 3 Master Chefs. Give me a master chef, a sous chef, and a kitchen porter and we’ll run circles around anyone that has “too many cooks in the kitchen.” The same concept applies in the world of product development.

Healthy product teams are made up of professionals with varying levels of expertise. They possess the wisdom of seasoned veterans, the perspective of mid-level professionals, and the vigor of new blood. They have the firepower needed to solve complex challenges and the hunger needed to complete mundane tasks.

Malleable teams possess the ability to rely on past experiences and the creativity to try new things. They avoid ideological debates, demonstrate both strength and flexibility, and move at a speed that is unparalleled by teams that are either too junior or too senior.

In my experience, product development leaders tend to prefer cost effective, junior heavy teams, or, top weighted, senior teams. Neither are optimal. A healthy mix of senior, intermediate, and junior talent nearly always outperforms the other two extremes.

The best teams possess professionals of various seniority levels.

Summing it all up

High-performing product development teams are predictable, manageable, cross-functional and malleable. By making sure that you build these characteristics into your digital teams, you’ll be well on your way towards ensuring that you are getting value for your dollar.