April 19, 2021

Delivery Leadership is a Craft You Need to Build Products

Leading teams is a craft of its own and while it may contain some managerial responsibilities, it’s critical to differentiate between “management” and “leadership.” While Dan and I agree about the attributes and styles highlighted in this article about Google’s Project Oxygen in Inc, we had a strong reaction to the word “manager”. Here at 3Pillar Global, we call this craft “Delivery Leadership” and we think it’s bigger than team management both in scope and importance. More critically, when delivery leadership is done right, the client gets maximum return on investment.

What is Delivery Leadership?

Authority and accountability need to be aligned in high performing organizations and teams. Building products and digital experiences requires plenty of nuance, judgement and decisions that are gray and multivariate. The term “best practice” can be misleading because while there are clearly bad practices and anti-patterns, the best practices for your team/product/organization depends on a number of factors. Whether we’re talking about process, coding practices, meeting cadences and agendas, we rely on principles to help weigh trade offs. The role of delivery leadership is the person who is ultimately responsible for seeing to it that these decisions get made in the best possible way for the team. The Delivery Lead is also the person carrying the accountability for the output of the team and is a critical point-of-contact for the client and their stakeholders. The Delivery Lead role can be played by an engineering manager, a technical manager, a product manager, a consultant, but they must know that they are playing this role in this context. It is a nexus point for authority and accountability.

Why is Delivery Leadership So Important?

Great products and digital experiences are built by people for people. These products must improve people’s lives in order to achieve their intended outcomes, whether that’s to drive revenue, retention, drive traffic, or even handle obscure business tasks. In order to unlock that potential value, you need more than the ability to build and ship a list of features. Yes, you need strong technical expertise, but it’s our ability to leverage that expertise in service of the client’s mission that matters. As stated above, building products involves thousands of small decisions every day.

This is where Delivery Leadership comes in. Good delivery leads understand that for the team to be and produce more than the sum of its parts, they must rally the team to the mission – the purpose – for which it was assembled. They must guide clients through different approaches and trade offs and ensure the quality of collaboration with the client and the output of the team. If accomplished, true innovation (meaning the creation of value) is made possible because the widest possible lens is applied to the challenge. Simultaneously, every small decision should be guided, at least in part, by that purpose. The product and its features are only the HOW. But the list of features in the backlog are only a hypothesis (with more or less research to back them up) as to what will accomplish the mission. Delivery leads connect the team to the mission and guide them to make it their own. There are many ways to implement a feature. An engineer who understands the mission can align the implementation to serve that mission.

How Can You Tell the Difference?

At 3Pillar Global, the distinction could not be more important. John Doerr, a well-known venture capitalist who invested in Google, Amazon, Intuit and Dreambox, is credited with saying, “We need teams of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries.” Marty Cagan, the founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group and author of Inspired: How to Build Tech Products Customers Love, used this quote many times and expounded on the point in a blog post:

“[The difference] is not hard to spot, either way. Teams of missionaries are engaged, motivated, have a deep understanding of the business context, and tangible empathy for the customer. Teams of mercenaries feel no real sense of empowerment or accountability, no passion for the problem to be solved, and little real connection with the actual users and customers.

In my experience with product teams, there’s simply no comparison between the morale, speed and most importantly, the results, of a team of missionaries as compared with a team of mercenaries.”

– Marty Cagan – Founder, Silicon Valley Product Group

In the same post from 2015, Marty adds:

It’s nearly impossible to have a team of missionaries when your engineers work for another company and are under contract to build what you tell them to. That’s pretty much the definition of a mercenary. (source: https://svpg.com/missionaries-vs-mercenaries/)

We have heard this frequently about other outsourcing companies in our sector and I have had my own poor experiences with the top outsourcing companies. Part of what drew me to join 3Pillar Global and leave a role leading Product/UX/Engineering at a SaaS product company was to figure out why 3Pillar was different. There are several things that make 3Pillar unique, but the one that never ceases to impress me is our ability to repeatedly create mission-driven teams with the high level of personal commitment that Marty describes. Our delivery leads also seek to surface important issues versus questions the team can answer on their own by building and maintaining trust with client stakeholders. This maximizes the total return on investment that our clients make with us. Delivery Leadership has been a critical component to our success by leading teams and our clients rather than managing them.


3Pillar is an innovative product development partner whose solutions drive rapid revenue, market share, and customer growth for industry leaders in Software and SaaS, Media and Publishing, Information Services, and Retail. Contact us to learn more about how 3Pillar can help you execute on your product development roadmap.


About the Authors
Scott Varho is the Senior Vice President Of Product Development at 3Pillar Global
Dan Calinescu is Vice President of the Global Delivery Leadership Practice at 3Pillar Global