building-product-team-Product-Innovator

How to Build a Product Team from the Inside Out

It’s easy to see hiring as a cure to many scaling ills.

Most organizations that start hiring to build out the product team have not exhausted the potential on their current team. They’re missing a huge opportunity right in front of them. Growing your team from within is harder and requires more effort, but I believe it also helps you build a fundamentally stronger team in the long-run.

Kids playing with one of Tiny Bop's educational games, The Human Body.

Kids playing with one of Tiny Bop’s educational games, The Human Body.

At Tinybop, we make award-winning educational apps that help kids get excited to learn more about the world around them. Our products are relatively idiosyncratic—our product team is composed of managers at all different levels. When we started scaling so we could expand onto new platforms and launch new ed tech products, it was our priority to help our people grow and develop into new roles from within as much as possible.

Instead of courting new PMs, we look inward first. Here’s how we do it.

A tracker for growing our team

At Tinybop, our PMs own a breadth of responsibilities, including defining the game play in our apps, making sure other people on their team feel supported, working on UX, defining product strategy, running sprints, and any number of other tasks. Some people are more strategy-oriented, others more logistics-oriented, and others yet—more or less skilled at interaction design or assessing technical challenges.

Giving feedback isn’t as simple as saying, “Well, you need to know more about UX,” because we don’t need all of our PMs to focus on building the same skills. Our system is more about identifying people’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas where they can improve:

  • Strengths: Areas that people excel in, i.e. UX design
  • Weaknesses: Areas where people are less strong
  • Areas to Improve: Areas of the core PM skillset where people need to get better

Managers at Tinybop check in on the people they’re managing on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and give feedback in an Asana template as well as in one-on-ones. The template is shared between the manager and the PM and either can add items to that list.

We track this feedback so that we can see what product skills or issues are bubbling up from week to week. This logging lets managers quickly pick out what comments have been recurring with more frequency, or have been brought by the person themselves, and prioritize fixing those.

Say you observe that Joe is having trouble prioritizing projects. You add it to the list in Asana, where you see that Joe has also noted there were a few meetings where he wasn’t clear on next steps.That’s a red flag and an opportunity to help Joe get better, armed with real, anecdotal information for context.

Before we started using Asana to track people’s skills and development, there was often simply too much feedback all at once, or it was easy to talk about it, then forget it. Logging creates accountability, for both managers and the people they’re trying to grow.

Coaching workshops for PM skills

Product management can be broadly defined (and is different at every company), and often involves skills that have to be picked up on the job. A good PM knows who to talk to and when. A good PM is capable of working across many different teams and balancing all their different needs. A good PM can distinguish when it’s time to make a clear decision about the direction a product should go, and when they should open that decision up for greater conversation.

These are often separate from people’s general strengths and weaknesses, and they are the kinds of skills that on-the-job coaching is great for teaching. We run regular internal coaching and training workshops for developing soft skills like giving feedback, improving communication, prioritizing, and navigating a variety of personality-based management scenarios.

A PM who struggles to communicate effectively with other people on the team will run into obstacles. We might help a PM who has trouble communicating effectively with a mirroring type of exercise—we call it “playbacks”. Two participants, each one listening to the other, picking up on keywords that the other is using, and then reflecting that language back. A simple exercise like this can be illuminating for people who may have trouble giving effective feedback, or not hear how multiple challenges are being conflated into one conversation.

Feedback is, ideally, a two-way process of learning. Both sides need to be speaking in the same terms and understand the problem similarly for feedback to be effective.

These playbacks, as an exercise, help people practice developing empathy and rapport-building. It gives people an actual tactic for communicating more clearly, and helps other people on the team become more aware of their habits. It’s a simple exercise, but it’s one that makes our team more effective and helps people get better in a measurable way.

Growing product people

Many scaling organizations put too much stock in the idea of expanding and too little in investing in the people already on their team. When you grow from within, you get a set of highly experienced people helping the next generation. That’s powerful, but you can’t grow from within unless you understand where the people on your team are today and where they want to go in the future.

You can’t fill out a realistic growth plan for an individual in a scaling organization unless you know how their strengths and weaknesses match with other people on the team.

And you can’t help people become better product managers unless you help them with the “soft”, interpersonal, and oft-neglected skills that truly make up a great PM’s toolbox.

Editor’s note: This post is part of our Product Innovator Series that explores what it takes for businesses to survive and thrive in the product-led era. If you’d like us to take on a particular topic under this theme, we’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Featured photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash