Chapter 4

How to Scale Modern Product Teams

Executive Summary

Leading a product team as a company experiences rapid growth is exciting. Yet, in the face of output increases, customer profile changes, and new org configurations, it can be challenging for managers to ensure their growing team maintains a consistent product culture.

In this roundtable, we spoke with Joff Redfern, VP of Product at Atlassian, about how scaling modern product teams requires a clear definition of goals, competencies, and tools. We discussed ways in which product managers can structure their teams, as well as methods for them to create and share long-term product strategies and short-term product initiatives.

Takeaways from Executive Expert at Atlassian

Joff described ways that product teams can be oriented, specifically focusing on the qualities that make teams successful — clear goals, clear communication, and clear processes. He also shared methods companies can employ to create and maintain long-term product strategies and short-term product initiatives.

  • Start with the vision one pager. No matter your company’s size, the best way to communicate your mission and vision is with a one-pager. This is how LinkedIn communicates top-level vision and strategy and continues to do it for almost 20,000 employees. Same goes for Atlassian.  One of the best ways to ensure mutual understanding and cohesion across product teams is to document exactly what factors contribute to the decision-making process.

  • Build product teams like a “shipyard.” The first and foremost responsibility of a product executive is to define the team. Use the shipyard analogy — are you trying to win America’s Cup (speed, athleticism, agility, new tech), or are you building an oil tanker (certainty, expertise, durability, legacy tech)?
  • Establish benchmarks and role level expectations. Org and team leaders will set expectations for each team member and inform processes, tools, and responsibilities. It may seem counterintuitive, but formalized structure can ultimately help teams become more agile. Create a simple set of core skills and capabilities, compare your organization to peer companies. This additional context can help your team understand both what a function looks like and how it’s unique from other companies.

  • Create a non-management path. Not everyone wants to deal with people management. Team members will appreciate managers creating upward mobility and career paths that allow them to continue doing what they love.

  • Orient the team by who owns revenue. Does your end-user use the product then consider purchasing (product-led growth model), or do they purchase the product then use it (sales-led enterprise software model)? Businesses with product-led growth and revenue models typically see larger investments in R&D — at Atlassian, for example, 38 percent of spend is in R&D. Sales-driven organizations, such as Linkedin and Yahoo, rely on ads to generate revenue; they may see R&D numbers closer to 15 percent.

Takeaways from Breakout Peers

Our attendees shared how their product organization was structured, specifically pinpointing what worked and what could be improved on.

  • There is no “one size fits all” when configuring product teams. It’s common to see companies build teams around problems they’re trying to solve — such as revamping old platforms or one segment of the user experience. But silos can arise when you arrange teams based on problems that aren’t customer-centric. With endless possibilities, getting the team structure right the first time is unlikely. Just remember your team will evolve as new goals arise and challenges emerge.
  • Apply tactics to increase cross-team communication. There are many solutions to misalignment and poor communication, from team liaisons to collaboration tools (check out Miro) to the Notebooks feature in Amplitude.
  • Reinforcement and proactive communications from managers is essential. Some teams, especially those in engineering, may struggle to align output to value. Managers must tie engineers and product owners’ work to strategic importance — not just for the business, but also for the customer.
  • Prioritize in the face of endless potential. In 2020, we’ve seen an unprecedented wave of digital acceleration, leaving no shortage of opportunities for companies to capitalize on users’ excitement for digital products. However, teams that are overwhelmed with options may struggle to prioritize work. Managers need to set boundaries to ensure teams and individual team members keep things moving at the same pace.
  • Pros and cons of getting executive greenlight on product decisions. It’s common for product teams to report to a CEO or founder, especially in smaller companies. Though this process can help products better align with business impact, boundaries can easily be breached. Getting executive buy-in on every product decision is simply not realistic as a company scales. If you set up such a reporting structure, there needs to be a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. Develop a framework that is structured yet simple enough so higher-ups can review during each stage of a project.
Summary What you can do What your team can do
Get cross-function executive alignment on the vision one-pager.
  • Create a corporate “Vision and Priorities” single-sheet:
  • Have business leaders create team-level “Vision and Priorities” sheets with more localized answers.
  • Schedule an all-hands session where each team presents their one-pagers for cross-company alignment.
Benchmarking your competencies can help identify areas of improvement, as well as visually show where you stand in comparison to your competitors.
  • First and foremost, as a product leader, you should be able to answer this question: “What is the {YOUR COMPANY} way to product management?”. Your answer can manifest into a simple statement applicable to the entire product organization. From there, you can determine what competencies matter most.
  • Create a table that ranks where you and your competitors stand.
  • Have product leaders benchmark their team’s competencies and identify areas of improvement with the next steps.
Set clear expectations for every team member by establishing priorities and what constitutes “good work.”
  • Create a chart that includes job descriptions and desired traits and behaviors associated with each position. Promote a culture where these expectations drive job architecture.
  • Brainstorm what a non-management path looks like.
  • Set up a team meeting to discuss the “Expectations” chart and what changes are required for team members to better map onto their stated roles.
  • Have product managers undergo self-reflection exercises of what their swim lane looks like, as well as what they ultimately hope to achieve.
Institute decision-making and role frameworks. Remember that growth will require experimentation and evolution — don’t be afraid to shuffle the team if processes aren’t working. Just continue to adapt and improve. Decide on what decision-making framework works best for your team’s structure and goals:

  • Rapid model
  • Write decisions down for the team to discuss
Have the team begin using and mastering a decision-making framework. Chart out a step-by-step process and make sure the team is documenting throughout the way. Set up a meeting to onboard, as well as time to debrief at the end of the first week to discuss whether the framework is working.

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