When Building a High-Performance Product Team, Put Culture First
Whether it’s mobile banking, telehealth, virtual classrooms or any number of other applications, one thing is clear: The pandemic accelerated the demand for digital products — and, by proxy, high-performance product teams.
Particularly in a moment when organizations face significant resource and talent constraints, that reality presents a challenge. Consequently, many turn to consultants like me, choosing a service like they would a dish off a menu. Can you bring in your agile framework? Can you fix our tech stack? Can you configure this new software?
The answer, of course, is yes — but simply implementing one-off solutions won’t make for a high-performance product team in the long-term. An agile framework alone, for example, won’t address issues with inter-departmental communication or create internal alignment on how to best measure success.
Instead, executives should adopt a different orientation, one focused on addressing the business problem and prioritizing team culture rather than a quick fix.
Why It’s Better to Start With a Business Problem
I was recently approached by a healthcare company that wanted help building a scheduling app for patients. While the technical aspect was fairly straightforward, as we began digging into how it would work among different stakeholders, clear impediments emerged: Were clinical care offices prepared to transition to online scheduling? Did the organization’s sales and marketing teams communicate well enough to align on necessary stakeholder communications? What were patient expectations for how online scheduling would work — and what would the transition look like going from a human-supported service to self-service?
In other words, before we could even consider addressing the product, we had to go back to the beginning and create the operational and cultural conditions for transformation.
This situation is hardly unique. I’ve encountered it across many companies and industries. What I’ve learned along the way is this: it’s perfectly fine (and even preferable) for a company to start with a business problem — whether its struggling to bring products to market, trouble with measuring product success, or difficulty determining the right products in the first place — instead of having to work backward from a narrowly defined technical request.
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Creating a Culture Where Product Teams Can Thrive
Starting with a business problem is a more holistic, long-term process that requires collaboration and alignment on the part of your product team. Issues with communication, goal setting and prioritization inevitably arise. To address them, organizations will need to place a renewed focus on culture.
Here are three best practices to keep top-of-mind:
1. Create a Shared Language
It’s surprisingly common for organizations to have no shared idea of what a successful product launch looks like. Executives often focus on development velocity or some other metric they might not fully grasp that may ultimately not be that meaningful instead of more fundamental questions: Is the product team consistently hitting its release dates? Does the new product drive engagement and adoption? Does the product add value for the user?
On this and numerous other fronts, leadership needs to establish a shared language: around key metrics, potential operational changes, expectations, roles and responsibilities, and how each action fits into the broader organizational vision and purpose.
Messages should be consistent, with opportunities for regular feedback and clarification when needed. They should be vulnerable, honest, and transparent from the get-go. But they shouldn’t be overwhelming: Too much information can be distracting to product teams that already have to learn a lot on the job. Focus on what’s most important to know for the next 90 days and start from there.
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2. Avoid Arbitrary Goals
If you’re trying to set a fitness goal — like losing 20 pounds or running a marathon — you wouldn’t just pick a deadline at random without first knowing how it might be achieved. You would also make sure you had a well-defined way to track progress to ensure your regimen is working. Developing a high-performing product team requires the same careful planning.
So don’t set arbitrary goals without first exploring the “why” and “how.” For example, measuring daily engagement on a 401k app won’t be especially useful given the nature of the product. Instead, you might want to start by really thinking through what your team’s expectation for improved engagement would look like: Once a month? Once a quarter? After big stock news?
Setting these types of goals can also detract from progress by distracting team members from important tasks, while adding undue stress and aggravation.
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3. Make Room for Change
Preparing to run a marathon means you need to give up some activities to create extra time for training. The same holds true for transforming product teams: Organizations often fail to move the needle because they expect their people to implement significant changes on top of their normal tasks — making mistakes and miscommunication more likely.
What’s more, simply implementing new changes isn’t the only desired goal. Developing successful teams over the long run means giving people the space and time to build new habits. This may require prioritizing the most important responsibilities for the product team during a new project and recognizing that timelines may need adjustments along the way.
When it comes to building digital products, culture matters. A 2022 report from West Monroe found that 47% of lower performing, less digitally enabled organizations have a culture that creates barriers to risk-taking due to fear of failure. On the other hand, 80% of high performers with superior digital agility reported having a culture that rewarded collaboration, encouraged risk-taking, and had a strong emphasis on learning and upskilling teams.
That’s taken on added importance given the accelerated push for new digital products and even the ongoing labor shortage. Those looking to develop high-performing product teams in this environment will need to take a more strategic approach, one that starts with a business problem and prioritizes a more collaborative, communicative culture that fosters enduring success.
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About the Author
Elli Rader is a Partner in West Monroe's Product Experience & Engineering Lab practice and the leader of its Product Studio. Elli works with clients to surround them with best-in-class customer service and product teams, collaborating to create some of the most challenging and groundbreaking solutions to grow their businesses.