Great Teams, Great Products

Some of the things we use are great, other things not so much — we’ve all experienced both and can easily tell the difference. What’s not so easy though, is to state what exactly makes great products great and how can one make more of those.

Last summer I took a job as Product Manager in a company with 120+ people. My background was in hands-on digital work, mostly coding but also (a bit of) everything else, so I saw this job as an opportunity to take a step back and try to understand what really goes into creating great digital products.

It is no exact science, and great is indeed is a vague word, but one thing I’ve found to hold true in most cases is that great products are created by a team of people. Yet, clearly, not all teams yield great products (or product features) – so I decided to focus on what makes those teams special.

Ten months later this is far from being a finished process, but here are a few things I’ve found to work well:

One ridiculously clear goal

It’s tempting to think of teams as machines, with a number of parameters that can be adjusted to fine-tune the end product. In reality, however, teams are living systems of a very complex kind (I don’t mean it metaphorically), which get stimuli from the environment and react in ways that are not easy to predict.

Asking the team to meet a long list of goals in a certain priority is one of those ideas that make perfect sense in the team-as-machine model, but don’t have place in reality. Providing such complex input to the team will, not surprisingly, lead to a rather chaotic reaction within and ultimately to slow progress. It’s just too much to accommodate for, too much to coordinate, too much information to be in everyone’s head at all times.

What works well is a very precise impulse: one well-defined goal for the team to pursue.

Instead of chaos, this time the team will be able to quickly morph into whatever shape is ideal to react to that stimulus or, in other words, achieve that goal. Each team member will have a clear principle to base his or her decisions on (which means less communication is needed) and the limitation in breadth will pay-off in terms of depth of the final solution.

Reduce the scope

A necessary consequence of having one clear goal is a certain degree of independence of each team: you can’t have a single goal if you also have to care about everyone else’s goals.

This is particularly relevant for startups, which tend to stay away from well-defined hierarchies of power, and often fail to fill the resulting void and establish a workable division of goals . That leads to a "everyone has to worry about everything" kind of feeling, which in turn translates into a stressful workplace and removes any sense of accomplishment. It’s impossible to have impact on everything, particular while being unable to go deep on anything.

So, make sure everyone gets a slice of the pie and can do his/her job without having to worry about everything else.

Size does matter

There seems to be an ideal size for a team which reflects basic aspects of human nature. That’s 3 to 6 people and here’s why:

Stay under 3 people and you’re likely to converge too quickly (and under-explore the problem) or simply lack the necessary skills to build the full solution without involving people from the outside. Therefore, adding more people will often lead to a more thorough result and reduce communication overhead, which means faster implementation.

Go over 6, however, and people will naturally form sub-teams – after all, how many times did you throw a party for 10 people and everybody was engaged in one big conversation? The answer is probably never. And that’s because it doesn’t work, not even in your free time with friends. With sub-teams comes communication overhead, diverging goals, slow progress and basically all the drawbacks of separate-yet-not-independent teams already mentioned above.

No Rockstars

Ninjas, rockstars, A-players, you name it – companies are obsessed with getting overachievers onboard, hoping their individual performance will add up to the team’s.

In reality, however, people who can significantly contribute more than the rest also prevent the rest from contributing as much as they could. They have to push someone else down in order to standout.

What’s more interesting though, is that in the end of the day, a balanced team will systematically deliver better results than an unbalanced one. It’s the difference between Brazil’s team of overachievers and Germany’s Mannschaft in which everyone can shine. This not a new and there’s a great TED talk about the topic, in case you’re interested.

Embrace the conflicts

Conflicts are a sign of a healthy team, one which won’t settle for just any solution but will strive for the best one. Conflicts are the very mechanism for collectively shaping ideas that are more powerful than any individual input.

Avoid conflicts and you’ll end up with a dead team and a mild product that’s unlikely to make any difference.

That’s why conflicts should be welcomed with open arms and, here’s the catch, a clear strategy on how to resolve them. A strategy that’s optimized to facilitate this process of crystallization of ideas.

How to tie-break? How to move forward when it’s unclear which way will best serve our goal? These questions must be answered by the team before any work is started. They could agree that someone will have the responsibility of breaking ties, or to use a more formal conflict management frameworkthe important thing is to have a plan before the first clash happens.

Thanks for reading.

Hope some of these ideas, or some variation of them, will be as useful for your teams as they were for ours – would love to hear your experiences.

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