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In my role as Head of Product at Comic Relief I currently have one overarching goal: to embed Product as a way of working. This is in order for Product to provide value to the organisation and it is underpinned by developing a high-performing team.

During a recent coaching session my coach asked me: “How can you demonstrate what you need your team to do and be?” Cue epiphany; my team are my product!

Our current reality

We’re a “young” Product team, we’re learning our craft, getting to know how to work together and we’re starting to shape what Product Management looks like at Comic Relief. We operate in a demanding business environment and deliver record-breaking campaigns each year. We’ve recently come out of a two-year organisational restructure, part of which was introducing the Product function to Comic Relief.

We’ve experienced some resistance to change –  “let’s do it like we did last year” – and there is some appetite to change – “I can see the value in this, let’s give it a go”. We have new people, new roles, new dynamics and a change in previous roles within our team and across the business. Fear and caution are inevitable.

If you’re looking to develop a high-performing team I’m sure some of this is familiar to you too.

My team are my product

There are many facets to developing a high-performing team and there are many sources of advice and guidance out there. What’s specific to this problem is my team are young (in their product careers) and Product is relatively new to our organisation; and so part of helping them grow is helping them develop their product know-how. My epiphany has made me realise I can use Product tools and techniques to develop the team and simultaneously demonstrate these tools and techniques to them.

What does this actually mean?

Vision – the who and what

Just like any good product team/ squad, my team need a shared vision, which they are aligned around and that gives them a clear sense of purpose.

We co-created our vision using Roman Pichler’s canvas. I adjusted some of the labels to be more relevant to team function rather than product function and I walked my team through the exercise. I explained we were not there to define the vision but to collaboratively define the detail within the component-parts of the vision; and that I as the team leader would create a vision from this.

Our team vision is: Create exceptional digital experiences, effectively.

As the leader of this vision it’s my responsibility to communicate it, remind people of it, explain it and help everyone align around it.

As Martin Eriksson says in his article Product Management is a team sport: “A product manager’s job is to lead the team to tackle the product challenges together, to get the best out of everyone on the team when building the product, and to provide a gentle hand to keep it all consistent and going in the right direction.”

Strategy – the how

Strategy is a posh word for how you’re going to do something; the plan! So how are we going to become a high-performing team and realise our vision? The vision board exercise goes a long way in helping to shape the strategy, it outlines the who and the what – next you need to figure out the how.

To develop my strategy I consulted with some of the key players (stakeholders) and the team (squad) members. Through this process I identified some key areas to focus on; which for us include: relationships, upskilling, team make-up and the team approach.

Underpinning all of this is trust. Trust in each other, in me, in the stakeholders, the stakeholders’ trust in the team and the team’s trust in the vision. I could talk a lot about trust, but I think I’d use up the whole word count just on that. So here a few nuggets on what I’ve learnt about trust. Trust is earned through demonstration and attitude1. To earn trust you must do what you say you are going to, and you must admit your mistakes and take responsibility for them.

As a leader you can and should demonstrate the qualities that earn trust in any and all actions and interactions. Your Product Managers are the leaders of their products, so they too must learn to build trust with their squads and stakeholders.

The other critical parts of “the how” are the practicalities and the touch-points. For team development (and generally for good team management) this means regular, structured and prepared one-to-ones. As well as clear and aspirational objectives. It also means nurturing a culture of feedback; up, down and sideways, with positive and developmental feedback. For leading products this is about the stand-ups, discovery, planning and retrospective sessions, or equivalent ceremonies, which mean you and your team are speaking, reflecting and improving frequently.

Roadmap – the when

A key part to aligning and motivating a team is providing direction. At Comic Relief we structure our Roadmaps with: Done, Now, Next, Soon and Later.

For developing a high-performing team the roadmap comes in two parts, first the overarching team roadmap. Which provides the aspirational long-term view of what they are going to do; this should contain some vague things which are further away but which provide some inspiration and excitement.

The second part is the individual development plan, which is also based on aspiration but grounded with tangible goals which are broken down, specific, timebound and measurable. (Yep that’s SMART).

Russ Laraway describes a process based on his military career for how “Managers can grow and retain top talent by helping their employees articulate long-term vision for their careers”, it’s well worth a read.

Measuring success

When measuring the success or the performance of a product we usually turn to some form of quantitative data, like analytics and some qualitative data like user feedback. The former is a little trickier when measuring the success of a team. Of course you can look at the success of the products they lead and crunch those numbers, but that doesn’t give a good reflection of how they are meeting the team goals of upskilling, approach, relationships and so on.

Which means qualitative feedback is the key measure. There’s still a lack of tangibility about what’s being measured qualitatively, so this can still be a little tricky.

Personal objectives are key, they provide a specific sense of direction and enable your team members to have a real sense of progress when goals are reached, or put in the Done column.

Another tactic is measuring happiness, this can be done through a survey or face to face. It’s important there is a benchmark to measure against so if you do this get the happiness rating at the start of the process. Laura Klein’s research shows happy teams do not necessarily create success, but happy teams are more resilient, more open to feedback and more likely to stay. That’s a pretty good measure for a high-performing team in my book.

Feedback loops

As Product Managers we love feedback, it’s critical to developing good products, the same is true when developing a team. With this process my team are my users, so I must invite feedback from them and regularly. We have multiple forums for doing this, in one-to-ones, team meetings, engagement surveys and ad hoc. There are a few principles to feedback which I’ve learned along the way.

Nurture a culture of feedback. Give positive and developmental feedback equal prominence. Give and ask for feedback in all directions. I recently proposed this to my boss, he was open to it and I gave him some feedback on a presentation he had given a few days before. He told me he’d never been given that type of feedback before and he found it really useful. A healthy feedback culture breeds trust.

Test and iterate

Like feedback testing our hypotheses and iterating are key to product success. Working with your users on a daily basis is any product managers dream, but when you’re accountable for how these folks develop and what their contribution to your organisation looks like it can be a tad nerve wracking. Despite this the principle of test and iterate works well as long as you are open and honest. I’ve been in my role for just over six months so a lot of what I am doing is new to me as well as my team, but I don’t hide that fact. I position my aims as a team effort and I ask for their support. With this and the trust we are continuing to build we are all open to giving things a go, reviewing and making the changes we need.

We know what our vision and goals are, we have plan to get there and we’re in it together.

Takeaways

  • Use product management principles, tools and techniques to develop your team, whilst demonstrating what they are and the how to use them.
  • Learn when to be directive and when to invite collaboration.
  • Build trust.
  • Nurture a feedback culture.

I wish you luck with developing high-performing teams. This is work in progress for me, I welcome your feedback.

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