Tips for Growing a Product Management Team

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Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

Growth is something wonderful: It means that individuals, teams, and products prosper. Growing a product management team, however, throws up a number of challenges: How big should the team become? How fast should people be added? And how should the individuals work together? This articles discusses how you can address these challenges and it shares my recommendations for growing in an effective manner.

Organise Around Products

In order to grow your product management team, start by reviewing your product portfolio. Determine which assets are actual products — value creating vehicles that offer a tangible benefit or address a real problem for a group of people, while at the same time deliver specific business benefits, such as generating revenue directly or indirectly, reducing cost, or increasing brand equity.

Once you’ve identified the products, determine the skills required to manage each asset. For example, an internal product like a platform is likely to require in-depth technical skills — unlike an end-user facing offering, which is likely to require a thorough understanding of the market and business model, for example.

Then look for the right individual to lead and manage each product bearing in mind that the person should look after the asset over an extended period of time. This rewards long-term thinking and helps people see which impact their decisions have.

Determine How Many People are Needed

Once you have identified your products together with the skills required to manage them, find out how many product people you need. A common way to do this is to determine the number of development teams needed to progress each asset: If a product needs more than two to three teams, then it is usually too large for one person to manage in my experience.

If that’s the case for one of your products, consider adding more product people who take on specialised roles like feature owner (a.k.a. area product owner in LESS) and work with the person in charge of the overall product.

Develop Shared Standards

Before you add more people, make sure that sufficient shared standards are in place. Review the product management roles and responsibilities, processes, and tools that are currently used. Explore if they are helpful, consistent, and complete. For instance, do you have a shared understanding of how ideas are progressed to shippable products — be it new offerings or new features? Do common product discovery and strategy practices exist? And do you agree on what a product vision, strategy, roadmap, and backlog are, for example, and how these plans should be captured?

Finally, review how the work of the product people is currently assessed. What are performance evaluations based on? And are they fair? For instance, you may want to tie the evaluations not only to the performance of the product an individual looks after; you may also want to consider the person’s ability to effectively lead and collaborate with dev teams and stakeholders, as well as improve their work and acquire new skills.

If important standards are missing, then develop them first and delay growing the team: Without effective standards, it will be difficult for a larger group of people to work together. Confusion, miscommunication, and other forms of waste are likely to materialise. This is not to say that any standard should be set in stone. The opposite is true: Standards exist to help people do great work in a healthy manner. If a standard can be improved, the people doing the work should be empowered to change it.

Grow the Team Incrementally

I’ve seen many organisations significantly increase the size of their product management group in one go. While there are always good reasons for this approach, it creates strain for the organisation and the individuals. The quick addition of new product people can be overwhelming and lead to a prolonged period of slow and inconsistent decision-making and low productivity.

Instead of a big-bang approach, grow your product management group in a piecemeal fashion. This is best done by adding one or two people at a time, particularly when your team is still you. Growing incrementally allows you to understand if your hiring practices are effective, the standards you have in place work well, how much support the new product people need — both from the head of product as well as from the Scrum Master, and how easy or challenging it is to integrate the individuals into the team and foster effective collaboration. What’s more, if you discover any issue, an incremental approach allows you make the necessary changes before you add more people.

When it comes to recruiting the right people, I find that it is often beneficial to develop current employees to help them grow into a product role as well as hire experienced product people. Employees understand the company, its markets, and its products. External product people offer a fresh perspective and have a hopefully solid product management skill set. Make sure, though, that you hire people not only for their product management and domain knowledge but pay attention to their leadership and people skills. For example, how good are they at attentively listening to others and empathising with them? How skilled are they in constructively resolving conflicts and collaborative decision-making?

Empower People and Align them through Shared Goals

  1. Products have little or no dependencies and can be progressed and released individually;
  2. Product people have full authority over their products and own the vision, strategy, and tactics;
  3. They have direct access to end users and customers on a regular basis;
  4. They are accountable for the product performance (to the degree to which they can influence it).

With the right people in place, help the individuals own their products so that they can manage them autonomously. To achieve autonomy, make sure that the following four conditions are fulfilled:

While autonomy empowers the individuals and reduces the management overhead, it leads to people going off in different directions if it is not balanced with shared goals. Therefore, agree on a set of cascading goals and capture them in the appropriate artefacts, for example, as shown in the strategy map below.

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In the strategy map above, the goals stated in the business strategy guide the portfolio goals, which set the scene for the strategic goals of the individual products. Please see my article “A Strategy Map” for more information on how to create and work with the map above.

Involve People in the Decisions

Last but not least, involve the product people in the process of finding the right org structure, standards, scaling approaches, and new team members. This leverages the collective knowledge of the group. Additionally, it is likely to generate stronger support for the changes you want to make, as the individuals are offered the opportunity to express their ideas and concerns and influence the decisions.

While you may not be able to take on board all suggestions and ideas, attentively listening to individuals shows that you care, and it helps you mitigate your own biases and make better decisions.

Written by

Product management expert. Author of “How to Lead in Product Management”, “Strategize” and “Agile Product Management with Scrum”.

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