The most successful product team structures allow you to create new product features that meet your customer needs and ship value as quickly as possible.
These teams are agile, understand customer personas, are aligned with the product organization goals, and are set up to achieve the business strategy.
Although these product teams are typical in start-ups, not all product organizations have achieved optimal Product team structures.
Don’t worry, though, I have plenty of experience in working with amazing (and not-so-amazing) product teams. Here are all of my insights and learnings for what makes a product team structure amazing so you can fast-track your way to success.
Why Are Product Team Structures Important?
The way that product teams are structured makes a huge difference to the value they deliver. An effective product team structure allows you to solve problems in the best way, deliver quickly, and improve communication in your Product organization.
Structured incorrectly, you can end up with:
- Tension in the product organization
- Silos in work, meaning more mistakes and longer processes to ship code
- A lack of coordination on goals, meaning that the most important product Features aren’t delivered
- Longer decision-making processes
The biggest contributors to effective or ineffective product team structures are:
- Aligning the right people around the right initiatives
- Allowing teams time to form and set themselves up for success
Choosing The Right People For Your Product Team
Spoiler alert: some roles are truly vital to the product organization, and some just...aren't. Let's start with the important folks.
Who are the key people needed for an effective product team structure?
Great product teams are made up of a few core people. They might have additional team members, depending on what you’re trying to deliver and the agile process you are following.
The highest-performing product teams I worked with had this cross-functional team structure:
- A product manager (PM)
- An engineering Manager
- Four engineers
- A test engineer
- One UX designer or product designer
- An analyst
The latter three roles (test engineer, UX designer & analyst) could be undertaken by the PM and the engineers on teams with stricter resource limitations.
However, PMs and engineers are not specialists in those areas. That means taking on these roles will eat into their capacity for other work, so they can’t deliver as much. (One of the many challenges of working with an incomplete product team!)
Therefore, I recommend incorporating these individual roles into your product team structure. When these roles are integrated, working as one team with shared goals—you’ll reduce silos, speed up decision-making, and achieve your initiatives.
I also found it useful to have a user research department, that can recommend the best approaches to user research. Usually, user research can be conducted by the product development team, allowing them to gain first-hand insight to fulfill the customer needs.
Other traditional roles that you might require for your product development process
These are some additional potential roles (that I wouldn’t actually recommend—sorry SCRUM!):
A Scrum Master
My personal preference is to not have a Scrum Master. I believe in empowering teams to remove their own blockers and solve their own problems. I know that a lot of people still believe that this role is essential for the product management team if they follow the SCRUM product development process.
A Business Analyst (BA)
BAs exist to break down requirements and write user stories. If you’re following a complex project, then a BA could add benefit to assist with this. I would, however, argue that you’re operating in project mode, not product mode.
Again, I think that the engineers are capable of gathering requirements and writing their own tickets. In my experience, this empowers engineers to create solutions based on their knowledge to understand the requirements and execute them fully.
These roles were a key part of the software development process when people started using Agile. A lot of teams still follow this process today and have a Product Owner, Scrum Master, Business Analyst, and development team.
Although these roles might be a great way to get a team started and allow them to move from Project Management to Product Management, the reason that I don’t recommend these roles is that I believe that they add additional siloes and communication points in a team. If the team is set up correctly to understand the goals and requirements and work as one unit, they can easily fulfill these roles themselves and have the added advantage of completely owning and understanding the whole process themselves.
Other roles that could benefit your product development process
One of the key new roles that is being talked about a lot (mainly in the context of whether they should be part of the product team) is a Product Marketing Manager.
Airbnb recently made changes to merge the Product Owner role with the Product Marketing Manager role. In their case, this allows the Product Owner to manage the end-to-end process, from identifying a product opportunity to overseeing the product launch.
Depending on the stage of your product, or the scope of the role - the product marketing skillset might be essential to achieve your goals. If it is, incorporate this as a part of your product manager skillset - or extend your product team to include the Product Marketing Manager.
Extended product teams
Product team structures can also be extended into wider cross-functional product teams—this really allows you to reduce silos and execute on your goals. The key to structuring these is in understanding your business strategy and goals, and aligning the right people to achieve this.
These product teams can be formed in multiple ways. For example, nuclei teams or extended product teams.
I’ve worked with product leaders who have extended their product teams to deliver maximum impact by adding sales, customer experience, or another bespoke role to their team. Instead of these roles acting as stakeholders, they act as a part of the team with a shared Product vision.
Again, the aim is always to reduce silos and create teams around common business goals to allow them to be successful.
Setting Your Product Teams Up For Success
How do you actually set up your product team so they can deliver maximum value?
Setting up your product teams effectively allows you to bridge the gap between your product strategy and actual delivery. You want to create teams that are aligned around your strategic priorities, focussed on the right metrics, and with the right skillsets to execute against this. Achieve these things, and your strategy will come to life.
1. Set goals and metrics
For product teams to deliver maximum value, they need to be aligned around the right goals and metrics.
Product team structures can be set up to deliver in different ways:
- Based on a slice of the customer journey/funnel
- Front-end vs. back-end
- To work on particular user needs (meaning they might operate across multiple parts of the funnel)
- Based on a customer segment
Suppose you know your business strategy and how this will be broken down. In that case, you (as a product leader) can choose the best organizational structure to execute on the business goals and metrics you want to achieve.
2. Set up your product teams, using the right organizational structure to achieve your goals
Deciding how to set up your product teams
Depending on the size of your product organization, you might want to follow the ‘Spotify model’—product "squads," with smaller teams within each squad.
The idea of the Spotify model is that you have multiple teams aligned towards a common area, and teams with their own product goal within these.
Beyond the size of your product organization, your product team structure will also depend on how you have chosen to split your teams for product success.
For example, if the team is focussing on back-end work, you might require a more technical PM to allow you to generate the right solutions to problems.
If your team is front-end oriented, a dedicated UX (user experience) and analytics person can really help, as they can help you drive the proper product outcomes in the right way. They can really help you to conduct market research and create a product roadmap that will achieve your different product goals. The product manager can work closely with them to create a backlog, prioritizing features to align with the team KPIs.
Forming product teams
The best way that I have found to form/set-up product teams is:
- Brief everyone on the goals for the entire product organization for the next 6 months/year
- Inform team members as to which smaller teams they will be a part of
- Allow small teams/"product squads" to have more in-depth chats about the goals they have, how they want to work, whether they need to collaborate with other teams
- If they need any support, give teams space to feed this back to the business
3. Ways of working
Product teams have the best teamwork when they are empowered to create their own ways of working.
Usually, I would run a kick-off session with a team to cover:
- Workflow (SCRUM, Kanban, XP etc).
- Guidelines for the team* (how to communicate, how frequently, how they provide feedback, etc).
- Which product management tools they will use.
- Team roles and responsibilities.
*Making these clear and explicit at the start, provides a strong foundation for the team to start working from.
This should be a full-day workshop to really allow the team to get to know each other and create a cohesive bond.
Each time we change a team member, we run a similar onboarding session to bring them up to speed with decisions made and allow them to input any ideas on how things could be changed/improved.
Getting everyone involved, making the team roles clear, and giving team members a say in how the team operates is essential to product success. It’s also essential to provide people with this space so that they have opportunities to constantly improve the teamwork dynamics.
4. Reflect and learn
This is one of the most essential elements to a product team’s performance. Teams always need a chance to give feedback and optimize how they are working.
The best ways for teams to reflect and learn is through:
- Daily retros: A reflection at the end of each day on what went well and what could be improved, so they can consistently make micro changes to optimize their performance.
- Specific feature retros: If new features took longer than expected/didn’t achieve the results you hoped for, you might reflect on why and if you can optimize any iterations needed to improve for next time.
- A quarterly reflection: This is a great occasion to take a bigger reset and see if you want to make any larger changes to your methodology as you step into a new phase of work.
A new team member also provides time for reflection and a new set of eyes to assess what they think is working and not working, and you should always be open to that feedback!
As part of this feedback, you might also realize that you didn’t have the right skill sets needed to achieve your goals. If this is the case, this should be fed back to the business so you can update your product team structure.
How often should product team structures change?
The simple answer is every six months to a year.
The longer answer:
Your product team structures shouldn’t change too often. Teams always need time to embed and form. The more frequently you change team structures, the more time you need to allow for these changes to embed.
However, you also want to make sure that you are changing product team structures often enough to allow you to have the right skill sets for your goals.
I expect product team structures to change every six months to a year. This gives you enough runway to work on your problems and current elements of your product strategy, but also allows you to change when needed to work towards the right goals. Each time you make progress towards one element of your product strategy, you might need a restructure.
The essential ingredients for an effective product team structure to actually be successful
There is a lot of research on dysfunctional teams. Often when I have seen teams fail, it is due to:
- A lack of alignment from the beginning
- Egos/personality clashes
- A lack of communication
Trust me, these teams haven’t been pleasant for anyone involved. It makes everything feel like hard work, and no one enjoys going into work!
While I don’t believe that all of these issues can be solved and sometimes product teams just do not gel, you’ll be pleased to hear that I have also experienced the complete opposite.
Even with a diverse set of personalities, I’ve worked with some extremely motivated, positive, caring product teams that have been an absolute dream to work with every day.
Through working with over 20 different teams, the essential elements I found to give you the best chance of succeeding are:
- Psychological safety: Everyone treats each other with respect and can voice their opinions in a healthy and productive way
- Aligned goals: I have been in teams where everyone has their own objectives (UX design, Data, Product, Engineering), and this can cause a lot of conflict. It is important to bring in thinking from all of these angles, but this needs to be aligned with the overall mission of the team and product organization.
- Trust: Everyone trusts each other to do their job well and to the best of their ability. We will always still give feedback and provide input into each other's areas of operation—after all, four eyes are better than two when executed in a positive way and with everyone’s best interests at heart.
- Constant communication: In the team and with other areas of the business. A product team is just one element of the organization. It is rare that a product team can achieve their work in complete isolation. It's highly likely that they need to work well with the rest of the organization.
Product team structures are so important to get right. Not only do they influence your ability to ship software that really meets customer needs, but they also influence the motivation and happiness of your team (and the rest of the business!).
The key to creating effective product team structures is in understanding your business strategy and how you want to set teams up to execute on this, and then following the right process to set up product teams and provide them with the foundations they need to have the best chance of success.
If you combine the right people and skill sets needed to achieve your product goals, and provide your teams with the tools, time, and space that they need to form (and reflect and learn!) then you will have success in becoming a super successful product organization.
Good luck on your journey!
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