You know that phrase, "All roads lead to Rome", well in the product all roads lead back to the team. The team culture, skillset, communication style are indicators for that software company to produce a valuable product.
Your ability to be good at building and improving a product depends on your ability to communicate with others. By using processes that standardise how to share context, goals, strategies, and solutions with others you can reduce the mental burden of communication and make it easier for everyone as a team to work together more productively.
This handbook is a guide to a product development process, but ultimately the process is a tool that you can use to facilitate conversation. In product development, the part that requires the most consideration is how to communicate with people.
With everything that competes for your attention, what you focus your energy on and how you talk about that with your team impact your ability to solve problems. Your product's value is the sum of all the problems that it solves and your role is to be a problem solver.
What roles make up a product team?
Product delivery teams can be made up of one person or 50 people. If the team-size is one, then that one person does everything - all of the roles. If the team size is larger, there may be many people delivering one role. Teams need to be built with people with different strengths and they usually will encompass a well-rounded skill set to build on each other's strengths.
Typically, if there is a role missing within the team, the product manager normally steps up to fill the gap. Product management, and product delivery, are cross-departmental. Product managers take inputs from every part of the organisation and process the insights to drive the strategy of the product. Product teams are a combination of all the people who help deliver the product.
A strong product delivery team have a combination of these roles:
Product leaders hold the product strategy. These roles usually look like Product Manager, Product Lead, Head of Product, or Chief Product Officer. Product leadership is responsible for the product roadmap, prioritisation, decision making, and process. Product managers are different than a product owner. Product owners work more in the fine details compared to a product manager that works more in the strategy. Product managers also usually are not managers in the traditional sense - they do not directly manage people, instead they manage the product itself.
User experience (UX) designers hold responsibility for making sure that the customers of your product have the best experience possible. The UX designer might not do any graphic design or interface design because in some cases the best design might not involve a clickable interface.
User interface (UI) designers are responsible for designing the pages, screens, or interfaces that a person can click through or interact with.
ResearcherResearchers are the people who manage all of the data collection and usability testing of the product. Researchers tend to work along-side UX Designers to validate assumptions.
Business development managers are responsible for the business model and driving sales and business strategy to meet the organisations objective. This part of the product team is responsible for financial forecasting and other communication with wider stakeholders.
Tech leads are the key tech people who have responsibility for setting technical direction and holding the long term picture for the tech in mind. There is also an expectation that a tech lead has more responsibility for communication, strategy, reporting and teaching than other developers.
The actual builder of the software. Software developers are responsible for building the product and communicating status and work in progress. They are also responsible for any technical aspect required for launching and maintaining the product.
Marketing managers set the tone and voice of the product and customer-facing messaging. They manage campaigns, newsletters, marketing websites, and more. The marketing person is responsible for driving growth and customer acquisition.
When customers have questions or need help, these are the people who manage the communication and follow up to provide the best and low-stress experience for your customers. They are usually the first point of contact for incoming communication.
Other important roles:
Security Lead- Manages the risk and prioritisation of non-functional security features as well as documentation. Is your product ISO certified or SOC2 certified? Do you comply with GDPR? Your Security Lead works to make sure that the governance and security/privacy controls in place and able to be evidenced.
Technical Product Manager - A subset of product manager, but this person has a very technical role where they work with product management to help to define features and assess the feasibility of solutions.
Technical (Enterprise) Architect - Responsible for the infrastructure and the orchestration of how complicated systems interact with each other. In smaller teams usually, this role is held by the CTO.
Release engineer - Manages the release cycle and how feature makes their way into production along with any testing or automation work that makes that feature release less risky. Sometimes this role is called DevOps.
Sales - Works with marketing to manage accounts and relationships. In B2B this could be an account manager.
You keep great people with good culture
A team's culture is the combination of drive, values, and purpose all held together by a thin piece of humour and sarcasm. Build a team where people want to show up to work.
Maybe, 40 years ago, it was expected that a person would spend their whole life working at a company and then retire with a pension managed by the company. But today, that is not the case. And then, In the tech sector, competition for talented people is high and the sense of long-term commitment from the hiring organisations is not assumed. The way to retain a high-performing team is to build a culture where people feel fulfilled and productive.
Product development processes optimise risk-taking and solving problems but they also focus on team culture and communication.
You're human and so are all the people you work with. Authenticity is one of the most important skill-sets for becoming a strong leader and team member. But it doesn’t matter how nice you are if you're an ass-hole, you'll struggle to drive good longterm culture. Working in product teams involve a lot of emotional processing, receiving and giving feedback, personal growth, and learning how to get things done.
Shortcuts to communication
Communication is hard, we all know that. Here are 3 techniques that you can incorporate into your daily communication to help make it better.
1. Identify core needs
There are six core needs that researchers have found are most important for humans at work. Not all are equally important to everyone. You might find that equity and belonging are most important to you, but choice and status are most important to your employee. Getting to know them and coaching to them is a shortcut to making others feel understood and valued.
I use the Core Needs method to check in on how people feel about their job all the time. I reference this framework to see if I'm happy in my job or to test the culture of a company.
These needs are:
Community - A feeling of friendship and closeness with a group, or being part of a tight community of any size.
Community well-being - People are cared for, the whole group feels happy and healthy.
Connection - Feeling kinship and mutual understanding with another person.
Improvement and progress
Progress towards purpose - You are helping make progress towards an important goal for the company, your team or your own career/ life.
Improving the lives of others - You see how your work helps improve things for others.
Personal growth - Learning or seeing fast growth in yourself in skills that matter to you.
Choice - Having flexibility, the chance to have more control over key parts of your world.
Autonomy - Having clear ownership over a domain where you can do as you wish, without asking for permission.
Decision-making -The ability to have make decisions about the things that matter to you.
Equality and fairness
Access to resources - Money, time, and space feels fair and equitable.
Access to information feels fair - All groups/ people have access to information that is relevant to them.
Equal reciprocity - You support each other equally.
Decisions -Decision are fair and everyone is treated as equally important.
Resources - There’s enough certainty about resources (money, personnel hours, space) so you can focus on your job or goals.
Time - There’s certainty about when things will occur/ when you can prepare for them.
Future challenges - You can anticipate and thus can prepare for future challenges.
Direction - Goals, strategy, and direction stay consistent and don’t change too often/fast.
Status - You hold a title/ role that honors your worth among your peers/ your industry.
Visibility - Your work is highly visible to people that matter.
Recognition - Your work is recognised and appreciated in ways that feel good.
When people use the phrase, "Culture eats process for breakfast." I don't think they fully recognise the importance of good process. A good process helps make sure all of the teams' core needs are met.
Process can be used to fulfil a person's Core Needs. Examples of how process can contribute to a healthier team dynamic are:
Belonging - Everyone knows their role, and they know how and when to work together. There is clarity of who does what and when.
Improvement and progress - A good process helps facilitate teams to reach their goals faster and gives them indicators or metrics that can show progress. Defining small achievable goals or that can be tracking to progress to a bigger goal may help fulfil this need.
Choice - The ability and authority for people to make decisions with the best information possible.
Equality and fairness - When a process is formalised, but able to be iterated on, the decisions are fair and accessible. When information is documented and easy to access, everyone has the right to the same information.
Predicability- Well documented processes are predictable. When people have agreed to the process, they know what to expect, and how to improve it.
Significance - The team's work is visible to the people that matter, and they know how they contribution has helped the team reach their goals.
Core Needs help give a language to identify problems in culture, process, and feeling of a team. And can be used as metrics to track progress for making a thriving team culture.
2. Use direct language most of the time
In tech companies, chances are about half of your technical team is on the autistic spectrum (source). If you focus on the user experience for how you communicate to your team members - direct communication should be your default.
Direct language reduces unnecessary expectations on others. It's a powerful tool that definitely needs practice to perfect.
The opposite of direct communication is passive, or indirect, communication. With passive communication, you expect the person you're talking to understand what you mean without explicitly telling them what you want them to know. When a person talks to someone with indirect communication, they speak around what they actually want the other person to know. It may sound absurd that someone expects others to interpret what they are wanting to say by saying something completely different - but it is an extremely common style of communication.
New Zealanders, for example, culturally are very indirect, and proudly so. Their self-deprecating style of communication is commonly referred to as tall-poppy syndrome. Which means they don't want to stand out from the crowd. This Lifeswap video demonstrates one type of indirect communication about how it's not OK in New Zealand culture to directly talk about an issue.
There are many scenarios where polite additions to communication are appreciated and soften conversation. But the other type of indirect communication is explicitly saying words that are not the intended interpretation by others.
Communicating indirectly doesn't work when the other person is expected to be a mind reader. The downside of communicating indirectly is if the person on the other side of the conversation doesn't interpret the intention correctly, then, it then provides justification for the indirect communicator to feel like their expectations were not met, and then they have a self-justified reason to be mad. Setting expectations without being explicit is not fair - instead, tell the person exactly what your thinking.
XKCD: Preferred Chat System
Direct communication paired with active listening shortcuts a negative feedback loop of implicit expectation setting.
Decision making with more than one person is always a negotiation. A negotiation is when two people come together to make a decision with the right to say no. Most conversations you have at work are probably a negotiation. The book Start with NO takes FBI negotiation techniques and lays out how to use them to better prepare for meetings and conversations. This book offers techniques for how to prepare for meetings to help you walk into any conversation prepared.