Around the globe, individuals come together as product teams and do great work. They solve big challenges. They build solutions to problems. They collaborate to achieve something bigger than themselves.
Henry Ford is attributed saying: “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, and working together is success.”
When it comes to software development specifically, product teams are the essential engine for bringing ideas to reality. At Crema, we define a product team as a small, collaborative, cross-functional team that works to achieve the common outcome of creating an exceptional digital product.
A variety of specialties are typically represented in these product teams including product managers, designers, developers, test engineers, the client team, and more. These skilled practitioners collaborate closely on a sprint by sprint basis to build software that helps individuals and companies thrive.
How do they work together to launch products successfully and consistently? And how can you build an integrated, high-performing product team?
While there is no magic wand that makes these qualities appear overnight, we believe that conditions can be created to sustain an environment where product teams can do their best work.
In no particular order, these are 10 traits of a healthy product team and how you might go about incorporating these into your practice.
While the old adage may suggest that curiosity killed the cat, it is also said that curiosity fuels creativity. Healthy product teams possess a high level of curiosity that drives them to ask questions and find better solutions. They wonder how things work & have a desire to consistently learn. People on a high-functioning product team assume there might be a better way, and they’re determined to find out what it is.
To incorporate this into your product team, encourage debate in your meetings. Even better, have people who may disagree with each other debate using the other’s viewpoint. The ability for team members to empathize with the perspective of others allows you to get to a mutually satisfactory solution quicker.
You can also hire for curiosity. Ask interview questions that tap into someone’s big ideas and showcase a hunger for learning and exploration. If possible, let employees take time to learn throughout each week and come back to the team with some fresh ideas. All of this curiosity should lead back to the goals you’ve all set as a team. It’s amazing what a fresh perspective can do to a stale problem.
Integrated, high-functioning product teams tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our world today. However, they must possess humility in order to be truly successful. Being humble means that they listen to the opinions and perspectives of the other members of the team, as well as the clients, users, stakeholders, and anyone involved in the product development process. Not only do they listen, they’re generous with their time and effort, which can have a big payout.
As a member of a product team, you can encourage humility on a daily basis. By admitting your shortcomings (we all have them), highlighting others’ thoughts and achievements, and remaining open to feedback – especially when it’s a critique – people will start to catch on to this way of behaving on a product team. Display a willingness to learn, a willingness to unlearn, and a desire to support. Even those with the biggest egos can be tamed.
On the flip side of that coin, it’s important for product teams to be confident. At Crema, we often combine these two qualities into one: humble confidence. We believe this is where the magic happens. Healthy product teams have confidence in their individual crafts, their process, and their output. They take a position on their approach and move through the peaks and valleys of product development to reach their ultimate destination. They know that their strength is in their collaboration and that they are capable of more, together.
So it’s said: this can potentially lead to arrogance, which must be avoided to maintain a healthy product team. You should be asking yourself and your team whether your confidence is grounded in some sort of validation or if it’s pure arrogance. Remind the product team that you are all capable of doing more. Celebrate those folks who take a stand and respectfully champion their idea. Soon, confidence will permeate throughout the team.
In software development, being adaptive is often a core principle. Scope, priorities, the team, landscape, and budget will often change. The group must be adaptive throughout the ebbs and flows of the product development lifecycle in order to be successful. Why? Because even the best-laid plans go awry, and the team must adapt in order to move forward.
There is no shortage of benefits to being adaptable. To incorporate this into your product team, create a safe space for people to react to the changes in a project. Create a clear charter so that the team has a defined set of goals, ground rules, and accountabilities when things go astray. Build trust for your team to know when to pivot, punt, or persevere. A healthy, integrated product team must expect the unexpected and be ready to approach new challenges with new opportunities.
For more thoughts on adaptability and learning, we have more to say here.
Steve Maraboli is quoted as saying, “Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient”. This quality of a high-performing team is one that evolves over time and becomes stronger the more it’s put to the test. Members of a product team must ask themselves how they react to failures and challenges. Are they willing to be patient to see change? Do they have the capacity to take on more or adjust the course completely?
Software development isn’t often a matter of life or death (although sometimes it can be), but there is no shortage of challenges that any team may be put up against during their time collaborating. The more you can instill a sense of resiliency, the more successful and high-performing your team can become.
This should not look like toxic positivity, but it should help the members of your team feel optimistic about what’s to come. When change happens, have a framework or a plan to help your team feel resilient in what will follow. We know that COVID-19 has changed the way many workplaces are getting things done, but teams can be set up well to be resilient if they see this from the top down.
More and more, product teams are coming together to solve bigger challenges, offering a diversity of thought and experiences on any given topic. It’s absolutely necessary to create an environment where team members feel secure and accepted to share those ideas. People need to know they’re being heard – not just listened to. Beyond that, building psychological safety into your product team will allow folks encouragement and space to continually improve in their craft.
To foster psychological safety on your team, you can start by having everyone talk about their feelings more openly. At Crema, we start many meetings off with the feelings wheel, asking everyone to go around and describe how they are feeling that way using at least two words on the wheel. There is no wrong answer. And it’s a good reminder that we are not binary creatures.
We are complex, complicated, and messy. That’s what makes us unique. It’s also important to prepare for difficult conversations to protect and advocate for a psychologically safe environment. Psychological safety is a very important aspect of our Crema product teams and is something we chat about frequently.
Honestly, this trait could be moved to the top of the list. For a team to be high-performing, they need to have empathy for each other, the client, the end-user, and everyone in between. Empathy, while maybe an overused term, drives everything we do.
Our product teams ask themselves empathetic questions during exercises like a retrospective to get at the core of what’s driving decisions. We aim to understand if our feelings and emotions are affecting our actions and whether we’re judging someone for their perspectives. It’s deep stuff, but it’s important.
To cultivate empathy on your product team, the first step is to talk about it. Let everyone know that empathy matters. The same goes for all of these qualities listed here. Naming and acknowledging desired behaviors can be a really good first step.
It’s also important to encourage listening and compassion for where people are coming from. One study shows that 1 in 3 workers would leave their companies for a more compassionate environment. Even while remote, empathy can be built up over Slack and Zoom by asking the right questions and displaying that behavior.
A product team that explores and isn’t scared of the unknown is a successful one. Exploratory product teams look for gaps, collect information, learn another way to do something, and ask this powerful question: “What if?” What if we tried this library? What if we approached it from a totally different angle? What if we tested this with real users to validate before we move forward?
To instill a sense of exploration in your product team, give people space and time to do this. At Crema, we shut down client work every other week to build, test, learn, and explore in our Venture Lab program. If this is not an option for your organization, you can still make strides toward this by running book clubs, peeling away for a day to do an internal conference, and otherwise finding ways to celebrate learning and exploration.
We’ve all been in the position where you’re so close to something that it doesn’t make sense anymore. Give yourself and your product team permission to step back and take inventory of what’s around so that you can approach the problem with a new perspective.
Unafraid to Fail
Failure is going to happen, and many would argue that it’s the one of most valuable things we can experience. Through any experience of things going wrong, there are lessons one can glean from this. It’s important to empower your product team to be unafraid to fail. This speaks into many of the traits of a healthy product team above, but if your team feels a sense of acceptance or safety if they make a mistake, they’ll likely feel more empowered to try.
Failure means that people are growing. It should be regarded as a learning opportunity, not a pretext for punishment. Failure means you’re actually producing something rather than standing back and letting fear and anxiety getting in the way. While no product team should set out with the intention to fail, find opportunities to expose the fact that failure will happen.
Co-create a plan with your product team about what would happen if the team or an aspect of the project failed. Sometimes knowing that information upfront can prevent future headaches.
Practices Frequent Feedback
Finally, we’ve reached our tenth trait of a healthy, integrated product team. These teams use feedback on an extremely regular basis to make sure they’re all in lockstep. At Crema, our sprint rituals allow us to gather feedback from both the internal team and the clients & stakeholders to inform where we’re going. Internally, we use tools like Lattice to build habits of radical feedback.
By building in systems to provide frequent loops of feedback, product teams can operate with all the information necessary to do their jobs effectively. Again, this is one of those qualities where it’s important to champion this in all levels of the organization. Setting clear expectations around feedback (how to give it, where to give it, how to receive it, and how to deliver it – especially more constructive feedback) is vital.
How have you experienced being on a high-performing team? Would you add any qualities to this list? While every product team is different, these traits should be mainstays in healthy, integrated teams. Make the effort and tend to the environment. When product teams have a dynamic culture and support system around them, amazing things can happen.