What is a product team?
Product teams are small, collaborative, cross-functional teams that work to achieve the common outcome of creating an exceptional digital product. At Crema, we structure these product teams (sometimes referred to as innovation teams) to get work done as quickly and effectively as possible. They rely on the collective talent of each individual.
There is little to no hierarchy within these teams, as each individual contributes a unique skill set and perspective that is essential to the process. However, teams are typically kept accountable by product managers. You’ll find each specialty is represented on a team, including product managers, designers, developers, test engineers, etc.
To conceptualize the significance and value of each individual on the team, consider the well-known “car parts” analogy. In a car, every last part serves a specific purpose to make the car function correctly. Without one piece working, the entire machine can break down completely.
Similarly to cars, our product teams are complex, yet well-oiled machines. All the members of the team provide a certain expertise and collaborate to produce a truly amazing final product.
Why keep product teams small?
With our many years of experience in digital product development, we’ve realized the importance of keeping product teams small. For us, the sweet spot is around 4-10 people. Although, this number can certainly fluctuate to cater to the specific needs of a given team.
Jeff Bezos contributes some of his success to the “2 Pizza Rule” - making sure the group is always small enough to be fed with only 2 pizzas. Why is small best, you ask? A part of the reason is that communication breaks down as teams grow larger.
It makes sense that one-on-one communication is most effectual. There is a single, direct line of communication used to get the message across. As your team grows larger, there are more lines of communication to disseminate the message along; In other words, there are more people you need to find a way to communicate your message to.
It often becomes more difficult, costly and inconvenient to get everyone on the same page the bigger the group is. This is why smaller teams are ultimately more efficient. (To dive deeper into this idea, check out Edmond Lau’s article on how communication is the first casualty of a team’s growth.)
Another consequence of this breakdown in communication is the knowledge gap that occurs between members of a disconnected team. Without the ability to quickly ask questions or directly debrief one another on issues that arise, team members can be left with a broken understanding of the project they’re responsible for.
At Crema we keep our teams small so that knowledge share is happening and stable progress is being made. We believe that keeping product teams small ultimately assures that the group stays agile and effective.
What’s the difference between product teams & departments?
Just look at Google's definition of a department: “a division of a large organization such as a government, university, business, or shop, dealing with a specific subject, commodity, or area of activity.” This definition exposes why departments are inherently problematic: they’re divisive.
Departments typically silo individuals into separate groups, where they only interact with individuals who have similar skill sets. The trouble with companies basing their departments off of their people’s similarities is that it’s actually their people’s differences that make them thrive.
Diversity of age, experience, worldview, etc. makes overall stronger teams. We purposefully stack our product teams with a diverse set of roles which offers a diverse set of perspectives. The benefit being that these varied outlooks allow for arising issues to be solved quicker and more creatively.
A designer and a developer will almost always hold different perspectives on the same problem, and the collaboration allows for hurdles to be overcome faster and the end result to be of higher quality. This is why our teams are complementary, not analogous.
What are the roles of a product team?
Product teams can come in all different shapes and sizes, but there are a few key roles that should be represented. We’ll outline each one as well as the responsibilities that come with the position.
Product manager - At the core of successful digital products is an approach that’s grounded in the users’ needs. Product management works to define that strategy by listening to the customers, understanding the technology, and aligning the user needs with the business goals. Our Product Managers also act as our client service liaisons, checking in on how the client is feeling and adjusting roadmaps as necessary.
Core responsibilities: Backlog grooming, roadmap creation, client check-ins, planning & delivering releases
Application developer - Developers on a product team should have extensive experience working with modern libraries, frameworks, and methodologies. Ideally, you’ll want to hire developers that have experience in the specific platform you’re building for (ie: mobile vs web). API development skills are also a plus, as most developers are integrating several code bases. Finally, the developer will answer questions around the technologies, frameworks, integrations, and considerations before the build – or rebuild – begins.
Core responsibilities: Writing code, implementing integrations, documentation, technical planning
Product designer - Product design is a problem-solving discipline that pulls from the best of UX, branding, visual design, and prototyping to provide a coherent user experience. Designers craft an intuitive, meaningful, and elegant experience that users will love, adding your product’s unique advantage and success. When building a product, it’s important to hire a developer that has expertise in dashboards, apps, etc. with a focus on user experience.
Core responsibilities: Rapid prototyping, design systems, design research, UX auditing
Test engineer - Problems are best solved when broken down into their smallest parts. Testing is a critical element in guaranteeing the health and longevity of your product. Test engineers are closely tied to the broader product team to prioritize testing through the entire product lifecycle. Having a test engineer on the team allows you to launch and release with much fewer risks.
Core responsibilities: Manual and automated testing, ADA compliance
Strategist or Coach - A strategist or coach understands your product team’s specific situation, considers which processes might be useful, and helps your team move into a new and better way of working. These roles work closely with the product owner or stakeholders to identify early on what is required from the product and which is the fastest and most efficient path to get there. Typically, these strategists will have a coaching or consulting background with certifications to back up their expertise.
Core responsibilities: Team alignment, product planning, process improvements
Additional roles: product marketers, product analytics, UX writer
What is the structure of a product team?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to structuring your product teams. They can be organized around a specific feature if you’re building out a massive product or a specific customer segment. No matter what you build your teams around, there are some principles that are essential to have in place.
- All roles should work closely together, especially designers and developers
- There should be more than one developer on a product team when possible
- Every person on a product team has a shared responsibility of the outcome and is encouraged to ask questions or offer feedback
- Quality is the responsibility of the entire product team, not just test engineering
- Build a culture of psychological safety so that people feel comfortable contributing and collaborating at their highest level
- Identify and remove silos at every opportunity
Culture plays a huge role in the success of any team, especially those collaborating at this high of a degree. (For a deeper dive on that subject, check out The 10 Traits of a Healthy, Integrated Product Team.)
- How departments work: Picture siloed groups of individuals who toss a body of work over a wall - hoping the end result is effectively done.
- How product teams work: Picture a small group of skillfully and experientially diverse individuals sitting around a table working together to conceptualize, design and develop an amazing product.
- What roles you need on a product team: It’s important to clearly identify the roles on your team and their respective responsibilities.