The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend

Back in May I spoke at the annual Shift Conference in Split, Croatia and in my talk I looked at the collaboration between product managers and engineers. In “The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend” I tried to demystify some common perceptions about product managers and engineers alike.

For instance, the myth that all product managers are rockstars who can solve any business or customer problem single handedly:

 

 

Or the myth that all developers are fragile beings who just want to be left alone and write code:

 

 

In my talk, I examine what makes a successful collaboration between product people and engineers, and why. I introduce the product feedback loop and its individual stages, looking at roles and responsibilities at each stage:

 

You can watch the full talk below. Let me know your thoughts!

 

 

My product management toolkit (31): hiring product managers

More than 5 years ago now, I wrote about my first experiences with hiring product managers. In the piece I wrote about the key traits I look for in product managers and specific things to capture during the recruitment process. Since then, I’ve probably interviewed hundreds of product management candidates, compared notes with peers and read books about recruitment. All these inputs have made me realise the following:

Hiring good product managers is HARD!!!

There’s no set definition of what makes a good product manager – or what makes a product manager to start off with. Product managers tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not, they will have done a variety of different roles prior to turning to product management. Also, the demands of a product manager are likely to vary per organisation, based on size, maturity, type of product, culture, etc.

Over the years, however, I’ve developed a number of questions, though processes and tools which I use when recruiting product managers for my teams. Realising that recruitment is a very broad topic, I’m going to focus predominantly on the specific things to consider before you even kick off the hiring process.

What does good like?

Good (product management) recruitment starts with asking a few key questions first:

  • Why do we need this role? – Especially when your organisation hasn’t hired a product manager before, this is a critical question to ask before you set the recruitment process in motion. For example, is your startup big enough for a product person to drive ongoing product development, and is the founder ready to let go of some of this responsibility? Or: is an organisation which has built successful products without a product management function ready for product managers to join?
  • What are the specific gaps that the product manager needs to fill? – The specific problems – short and long term – that a product manager is expected to solve are far and few between. The nature of these problems is unique to factors such as the maturity of the organisation and the position of your product within its lifecycle (see Fig. 1 below). Be clear about the specific value you expect the product manager to add (see also “What do you need to hire a product person for?” below).
  • Which are “must have” attributes that you need in a product manager? – Naturally, the specific hard and soft skills you treat as “must have” when hiring are totally subjective. I’ve nevertheless found it very helpful to distinguish between “must haves” – i.e. non-negotiable skills – and “nice to haves”. To illustrate, I’ve outlined some key aspects that I don’t want to compromise on when hiring product managers (see Fig. 2 below).
  • What type of product manager are you looking for and why? – I recently read the High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil and his great book contains a section about “The four types of product managers” (see Fig. 3 below). Often companies will need a mix of the four types or require a person to be one type only.

When do I need to hire a product manager?

Figuring out when to hire your first product manager is the million dollar question. Some people will start looking for product people when:

  • The input of the founder(s) alone is no longer enough to create a great product.
  • Your business is starting to frustrate or lose customers.
  • You’ve reached the point where the product starts to scale.
  • You’ve reached the point where the business starts to scale.
  • Too many good ideas, but struggling to decide about which one to focus on next?

Once your product hits market-fit – i.e. you’re in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market – I recommend having a dedicated product person to drive further product iteration and market growth. Also, when you find that you’re losing touch with your (target) customers and their needs, it’s time to hire your first product person!

 

 

Let’s look at the flip side, and zoom in on those circumstances when you don’t need to hire a product manager just yet:

  • The founder is in a position to drive to product.
  • The product hasn’t achieved any form of market-fit yet.
  • You don’t have customers yet (and you just want to see whether the product has got legs instead).
  • or: is worried about letting go of the product.
  • You need someone to simply execute on your product requirements.
  • There’s a need to implement ‘Agile’ in the business.

I’m all for executing ideas, making them a reality, but I’d argue that you don’t necessarily need a product manager to make things happen. For example, if you’ve got a clear specification of what needs to be built, then a good project manager can help you execute agains this spec.

 

What do you need to hire a product person for?

I often come across companies which are on the lookout for a product manager without fully knowing what they expect from that person. Sometimes it will be down to the company’s investors telling them to recruit product managers or a strong desire to become more product centric. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with either motivation, it’s important to recognise that product managers come in all shapes and sizes, naturally excelling at certain aspects of product management and weaker in other areas.

As with any role, a number of characteristics make up a great product manager and unless you manage to find the perfect unicorn, you’ll have to decide upfront which characteristics are absolutely non-negotiable and which ones you consider to be a bonus.

 

 

Instead, I find the traditional product lifecycle model a useful guide when thinking about the specific problems that I’d like an incoming product manager to solve:

Market Development (Stage 1) – You’ll need a person who’s happy to start from scratch, unafraid of ambiguity and who is comfortable experimenting until the product achieves market-fit. Problems to solve here:

  • Creating a Minimum Viable Product in the truest sense of the word, demonstrating customer value and testing key business hypotheses.
  • Learning about customer needs and behaviours fast and translating these learnings in product iterations.
  • Developing a go-to market approach for the product, feed into initial product positioning and pricing.

Growth (Stage 2) – At this stage of the product lifecycle, I recommend looking for someone with experience of or appetite for scaling a product.

  • Continuously optimising the product based on data insights, both quantitative and qualitative.
  • Making tough tradeoff decisions and being able to say “no” to certain product requests.
  • Measuring performance of the product to ensure key goals are being met.
  • Localising or modifying the product, in case of new market entries or new customer segments respectively.

Maturity (Stage 3) – With a mature product, you’re unlikely to suddenly see a massive spike in your product’s customer base or usage. Problems to solve here:

  • Safeguard the product experience and value for existing customers.
  • Optimise the product and resolve any bugs or defects.

Decline (Stage 4) – Your product is at a crossroads as it’s declining. The customer base or usage are in decline. Problems to solve here:

  • Deciding whether to terminate a product or feature.
  • If you do decide to terminate, managing existing users of that product.
  • Transitioning customers to a new product.

By concentrating on different problems to solve at these product lifecycle stages, you can see how there’s no one size fits all solution with respects to the product manager skills required.

Fig. 1 – The Product Lifecycle by Theodor Levitt – Taken from: https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle

 

Main learning point: Granted, recruiting great product management is by no means an easy task. However, by doing some careful thinking about the what and the why of a product manager role for your business, you can make a well-informed decision about whether you need a product person and if so, what that person should look like.

 

Fig. 2 – Non-negotiable requirements when I hire product people:

  • Having the customer at front of mind – Do you truly care about the customer and solving customer problems?
  • Curiosity being a crucial driver – How curious are you to learn new things, to simply try things and learn?
  • Focused on solving problems – Can you demonstrate an inner drive to discover and solve problems?
  • Comfortable communicating up and down – Especially when things have gone wrong, and you have to explain things to people across the business, customers, suppliers, etc.
  • Not afraid to make decisions, big or small – How do you prioritise? Demonstrate tough tradeoffs you’ve made? Which decisions did you get wrong and how did you come back from those?

Fig. 3 – The four types of product managers – Taken from: Elad Gil, High Growth Handbook, pp. 252 – 253:

  1. Business product manager – These product managers are strongest at synthesising external requests into an internal product roadmap. Business product managers tend ton thrive at enterprise software  companies, or working on the partner-facing portions of consumer applications.
  2. Technical product manager – Technical PMs are often (but not always) deeply technical people who can work with engineering on areas like infrastructure, search quality, machine learning, or other inward-facing work.
  3. Design product manager – Most commonly found working on consumer applications, design-centric product managers are more user experience-centric. Some companies will convert a designer to be the product manager for a consumer product, just like they will convert an engineer into a technical product manager.
  4. Growth product manager – Growth product managers tend to be quantitative, analytical, numbers-driven, and in the best cases wildly creative and aggressive. The focus of the growth product manager is to (1) determine the critical levers needed to drive product adoption and use, and then (2) to manipulate those levers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part4.html
  2. https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle
  3. https://a16z.com/2012/06/15/good-product-managerbad-product-manager/
  4. http://growth.eladgil.com/book/chapter-7-product-management/characteristics-of-great-product-managers/
  5. https://stripe.com/atlas/guides/building-a-great-pm-org

What product managers can learn about Design Systems

What makes a good product? What makes a well designed product? A few years ago, I learned about design principles and how principles such as “not getting in the way (of the user)” and “content first” can drive product design. Imagine my initial confusion and intrigue, as a non-designer, when I first heard about a “design system”. Chris Messina – former designer at Uber – has come up with a useful definition of what a design system is:

 

“Design systems provide a convenient, centralized, and evolving map of a brand’s known product territories with directional pointers to help you explore new regions.”

 

Later, Messina went on to add that “Design never was just how it looks, but now it’s also how it sounds, how it speaks, and where it can go.” Apart from capturing how brand and product communicate, look and feel, a design system is also a critical component when it comes to scale. Just take this statement by Vikram Babu – product designer at Gigster – for example:

 

“The problem facing design today isn’t a shortage of skills or talent but that design doesn’t scale when you move from a few screens of designed components to a platform of developed patterns where adding people only complicates the problem… hence design systems.” 

 

The key thing I learned about the value of design systems is that they intend to go beyond just a collection of design elements. Typically, companies will have a style guide. However, more often than not these style guides contain a bunch of design elements or patterns, but not create a fully comprehensive design language or tone of voice, as Nathan Curtis – owner of the EightShapes design firm – explains:

 

“A style guide is an artefact of the design process. A design system is a living, funded product with a roadmap & backlog, serving an ecosystem.” 

 

This raises the question how one goes about creating a design system. Some things that I’ve learned in this respect:

Before you get started

  1. What’s your company vision look like? And is mission?
  2. Which problem is your company looking to solve and why? For whom?
  3. What are the company values which underpin your company culture, product and service?
  4. What problem(s) are we trying to solve through the design system? Why?
  5. What’s the desired impact we expect the design system to have on the way we work?

Getting started

  1. What does the current design and design look like? What works and what doesn’t? Identify the gaps.
  2. Define some underlying design principles, which underpin a fluid and developing ‘design ecosystem’ (see Airbnb as a good example; Fig. 1 below).
  3. Create a visual design language, which comprises a number of distinct but ever evolving components (I loved Adobe’s Nate Baldwin breakdown of some of these components; see Fig. 2 below). Common components of a visual design language are: colour, typography, iconography, imagery, illustrations, sizing and spacing.
  4. Create a User Interface and pattern library.
  5. Document what each component is and how to use it.

 

Fig. 1 – Airbnb design principles – Taken from: https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/

  • Unified: Each piece is part of a greater whole and should contribute positively to the system at scale. There should be no isolated features or outliers.
  • Universal: Airbnb is used around the world by a wide global community. Our products and visual language should be welcoming and accessible.
  • Iconic: We’re focused when it comes to both design and functionality. Our work should speak boldly and clearly to this focus.
  • Conversational: Our use of motion breathes life into our products, and allows us to communicate with users in easily understood ways.

 

Fig. 2 – The foundation of creating a Visual Design Language by Nate Baldwin – Taken from: https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793

  • Clearly defined semantics (and no, “error”, “warning”, “success”, and “info” aren’t nearly enough)
  • Thorough and mature mapping of core elements of design with clear purposes and meanings
  • A solid family of UI components and patterns that effectively support the semantics, and use design elements (based on theirmeanings) to support the meaning of the components
  • Thorough, comprehensive documentation about the visual communication system

 

To make this a bit more concrete, I’ll look at three good examples of design systems, by Google, Bulb and Salesforce.

 

Google Material Design

 

 

Bulb

 

 

Salesforce Lightning Design System

 

 

 

Main learning point: It’s important for product managers to understand what a Design System is and the purposes it serves. Even if you’re not directly involved in creating or applying a Design System, it’s key to understand your company’s design language and how it applies to your product.

 

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://bulb.co.uk/blog/introducing-bulbs-design-system
  2. http://design.bulb.co.uk/#/patterns/styles/colors/README.md
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/90160960/the-design-theory-behind-amazons-5-6-billion-success
  4. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/guide-to-design-systems/
  5. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/scale-design-systems/
  6. https://medium.muz.li/how-to-create-a-style-guide-from-scratch-tips-and-tricks-e00f25b423bf
  7. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/secrets-design-leadership/
  8. https://www.lightningdesignsystem.com/
  9. https://www.uxpin.com/create-design-system-guide
  10. https://medium.freecodecamp.org/how-to-build-a-design-system-with-a-small-team-53a3276d44ac
  11. https://www.uxpin.com/studio/ebooks/create-design-system-guide-checklist/
  12. https://blog.prototypr.io/design-system-ac88c6740f53
  13. https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793
  14. https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/
  15. https://material.io/design/

Is it Time for a Licence to Practise Product Management?

This article was first published on https://www.mindtheproduct.com/ on August 14, 2018

I recently came across a piece by Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director of Mule Design, titled Design’s Lost Generation, in which he makes the case that designers should require a licence to do their job.

Mike got me thinking; should product managers also require a licence do their job? After all, we’re a sizeable professional community and having a product management certification or licence in place would ensure that all product managers comply with the same standards.

But is it even possible to standardise product management, and in any case would this be desirable?

The Case For Licensing and Certification

I started my working life as a corporate lawyer in The Netherlands, so I had to obtain a professional licence to do this job. Looking back on both my legal and my product management careers, and studying common product management challenges, I can see there are a number of reasons in favour of licensing and certification:

  • Seal of Approval — Your company’s product is likely to be in good hands if it’s being managed by a licensed product manager.
  • Recruiting Product Managers — You only recruit product managers with a licence and the appropriate certification.
  • Quality Control — Increased consistency of quality and professionalism among product managers, since they’ve all studied the same content and standards.
  • Increased Accountability — If product managers act unethically, their licences can be revoked.
  • Broader Understanding and Recognition of What Product Managers do — Similar to government and industry bodies, if there were a single product management licence or code of conduct, it would help gain a wider understanding of the product manager role.
  • Ruling out Unethical Products and Behaviours — By codifying an agreed list of behaviours and standards that all product managers are expected to comply with. This can be outlined further in the right level of product management certification.
  • Keeping on top of Latest Trends, Approaches and Standards — A product manager could only have their licence renewed after obtaining relevant professional certificates or demonstrating compliance with set standards.

So I can see where people like Mike Monteiro are coming from; licensing would keep the (ethical) quality of products high and eradicate unethical products or behaviours. Professional certificates could be used as a way to continuously educate product managers about professional and ethical standards.

Why I’m not Convinced

However, from my experience as both a lawyer and a product manager, I believe that licensing isn’t the Holy Grail for either product managers or the companies they work for. This is why:

  • Product management isn’t yet a standardised discipline — The legal profession is well established, and deeply rooted in legal systems that are centuries old. There are serious consequences for people who don’t abide by the law. In contrast, the craft of product management is still developing. There isn’t a set way to practise product management, and it’s much more about a mindset.
  • Killing off creativity and diversity — By certifying and licensing we would create a significant barrier to entry into product management. One of the things I love is the diversity of background of most product managers. These different prior experiences add distinct flavours to someone’s approach to building and managing products.
  • No bulletproof safeguard — Even if we were to go down the route of licensing and certification, we shouldn’t be under the illusion that unethical products would automatically be a thing of the past. There are plenty of questionable lawyers with shady practices out there!

In short, I don’t believe that a licence and certificate based on set standards or requirements for all product managers is desirable, or even viable, at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we look at two alternative steps that will help us move towards solving the problems that licensing looks to address: a manifesto and certification.

What can be Done Instead — Manifesto and Certification

Similar to the original Agile Manifesto, I’d love for a group of product management thought leaders to get together and devise a “Product Management Manifesto” which stipulates the basic standards that we should adhere to.

While not being as “strict” as a universal product management licence, the manifesto and the principles it contains would heavily influence a product manager’s day-to-day approach and decision making.

One way to treat such a manifesto as a living and actionable document is by creating certificates which enable Product Managers to continuously learn about the core principles stipulated in the manifesto. There could, for instance, be certificates that cover “appropriate usage of customer data” or “continuous iteration”.

I guess the challenge with these kinds of certificates is to not make them too restrictive, as that would create the risk of removing the creative and innovative elements from product management. Equally, the certification content would have to move “with the times”, constantly adapting to evolving societal needs and circumstances.

Too Early?

I think it’s too early to look at a single, industry-wide licence that all product managers should comply with. Product management is still in its infancy, and a licence or code of conduct would create more confusion than good at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we start thinking about a Product Management Manifesto, outlining core principles to strive for in everything we do as product managers. This will in turn drive associated certification.

Given that product managers are rapidly growing in numbers and that our discipline is gaining broader appeal, I think it’s time to start a serious discussion about moving this idea forward.

The Agile Manifesto was conceived in a ski lodge, but before I start to look for somewhere similarly cold and inaccessible for a meeting, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts about the Product Management Manifesto and what should be in it. Let’s get started!

App review: Forest

My quick summary of Forest before using the app – I think I first heard Nir Eyal, who specialised in consumer psychology, talk about Forest. Given that Nir mentioned the app, I can imagine Forest impacts people behaviour, helping them achieve specific outcomes.

How does Forest explain itself in the first minute? – “Stay focused, be presented” is Forest’s strap line which I see first. This strap line is followed swiftly followed by a screen that says “Plant a Tree” and explains that “Whenever you want to focus on your work, plant trees.” This suggest to me that Forest is an app which aims to help people focus on their work and eradicate all kinds of distractions.

How does Forest work? – The app first explains its purpose in a number of nicely designed explanatory screens.

After clicking “Go”, I land on a screen where I can adjust time; presumably the time during which I want to focus and avoid any interruptions.

I set the time at 10 minutes and click “Plant”. I love how, as the time progresses, the messages at the top of the screen keep alternating, from “Don’t look at me!” to “Don’t look at me!” to “Hang in there!” Nice messages to help keep me focus and not fall prey to checking my phone. At any stage, I can opt to “Give up” which presumably means that the tree that I’ve been planting – through staying focused – will be killed.

I’m motivated to see this through and plant my first tree. When I complete my 10 minutes of uninterrupted time, I expect to see a nice tree right at the end of it. Try and imagine my disappointment when I don’t see a tree but instead am encouraged to create a Forest acount

Did Forest deliver on my expectations? – I can see how Forest helps people to focus and avoid checking their phone constantly. Just want to explore the gamification element of the app a bit more.

Book review: “Powerful”

“Radical honesty” is easier said than done. In her latest book “Powerful; Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”, former Netflix’ Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord delivers a great plea for the importance and benefits of a culture of “radical honesty”, one of the many things McCord helped put in practice whilst at Netflix. This element of always speaking the truth is one of the tenets of the Netflix culture which McCord was instrumental in shaping and which she writes about in “Powerful”.

McCord looks back on the Netflix culture as one of freedom and responsibility, and describes Netflix’ approach to creating “the leanest processes possible” and “a strong culture of discipline.” I’m keen to unpick the main elements of Netflix’ culture and McCord’s approach to co-creating a ‘powerful’ culture:

  1. Transform organisational culture – McCord outlines where to start with transforming organisational culture: “identifying behaviours that you would like to see become consistent practices (…) then instilling the discipline of actually doing them.” This is very much an evolutionary process, consisting of lots of small steps. The book lists the core set of practices that underpinned the Netflix culture McCord co-created (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Great teams contribute to success – McCord singles out contribution to success as the greatest motivation for the majority of people and teams. She talks about the energy teams get from meeting a challenge and states “great teams are made when things are hard.”
  3. Hire ‘high performers’ only (1) – My simple adage when recruiting is that if I’m not sure about a candidate or if I / we feel a persistent doubt about the candidate, it’s probably best to refrain from hiring that person. McCord goes one step further by saying that one should only hire high performers; people who do great work and challenge each other. This made me wonder whether this introduces a barrier to entry for less experienced or more junior hires? These people might become very good at their job and will – eventually – benefit from an environment that is both challenging as well as supportive.
  4. Hire ‘high performers’ only (2) – McCord’s point about the importance of “having a great person in every single position on the team”, and how this makes for a highly performant team, reminded me of Steve Jobs’ famous quote. “A players hire A players, but B players hire C players and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. The trickle down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” Perhaps it’s because I don’t know the exact traits of an A player and how to best look out for them, but I struggle with the A player concept. As a result, I felt that the makeup of great teams was the least convincing aspect of McCord’s book. I wondered what McCord make of some of the thinking by Andy Rachleff, a well-known VC and founder, who argues that “when a lousy team meets a great market, the market wins.”
  5. Treat people like adults – McCord also makes the point that we should treat all employees like adults. I know this sounds obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of environments where people aren’t being treated as such. At Netflix, McCord and her colleagues got rid of a whole lot of process, and instead relied much more on people’s own good judgment. For instance, at Netflix they stopped onerous processes such as annual budget and roadmap planning. This introduces a large dose of “trust” into the mix which I believe is invaluable for any business or team.
  6. People don’t want to be entertained at work; they want to learn – McCord’s makes a point about how employees want to learn things at work; they want to solve problems and deal with challenges. Instead of employees spending a lot of time away from their jobs for off-sites or formal training classes, McCord argues, employees benefit from truly learning on the job. She also covers the importance of all employees fully understanding how the business works; this being “the rocket fuel of high performance and lifelong learning.”
  7. Radical honesty (1) – As mentioned above, “radical honesty” plays a key role in Netflix’ company culture. Whether it’s about telling the truth about the company (e.g. its challenges, problems, etc.) or to each other, it’s important that the truth is being shared at any given time. For example, McCord encourages people to be fully transparent about their decisions and where they went wrong.
  8. Radical honesty (2) – The power of asking questions is another important hallmark of the Netflix culture of freedom and responsibility which McCord describes. At Netflix, people were taught to ask questions such as “how do you know that’s true?” or “can you help me understand what leads you to believe that’s true?” People thus learned first hand about what McCord refers to as “the ethic of asking”.
  9. People have power, don’t take it away – McCord dismisses any talk of empowering people. Instead, she argues that people have power and companies shouldn’t take that power away from them. The company’s job isn’t to empower people; companies need to make sure all conditions are in place for people to exercise their power. As a business leader, McCord explains, your job is “to create great teams that do amazing work on time.” She mentions the importance of great leaders ability to spot people’s growth potential and to nurture this potential.
  10. Build the company now that you want to be then – When recruiting people, McCord advises company to focus on future, as opposed to just hiring for the here and now. Can the people you’ve got in your team now do the job at scale? Are you going to need them to do tomorrow the same job they’re doing now? What’s your plan for them? McCord shares a “fast-forward six months forward” exercise which she uses to shape teams for the future of the company (see Fig. 2 below).

Main learning point: I can see how some of the elements that McCord describe describes in “Powerful” might not be applicable to all companies or to specific challenges that readers might be facing. However, I believe that we can all learn from the underlying mindset which McCord describes in her book; whether it’s the importance of ‘radical honesty’ or letting people exercise their power.

 

Fig. 1 – Core set of practices that underpinned the Netflix culture – Taken from: Patty McCord, “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”

  • Open, clear and constant communication: across the entire company about the work to be done and challenges being faced.
  • Radical honesty: telling one another, and management, the truth in a timely fashion and ideally face to face.
  • Debating based on fact based opinions: at Netflix, employees are expected to have strong, fact based opinions and to debate them avidly and test them rigidly.
  • Customer and company first: people to base their actions on what’s best for the customer and the company, not on attempts to prove themselves right.
  • Preparing teams for the future: hiring managers take the lead in preparing their teams for the future by making sure they’ve got high performers with the right skills in every position.

Fig. 2 – “Fast-forward six months” exercise –  Taken from: Patty McCord, “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”

  • Imagine six months from now, you have the most amazing team you ever assembled and you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, those guys are awesome! I can’t believe what they’re accomplishing.”
  • First write down what the team will be accomplishing six months from now that it’s not accomplishing now. now. Use all the figures you want.
  • For those different things to be happening, what would people need to know how to do? What kind of skills and experience would it take for the team to operate the way you’re envisioning and accomplish he the things you’ll need to do in that future?

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://jobs.netflix.com/culture
  2. https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664
  3. http://pattymccord.com/netflixs-patty-mccord-on-being-a-great-place-to-be-from-protect-the-hustle-ep-1/
  4. https://visualsynopsis.com/uncategorized/powerful-by-patty-mccord/
  5. http://firstround.com/review/this-is-how-coursera-competes-against-google-and-facebook-for-the-best-talent/
  6. https://recruitloop.com/blog/steve-jobs-top-hiring-tip-hire-the-best/
  7. https://daedtech.com/a-players-dont-hire-a-players-they-partner-with-a-players/
  8. http://web.stanford.edu/class/ee204/ProductMarketFit.html
  9. https://medium.com/parsa-vc/7-lessons-from-andy-rachleff-on-product-market-fit-9fc5eceb4432

 

Book review: “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”

You might have come across “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Patrick Lencioni, a consultant and speaker, wrote this seminal business book back in 2002. In this book, Lencioni identified the common root causes behind teams and companies underperforming:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust:

The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict:

The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive ideological conflict.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment:

The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to.

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability:

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results:

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

Fig. 1 – Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/books/dysfunctions

 

I recently read Lencioni’s followup book to “The Five Dysfunctions”;  “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is all about how to best solve common team dysfunctions. There a number of things one can do to overcome the different team dysfunctions that Lencioni identified all those years ago:

1. Building trust

Lencioni stresses the importance of trust: “no quality or characteristic is more important than trust.” Trust and vulnerability are closely interlinked, as Lencioni explains. Vulnerability-based trust comes from people not being afraid to admit the truth about themselves.

People being open and honest with themselves and each other, instead of wasting time and energy on politics. Building up this level of trust is by no means an easy feat or one off exercise. In contrast, it’s best to start small – with The Personal Histories Exercise, for example and continue maintaining trust.

Fig. 2 –  Patrick Lencioni’s “The Personal Histories Exercise” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantagePersonal_Histories_Excercise(4).pdf

2. Mastering conflict

Mastering conflict comes back to vulnerability-base trust, according to Lencioni. He explains that “When people who don’t trust one another engage in debate, they’re trying to win the argument.” In contrast, when vulnerability-based trust exist, team members say everything to each other that needs to be said and things don’t need to be discussed further behind closed doors.

Let’s make no mistake about it; conflict is supposed to feel a bit uncomfortable. Lencioni explains that if team members “never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it’s extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organization.”

Conflict Profiling is a great way to understand where you and your colleagues sit on the Conflict Continuum (see Fig. 3 below). What’s your appetite for healthy conflict? How does your appetite compare to Joe or Kathy’s on the team? Once you’ve figured out the different conflict profiles on the team and understand the differences, the best thing is to just talk about it within the team.

For example, what to me might feel like a good discussion, might to you feel like we’re butting heads … Once we understand our individual conflict profiles, we’re in a much better position to talk about how we best have a constructive discussion. One could, for example, agree that when we ask what might sound like difficult questions, these questions aren’t meant as personal attacks. Instead, these questions are only being asked because we want the best for the team, the business or the product.

Fig. 3 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Conflict Continuum” – Taken from: http://www.corporategames.com/whats-new/leadership-training/good-leaders-can-use-conflict-build-great-team/

3. Achieving commitment

The next dysfunction to overcome is the lack of commitment by team members. Lencioni makes the point that “commitment is not consensus.” There seems to be this misconception that everybody needs to agree intellectually on a decision, and that you’re bound for failure if you don’t … Lencioni argues the opposite: “Waiting for everyone on a team to agree intellectually on a decision is a good recipe for mediocrity, delay, and frustration.”

 

 

I totally agree with Lencioni’s points about most meetings being boring due to a lack of conflict. As counterintuitive as this may sound, I think we can all think of at least one regular meeting where we all just turn up and go through the mentions. However, meetings don’t have to be dull and unproductive.

In the words of Lencioni: “Team members can indeed become engaged in a meeting, but only when there is something at stake, a conflict worth caring about.” There is an important role for team leaders here, since they’re in great position to give team members a reason to care at the beginning of a discussion or a meeting.

In contrast, commitment is about “Buy-In”, defying a lack of consensus. It’s about getting a group of individuals to buy into a decision especially when they don’t naturally agree. Lencioni identifies two critical steps to achieve buy-in for a decision:

  1. Extract and explore team ideas – Good leaders drive team commitment by first extracting every possible, idea, opinion and perspective from the team. This is why I believe that good product leaders and managers need to be able to facilitate these open ended conversations or brainstorming sessions, especially since product people need to be able to influence without authority.
  2. Stick your neck out and decide – Once you’re comfortable that all options and perspectives have been explored, then the team leader needs to step up and make a decision. I know from experience that this is easier said than done, because our instinct is to try and get everybody to be happy about your decision. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll please everyone with your decision and that’s fine, as long as you explain the decision and why you made it – especially to those people with an opposite view. Lencioni refers to this process as “disagree and commit” and suggests the “Commitment Clarification” exercise to ensure that everyone in the team is clear about what exactly has been decided in the meeting or conversation (see Fig. 4 below).

Fig. 4 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Commitment Clarification” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/Commitment%20Clarification%20Exercise.pdf

4. Embracing accountability

Are you prepared to “enter the danger”? It’s the key question that comes out of Lencioni’s chapter about embracing accountability. Lencioni defines accountability as “the willingness of team members to remind one another when they aren’t living up to the performance standards of the group.” In an ideal world, this kind of accountability should be peer-to-peer and require the team leader to hold people accountable.

In reality though, and for peer to peer accountability to become the norm, the team leader needs to be prepared to call an individual on their behaviour or performance, and thus “enter the danger”. I totally agree with Lencioni where he observes that most leaders he knows “have a far easier time holding people accountable for their results than they do for behavioural issues.” This can be problematic because behavioural problems almost always precede results.

As daunting as it may seem at first, it is possible to have a constructive conversation about their behaviour. In my experience, the key is to be very specific about the behavioural issues that you’ve observed and describe the impact that these issues have caused (I highly recommend reading “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott if you’re keen to learn more about this topic).

The next step would be to run what Lencioni call a “Team Effectiveness Exercise”:

Fig. 5 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Team Effectiveness Exercise” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantageTeamEffectiveness_Exercise(8).pdf

 

5. Focusing on results

Lencioni raises the questions about what makes it so hard to stay focused on results? He answers the questions by talking about self-interest and self-preservation. To avoid these human pitfalls, Lencioni suggest the team picking one goal the whole team can focus on:

“On strong teams, no one is happy until everyone is succeeding, because that’s the only way to achieve the collective results of the group. Of course, this implies that individual egos are less important than team achievements.”

In this scenario, the team will know that it’s being successful when it accomplishes the results it sets out to achieve. This requires team members to prioritise team results over their individual or departmental needs. To stay focused, teams must publicly clarify their desired results and keep them visible.

Main learning point: “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is a valuable resource for anyone interested in creating or being part of effective teams. In addition to studying the factors of successful teams, the book  offers a number of helpful exercises to overcome these dysfunctions.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.tablegroup.com/books/dysfunctions
  2. https://www.tablegroup.com/books/overcoming-the-five-dysfunctions-a-field-guide
  3. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantagePersonal_Histories_Excercise(4).pdf
  4. http://www.corporategames.com/whats-new/leadership-training/good-leaders-can-use-conflict-build-great-team/
  5. https://www.truity.com/blog/personality-type-conflict-style
  6. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/Commitment%20Clarification%20Exercise.pdf
  7. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantageCascading_Communication_Exercise(6).pdf