Four Ways Empowering Product-Led Teams Can Unleash a Company’s Most Crucial Outcomes

Putting systems in place to allow teams to Discover, Deliver & iterate means far more than just better solutions

Either explicitly or implicitly, every organization drives towards four people-focused outcomes:

  1. Deliver great client-centric experiences that also work for the business
  2. Attract and retain top talent
  3. Inspire people to give their best effort
  4. Create a company-wide culture of continuous learning and innovation

The ongoing impacts of the pandemic have created an incredible pressure-cooker, stress-testing nearly every organization’s readiness to suddenly leap five years into the digital future.

But it will take a fundamental mindset shift in how organizations plan and deliver their work to thrive in the face of these challenges by unleashing the true power of their people.

A never-ending series of War Rooms…?

Newly-digital leaders who have tested the waters of Agile and Digital transformation may have abandoned their initial forays into servant leadership in favor of a return to the classic “War-Room” playbook, grinding scores of developers through brutal 80-hour-plus work weeks to deliver massive backlogs laid out over detailed internal stakeholder-driven roadmaps.

The comfort of action amid uncertainty

In the face of the ongoing unprecedented circumstances, dictating jam-packed roadmaps of features to teams, and forcing them to churn blindly through delivery might provide leaders with the comfort that all this frenetic activity amounts to some kind of constructive action and forward momentum.

While outwardly impressive, team morale and product quality are the first victims of this unscalable approach.

Crucially, by pinning everything on disjointed initiatives dictated by “The Business,” organizations risk not only failing to deliver client-centric experiences that deliver any business value, but completely jeopardizing the other three people-focused outcomes noted above.

At What Cost?

Pushed past the breaking point, organizations risk massive employee burnout and attrition.

Amid the chaos and lack of clarity and leadership, all those great people, hired with fanfare and onboarded at such considerable effort and expense will deteriorate. They’ll be reduced to waiting for nothing more than the end of the workday and the weekend before they can leave the company at the first opportunity.

Is this a culture that will be able to attract and retain top talent?

Worse, what if all these features the team is building is stuff no one wants?

Employees who choose to stay in this kind of environment, mindlessly building whatever they’re told, may still succeed in delivering something. But they’d be competing against luck.

But after the launch celebrations are over, and someone bothers to look more closely, it frequently becomes evident the features they’ve been so busy building for the past 4-6 months are things that can’t be properly built, no one can find, no one can use, and no one wants. Organizations need to actively question if dictating and forcing teams to follow these “roadmaps to nowhere” are really worth their employees’ lives and careers.

Fortunately, there’s an approach that can provide a central clue to all four people-focused outcomes, offering not only a viable solution to navigate the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, war, and economic downturn, but to face the equally uncertain competitive landscape yet to emerge.

Managers Don’t Need New People and They Don’t Have to Work Harder

Counterintuitively, leadership can accomplish far greater results than their planned features could have hoped to have achieved with the people already on their teams.

And those people don’t need to work anything more than reasonable, sustainable work weeks. As improbable as this all may seem, managers who succeed in making the mindset shift and adapting to this way of working will have opened the door to all four people-focused outcomes.

And the path to better business outcomes.

The Key: Empower experienced, skilled Product Managers and their teams

The prerequisite of empowerment is trust.

Instead of dictating lists of features for teams to build, management can get more from the smart, resourceful, and dedicated professionals they’ve hired by providing clear client-centric outcomes in the form of Objectives and Key Results to their teams, and empower them to own, end-to-end, how teams deliver against those goals. 

Simply put, leadership can be a force multiplier not by dictating solutions, but through setting strategic intent, trusting people to get the job done, and providing them a safe, supportive environment in which to function. 

The people on those teams are closest to those clients and their needs. They are in the best position to Discover, Design, and Deliver the most appropriate and innovative solutions.

But first, set context

Why are we here?

Leadership can start by inspiring teams through a sense of shared purpose, best expressed as a Mission.

From there, they can establish the Vision of the future state, which forms the context for the “why” underlying their work. Leadership needs to own and master the inspirational narrative of what makes teams’ day-to-day work so critical for the business, and consistently keep telling that story across all employee touchpoints.

“If you want to get your point across, especially to a broader audience, you need to repeat yourself so often, you get sick of hearing yourself say it. And only then will people begin to internalize what you’re saying.”

Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn

Clarify the Product Strategy

The next step down from Mission (why we’re here) and Vision (the word picture of the future), comes Strategy.

In order to formulate clearer and more compelling strategy, Jeff Gothelf shares how leadership can formulate an effective product strategy by answering three simple questions:

  1. Where will we play?
  2. How will we win?
  3. How will we know you’ve won?

Without a clear strategy, teams won’t have a foundation for the hundreds of prioritization and optimization decisions they need to make every day. Short-term activity by paying for users? Long-term nurturing of brand-loyal clients?

Empowered to deliver, and focused on a unifying strategy, teams are ready to work. Before writing a single line of code, they’ll need to kick off ongoing cycles of Continuous Discovery.

Product-led teams address risks collaboratively up front in Discovery

Leadership can support product managers and the teams they lead to deliver improved customer-centric solutions through Continuous Discovery. Teresa Torres defines Continuous Discovery as 

Weekly touchpoints with customers
By the team building the product,
Where they conduct small research activities,
In pursuit of a desired product outcome

Teresa Torres

The Real Value of Discovery

Discovery isn’t used once to “validate” something and create the illusion of absolute assurance that teams are building the “single best thing.” It’s a continuous activity to reduce risk as teams gather empirical evidence in the course of iterating towards better client-centric outcomes that also deliver business impact.

To help with this, leadership should encourage teams to follow the Lean wisdom of reducing batch size, and allow teams to quickly iterate through the “Hypothesis, Build, Measure, Learn” loop.

Increase effectiveness by Descaling and Learning Fast

“Descaling,” or Thinking Big, Starting Small, and Learning Fast is a key attribute of successful teams moving from Discovery to Delivery.

Leadership that provides psychological safety for teams as they rapidly discover and build the smallest thing they can quickly learn from have taken the biggest steps in the right direction.

The next biggest mindset shift is to understand that once the first iteration is built and delivered, the work has only just begun.

Celebrate achievement & learning…

Traditionally, launch parties have been one of the few ways for management to give back to their teams. Showing this kind of gratitude is extremely important given the extraordinary effort and sacrifice teams make on a regular basis. However, management needs to reaffirm that simply having shipped doesn’t mean the team’s work is complete. 

…and continue to monitor & analyze

Without the accountability of data, management and teams have no empirical basis for success or decision-making criteria. 

Set success metrics before anyone touches their keyboard

Rapha Cohen, Google Waze CPO

Product-led teams working through cycles of Continuous Discovery start with a clear sense of how they’ll be successful early in the process. In any case, properly instrumenting products with actionable analytics, alerts and dashboarding is crucial to provide both leadership and teams a clear picture of user activity and funnels.

Depending on the size of the organization, product operations can be hugely helpful in seeing that eyes remain on the data that matters.

Work with teams to share learnings

Regardless of the outcome, when product-led teams are coached through continuous discovery with regular client conversations, continuously deliver the smallest pieces they can, and regularly monitor the right analytics, they’re well on their way to feeding that information back into the product and iterating towards the client-centric outcomes that can truly move the needle for the enterprise.

Set up product-led teams well, support them, and the positive people impacts can naturally follow

By putting systems in place to fully-staff teams and minimize their external dependencies, and hiring experienced and skilled Product Managers to lead them leadership has unlocked massive progress toward all four crucial people outcomes:

  1. Teams engaged in Continuous Discovery and Iterative Development and Delivery have a far greater chance of delivering better client-centric experiences that also work for the business
  2. Top talent is far more likely to want to work at an organization that trusts and empowers their teams and gives them ownership of delivering the best solutions
  3. Empowered teams create an engaged workforce, fueled by internal accountability, where people are far more likely to give their best effort without being forced to
  4. Teams that engage in continuous cycles of Discovery, Design, Delivery, ongoing Analysis, and iteration can’t help but contribute to a company-wide culture of continuous learning and innovation

Leadership that truly empowers their teams has embarked on the journey of enhancing the experience for every person their organization touches.

Thanks to Maarten Dalmijn for reviewing an earlier draft of this article and providing much helpful feedback.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash


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