5 Rules of the Top Product Development Teams

Team building during the June 2022 company retreat | Photo by Aha!

August 16, 2022

5 Rules of the Top Product Development Teams

by Brian de Haaff

Is software handcrafted or mass-produced? (This is kind of a trick question.) The answer is a little bit of both. Most software is bespoke and manufactured — developed by devoted experts, delivering on specific customer needs, customizable for individuals and groups, yet accessible to thousands or even millions of users. This blend is part of what makes software product development and the teams behind the process especially unique.

Product development relies on experts — specialists in their craft — who work together and independently to deliver value in different ways.

The products that a company invests in building today represent the future of the business. Industry-leading organizations understand this — it is why many have heavily invested in product development as an end-to-end discipline. This shift means rethinking how folks operate. You have to break down silos between product-building functions and invest in processes that facilitate deeper collaboration.

The reality is that embracing a product-first mindset often requires a full enterprise transformation. Everyone in the organization needs to orient around a shared understanding of what value means to the business and to your customers. But there is one group that is responsible for powering it all forward — a committed product team.

Lovable products are the result of a confluence of factors — strong strategy, raw talent, clear processes, and true collaboration.

Perhaps that sounds obvious. After all, the above is often true for any team in an organization. We all benefit from a goal-oriented approach and hard-working teammates. But these factors matter even more for product development teams because you have people coming together from different disciplines. There is the core product development team and then the broader group that helps ensure go-to-market success — product management, engineering, marketing, innovation, and leadership.

This cross-functional team structure adds complexity. Competing priorities between teams are common. Layering in differing personalities, preferences, and skill sets ratchets the possibility for conflict and dysfunction. Creative vs. technical. Extroverts vs. introverts. Leaders vs. individual contributors.

These seeming oxymorons carry over into how you empower a product development team to achieve their best. Diverse perspectives make these teams so exceptional. Each group sees value through the unique lens of their role and can contribute in unexpected ways — accelerated by strong product leaders, defined processes, and dedicated tools.

I have had the honor of working alongside some truly excellent product folks, including the Aha! product team. Those experiences revealed to me what makes the best ones tick — people willing to invest the same level of care into building and managing the team as you do what is being built. So if you are a leader in either title or action, you can help bring these principles to your organization:

Stand for something real

You know exactly what you stand for and why. A shared purpose is powerful. It inspires individuals and strengthens the collective. For product teams, this means committing to your product vision as a declaration of excellence. Do more than document what you want to achieve. Make it the lifeblood of the group by referencing it often — during product planning, team meetings, and in feedback.

Put customers at the core

Happy customers are what you want. Every function impacts customers in some way during product development — even those who do not directly interact with end users. There is tension here. You need everyone to empathize with customers, while still focusing on their core duties. Lead the way by soliciting input from customer-facing teams and sharing user feedback regularly in product meetings.

Unleash access to information

Transparency imbues collaboration. No one should have to guess what another group is doing or chase down information. You want a single source of truth and cross-team visibility. Each group should have access to strategic goals, customer personas, and product plans. Product management and engineering can create a unified backlog to help everyone see the full breadth of new functionality and ongoing technical improvements.

Set up clear guardrails

Everyone needs to understand how to contribute effectively. Starting from scratch every time is inefficient. Defined roles and responsibilities keep everyone on a steady track forward. Establish processes that are repeatable and as frictionless as possible. When people do not have to think about workflow, they can dedicate more brainpower to the work itself.

Foster creative collaboration

Teams need forums for coming together. Some product ideas form in insolation, but refining raw concepts takes collaboration and effort. Tools like shared whiteboards can help folks think creatively together. Product team meetings are opportunities to gather insights. Step back and encourage meaningful group discussion.

Leading a high-performing product development team is one of the most exciting and fulfilling opportunities you can have in your career. It is inspiring to work together and contribute meaningfully.

Solving complex problems requires mental space. It is up to you to give the team access to the information they need to explore the right solutions and the guardrails to do so effectively. Then let go. Getting the balance right between staying close to the details and pulling back so that folks can soar takes time. But remember that supporting the team behind the product is at the heart of delivering what customers love.

Product development teams deserve world-class software — built for the way you work.

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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