What are best practices for managing a product development team?

Product development is dynamic work. Taking a raw concept through to go-to-market release is an adventure that touches nearly every group within an organization. Everyone contributes in some way, from human resources to sales to marketing. However, it is the core product development team who is responsible for the strategic and tactical work of planning, building, and launching a product.

The incentive of different functional groups working together is a collective success — for the company, for customers, and for each other. — Brian de Haaff

The only thing more dynamic than developing a product? Managing the team behind it. These folks come from different disciplines and have unique perspectives. The collective product development team works together in a formal way, but folks are not usually linked formally on an org chart and may have additional responsibilities to their functional team outside of their product duties. There is plenty of room for ambiguity, tension, and even dysfunction.

That is why healthy organizations take a proactive approach to managing product development teams. This includes understanding and defining who should (and should not) be part of the team, the responsibilities of the group, the duties of each individual, and how everyone should work together most effectively.

Who is part of a product development team?

Product development encompasses a range of activities. The core product development team typically includes representatives from several functional groups — including product management, project management, product marketing, engineering, and operations.

The broader product team often includes representatives from marketing, sales, and customer support. These individuals provide necessary cross-functional context that informs the core product development team’s decision-making. Although the work of these other teams supports overall product success, these folks are not as close to the day-to-day details of planning, building, and managing a product.

Different roles in a product development team

A product development team reflects the product that is being built and the organization that is offering it. Say you have a very complex product in an enterprise company — you might spin off product development teams around different areas of functionality or technology. In a startup with a nascent offering, it is much more common to have a team that focuses on every aspect of the product.

Here are a few of the professional roles you might find in a product development team, presented in alphabetical order and excluding senior or executive-level titles:

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What are some important traits of a good product development team?

High-performing teams all share a few similar traits. This is true regardless of what goal the group is working towards — whether it is moving a soccer ball across a pitch or transforming a concept into a digital experience that delights users. Teamwork runs on a mindset that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Because product development is so dynamic, you could create a list of hundreds of traits that would benefit the people behind the process. However, there are five basic attributes that you will typically see in a high-functioning product development team:

  1. Transparent: Open communication is essential. The best product development teams express ideas and share feedback with clarity. There are no hidden agendas.

  2. Curious: Striving to understand the “why” behind any issue is a hallmark of effective product development teams. These folks are always asking questions to understand the true meaning.

  3. Empathetic: Customer-centricity drives product success. Product development teams cultivate a sense of empathy for users and each other that leads to better solutions — and brings meaning to the work.

  4. Creative: Delivering real value requires out-of-the-box thinking. Exceptional product development teams are nimble free-thinkers who can approach a problem from different angles.

  5. Pragmatic: Product development has real costs. Product development teams are always looking for the most practical solution that will deliver the most value in the least time with minimal effort — not the ideal that may consume more resources.

Should a product development team report to engineering or product management?

This is one of the most hotly debated questions among product builders. The answer depends on a few factors — including company maturity, size, and industry. For example, you often find engineering-led product development teams in early-stage startups. These folks are in a scrappy, rapid build mode and so there is not usually a formal structure with separate groups for product management, software engineers, product designers, etc.

Some companies have a founder who is the technical brain behind the product. In addition to acting as CEO, this person might assume the role of CPO and CTO — a compromised dual-responsibility that can challenge diversity of ideas. Product managers and engineers each bring unique skills to product development work. If the ultimate company leader approaches product decisions from a developer-first mentality, you can miss out on perspectives.

Product development teams are not one-size-fits all. Functional groups will each have their own team structure and play a complementary role in supporting the process of taking an idea from concept to go-to-market launch. Product managers and engineers who work together on the same product in a formal way will report to managers within their functional department.

The delineation is always a bit fuzzy in this type of cross-functional work. There are often so-called “dotted line” management relationships between senior leaders and colleagues within a product development team. This term refers to someone who might assign you a task or review your work, but is not ultimately in a position to discipline or reward you in a conventional management way. Clear communication between individual teammates, direct managers, and dotted-line managers is essential to avoid competing priorities or contradictory directives that can delay progress and frustrate everyone involved.

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How to build and manage a product development team?

Product development teams grow over time. As the company scales, so does the group supporting the product or products that it offers. Formalizing team structures and hiring new folks should be approached prudently. Throwing more people at a problem is not always the way to solve it — frequently you create more discord and confusion as people adapt.

You want to be circumspect. A good way to do so is to catalog current org charts, job descriptions, and overall duties. You can then reference your company vision and product strategy to create a team charter. This is a living document that outlines responsibilities, communication guidelines, and expectations for the team. As you hire new folks, the team charter becomes a valuable training tool. And as teammates thrive (or stumble) it can be a touchstone for managers.

Hiring best practices

Product development teams span a variety of disciplines. Ensuring that prospective hires have the required technical skills and practical experience is a given. However, you want to hire for both hard and soft skills. Remember our list of the five traits above — transparency, curiosity, empathy, creativity, and pragmatism are just as critical as technical acumen.

Here are a few ways you can streamline hiring practices to build an outstanding product development team:

  • Define the position to be filled, with a focus on competencies

  • Create a skills inventory (both hard and soft)

  • Be open to non-traditional work histories and experience

  • Develop a standard assessment method (test or project)

  • Practice behavioral interviewing that elicits context-specific answers

  • Ensure candidates speak with a variety of employees

Management best practices

There is not a designated manager of a product development team. You have de facto leaders of the group (typically the product manager). But there should be a sense of a “flat” structure to the group — meaning that people feel confident and comfortable to share ideas, feedback, criticism, and praise.

At a senior or executive-level, tactics management can leverage to support a productive and high-functioning product development team include:

  • Modeling what leadership looks like

  • Choosing the right team structure

  • Codifying internal processes

  • Deciding on appropriate performance evaluations

  • Investing in product development tools that improve team collaboration

Collaboration best practices

Individuals have a responsibility to honor the team charter and work towards achieving the product vision. Each person plays an integral part in reaching the goals and KPIs set — regardless of how their functional duties align to those metrics. (Remember: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.) But product managers do hold a unique position of leading the product development team without express authority. Naturally, how this person behaves is an indicator of what is expected from everyone.

The following is a brief list of recommendations for how product managers can set a precedent for fruitful collaboration:

  • Establish a “one team” mentality

  • Communicate effectively

  • Share the product vision

  • Represent business and customer needs

  • Provide access to roadmap plans

  • Optimize meeting time

  • Avoid micromanaging

  • Display an entrepreneurial spirit

  • Eliminate drama

  • Throw credit to others

  • Inject a sense of play

Product development is exhilarating. You have a rare opportunity to bring ideas to life. You have the responsibility to deliver on business goals. And you have the privilege to solve real problems for real people. This is serious work — but it should be enjoyable. Time is not promised, so try to have fun and celebrate with the folks who join you.

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