What senior leaders can learn from product teams

I keep looking at these two topics – leadership and product work – as I have deep roots with both of them. When I look back into my most recent corporate role, I believe that a large part of the success of the teams I was working with, was rooted in me leading that entire business unit with the mindset of a product person. Let me explain:

Leadership deals with uncertainty all the time

And so does product work. Every product lifecycle starts with a new problem to solve, or a new solution to a problem that has not yet been solved this well before. And yet: before you go through your research phase, before you build a solid understanding of your user personas, before you get some traction with testing and prototyping, you have absolutely no solid idea what solution and which new features of that solution will lead to success. You probably have a decent hypothesis. And you have proven methods and tools to de-risk, to systematically research, to learn fast and adapt, to experiment, to learn from failed experiments and therefore a path to iterate your way to success. The Lean Startup describes this process very well. Product teams understand how to go from uncertainty, through repeated learning cycles, to establishing product market fit, and increasingly more certainty along the path of their process. They figured out how to collaborate and experiment their way from uncertainty to success without burning out and with a solid understanding of how to look at the failures along the way as learning gifts. As a leader of any team, you can apply how open-minded research, great listening skills, experimentation, the formulation of smart hypothesis and excellent collaboration, are pathways to success.

The mindset is: We are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. We will find solutions together. Being with uncertainty is part of the process. Failures hold learning gifts.

Leadership is about relationships with people

Everything product teams do has aspects of collaboration in it. They work together across disciplines to build a product, they work with their users to understand the solutions to build, they work with internal stakeholders to understand feasibility and business cases, they work with sales and marketing to promote their products, they work with legal teams on contracts, user agreements and data privacy questions, etc… Every product team I have ever been a part of has been deeply embedded in a web of relationships. And the most successful product teams I have seen are experts at stakeholder engagement. They understand the interconnected web of relationships they are a part of. Product roles are forced to lead with vision and influence, and heavily lean on being of service to others. Something every leader also has to figure out. If you can’t formulate a vision and direction, your teams will be lost and can’t co-create with you in that direction. And if you rely on pressure and hierarchy to lead, you will not have engaged teams. Product leaders have to attract the support and attention they need from their peers and stakeholders. They can’t afford to not think about how they contribute to their users and organizations. In the leadership world that is called servant leadership.

The mindset is: We are stronger together. We are in this together. We center what builds joy, belonging and interconnection. We serve our users and stakeholders and build strong relationships with them.

Leadership has to do with trusting people

The foundation of how a great product team collaborates is trust. Trust in the strengths and expertise of the different roles and perspectives in the team. Some can code, some can check code, some are awesome at interviewing users, some are great strategists or visionaries, some can calculate a business case, some are experts at how to make a team work well, some are great marketers, etc… And all of what the team does happens in the context of value to their users, partners and the larger organization. There is a lot of communication happening about things that did not go to plan, mistakes that were made, bugs that were released, features that did not deliver expected results, etc… Product teams learn fast how to find the gift in those failures. They bake listening to those unpleasant truths into their DNA to learn fast, adapt fast and iterate their way to success. They learn that transparency is appreciated in the face of mistakes, they learn what kind of accountability is expected and needed of them, and they learn that anger and defensiveness (which they absolutely will feel as well) are no great success recipe if you act on them. They operate from a mantra that everyone did the best they could with what they knew at the time. And look at mistakes through the lens of “what can we learn” rather than “let’s hide this and never speak about it” or “who can we blame”. I’m not saying this is easy. Teams need to learn that. Agile teams have ritualized that learning conversation in the form of a retrospective. They have ritualized fast learning cycles in the form of sprints (and continuous deployments). They have ritualized open and direct communication on how things are going through their daily standups. And they have ritualized team wide alignment and goal setting through OKRs (or other forms of smart goals). All those conversations are built on a foundation of trust in people. Leaders can learn how to trust and delegate to the people who have the expertise and relevant knowledge from product teams.

The mindset is: We learn from what does not work (rather than we look for blame). Everyone does the best they can with what they know at this point in time. We choose and build trust.

Leadership is about vision and values

Product organizations have a ton of tools that work as alignment mechanisms around vision and values. They understand: if everyone in the team is clear on direction (vision & strategy) and what kind of solutions are ok to build (values, priorities and ethics), they can trust that their teams will figure out solutions and products that will create the desired impact and do it in a way that is in line with how the organization wants to work. Product teams clarify and align around direction and strategy through tools like a Business Model Canvas, Impact Maps or OKRs. And they utilize ranked product principles, ethics standards, definitions of done, focused conversations about smart ways of working, and continuous reflection (retrospectives) to hold themselves accountable. It leads to teams that know, they can depend on each other, have skills to collaborate well, how to work through challenging topics and team dynamics, and effective ways to continuously improve and learn. They smartly use experimentation to test with users, they build rapid prototypes to get quick feedback, they AB-Test multiple solutions against each other, they will shelve solutions that do not deliver results and start ideating and experimenting again with a clear idea of what success looks like. They built a culture that understands how to tap into the co-creation strength of entire teams, rather than prioritizing to celebrating a single great contributor. Leaders can learn from product teams how to systematically build trusting teams that use vision and values to tap into the wisdom and strengths of everyone on the team in order to deliver great results.

The mindset is: My clarity on direction and values creates a space for effective collaboration towards our joint success. Within those parameters my team is free to co-create from their perspectives and strengths. I can trust that we collaborate in the right direction.

Leadership is about risk taking and innovation

Product teams have mastered the related skill sets. They apply proven methods to ideate, evaluate, learn fast and create new solutions. They work with Design Thinking, Persona definition, the research of problem statements, experimentation on solution designs, and adaptive learning cycles to understand how confident you can be about research findings, the willingness of users to engage with a solution and how to scale up what works. Product teams think about desired behavior shifts, create the relating success metrics and experiment until they find a feasible, usable, valuable and viable solution that serves the needs both of their users as well as the financial, strategic and impact goals of their organizations. They have de-mystified the art of solution creation and broken it down into repeatable steps. And they dare to be in that uncertain space BEFORE you find a great solution. They trust that the wisdom and skills of the team in combination with a sincere desire to build great solutions will result in innovative, daring and successful new products. They know how to stack the cards of how to work together, to make successful outcomes a ton more likely. They will still have experiments that fail, and they know how to learn fast from this and move in a more promising direction. Their ways of working result in resilient and optimistic teams. And which leader does not want to be engaged with successful, resilient and optimistic teams?

The mindset is: We trust in our abilities to find solutions. We are smart, creative and skillful enough to find our path to success. We learn, and experiment our path to success. Our different perspectives make us a stronger team.

Leading like this can be learnt!

I’m not saying that the path to thriving teams, or leading from those mindsets, is always rosy, pleasant or easy (especially when you first start with it). The good news is: you can learn the related leadership skills. You could simply take one of those mindset statements and ask yourself: What would it look like to lead a team when I’m leading from this perspective? What would change in how I lead in my team, if I acted on these foundational beliefs? The fastest way to get you there is to work with and learn with somebody who has deep expertise in this. (Shameless self-promote: that could be me!)

There will likely be a lot of failure, a lot of challenging conversations, a lot of learning along the way. It may not come natural to us, to navigate conversations around failure and conflict with curiosity, empathy and joy in order to find the gifts there – but we can learn it! Learning this is the much faster way to success than avoiding addressing what stands in the way of building great teams. It is worth it in the end: your entire team will walk to success much faster, and you’ll have reason to celebrate that together.

PS: I wrote this piece from the perspective of a product role, the same insights, mindsets and learnings are what Tech Leaders, QA Leaders or UX Research Leaders (or any other person who practiced this way of working) can bring to your Senior Leadership team. At the senior level, you are building teams of teams, and if your leaders master these skills, you will scale much better and build success much faster, without making yourself the bottleneck of your own growth.

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

If you would like to explore this more: reach out for a free discovery session with me.
I coach, speak, do workshops and blog about #leadership, #product leadership, #innovation, the #importance of creating a culture of belonging and how to succeed with your #hybrid or #remote teams.

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