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Product Development Is a Team Sport

Successful product development takes a team who is inspired, accountable and empathetic PHOTO: I’m Priscilla

I’ve spent over a decade leading and working across multi-disciplinary teams to define and create digital products. 

My background spans time at start-ups, where passion runs high, to working within an agency, where emotional investment in projects must be nurtured, to a large-scale digital transformation partner, where empathy with users is cultivated throughout the process. 

And throughout all, I have learned one thing: creating successful products is a team sport. 

Team dynamics, client-partner dynamics and a shared vision all play a part. The “buy-in” and engagement you can command by inspiring a team with a big vision and the use of the product not only produces engagement and hard work across large teams, it also produces more effective and focused decision-making regarding the product’s future success.

9 Steps to Inspire Your Product Team

The social startup I worked for created a product that allowed people to build their own social website. However, the mission that fired us up was “connecting small communities.” We were providing people with technology they didn’t have access to before. This got us going, created excitement and inspired passion.

If your organization’s mission is big enough to inspire, how does this translate to the team creating the product to really make it a team sport?

Everyone Is a ‘Product Person’

My responsibility as a product leader is to understand the user (experience), the capability and constraints of the technology involved, and the business strategy driving decisions. 

This, to an extent, should also be the case with the wider team. Make sure they understand the many dynamics in order to better foster an individual’s sense of purpose and meaning for her own part of the project.

Encourage Empathy

The team needs to empathize with the users of the product. This means using the product and/or immersing in the context of usage. 

When we worked on an application for a large airline, the whole team took a trip to the airport terminal to understand the environment for some of the app’s features. When working with a fitness wearables product, the team had wristbands and created a “steps” competition. During a mobile project for a sports association, non-soccer fans (including myself) took up sports betting on soccer matches to better understand a fan’s mindset.

Share the UX Strategy 

The User Experience (UX) strategy doesn’t only belong to the user experience designer. The outputs of UX strategy are the most accurate representation of the user’s relationship with the product. Each persona and journey map can be studied, put on a wall and play-acted. 

You can re-run UX exercises as a team in pre-project training to bring everyone up to speed and in-tune with what the product is used for and by whom.

Communicate the Business Strategy 

When we make decisions about the priorities for the product, we rationalize against value to the user and feasibility of the feature set from a cost and effort perspective, and we also prioritize against business value and impact. If the whole team is engaged with the business strategy, they can contribute to helping its innovation. 

Control Team Size 

Teams succeed when they trust and understand each other. The closer the team, the more likely they will go the extra mile. This means team sizes need to be the right size to foster relationships, create trust and develop shared understanding. Jeff Bezos calls this the two pizza team.

Divide Accountability

Team sizes organized naturally define the amount of product they can be responsible for. This limitation and creation of teams specific to smaller sets of functionality enable ownership, accountability for success and leadership. With this limitation of scope, the team can connect with the specific impact product features are going to make, both for the wider project, as well as for customers.   

Define Success

A definition of success pulls the team behind goals, thereby driving results and guiding decisions. Success may differ feature to feature, but an understanding of the metrics both short-term and longer-term is necessary to fuel the team engine. 

When a team buys-in to success it rallies and inspires. It also prevents ambiguity. Targets can be missed, but not denied. With each failure comes the opportunity for post-mortem. 

Don’t Skip the Post-mortem

The post-mortem is, in many ways, the unsung hero of success because it is hard to master. 

When you succeed, you want to shout about it. A failure is much harder to face up to. 

In the search for success and scale, it presents a massive opportunity for a team to improve and understand. With every product/feature launch, multiple parties are synchronizing for success. With frank discussion and diagnosis, teams can create playbooks to do it better next time. 

Create a Culture to Be Proud Of 

All of the above contributes to culture. However, in a competitive skills market, your multi-discipline product team will be attracted and retained by how they understand their career development. 

Smaller teams and accountability give the opportunity for every individual to be a leader. Understanding the strategy and involvement in collaboration can create an innovative environment. The diversity of males and females, and juniors and seniors can invite different perspectives and natural mentoring connections. 

If tackled consciously, the culture can become attractive, invigorate the team, and power the success of both the product and the business.

Product Is a Team Sport

Sounds easy, right? Of course, no organization is perfect, but the acknowledgment that product is a team sport and having a game plan to empower and harness the skills and passion of your people will help set you on the road to success. 

James is director of digital services at Ness Digital Engineering. He has led strategic and creative initiatives across industries, working with startups and established companies to make digital innovation systematic in their business.


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