Building a successful product team is difficult under the best of circumstances. Building one during a pandemic raises the level of difficulty by an order of magnitude. But it’s not impossible.
In early 2020, everything changed. For months now we’ve been scrambling, adapting to a new normal that none of us had the foresight to plan contingencies for. We’ve moved from a world of in-person collaboration to one that relies heavily on technology to keep the proverbial wheels turning.
The shift to an at-home workforce has brought with it the productivity you might expect when you strip away lengthy commutes and other inefficiencies. We’re left with an operation that’s run lean, on the back of technological solutions that push deliverables out the door in a matter of weeks, not months.
Traits of a Team That Can Weather the Storm
Now that digital transformation is no longer optional, a digital-first product team isn’t either. These digital natives were nice to have before, but in a world driven by Zoom meetings, Slack and Google Docs, they’re essential. Entire operations, quite literally, could fall apart without them. Without a doubt, a good product team starts with a good leader, and that leader these days needs a firm grasp on the tech challenges faced by their teams and the solutions that keep every part of the business moving in times of uncertainty.
But it’s not just technology. The DNA of the perfect product person starts with curiosity, an ability to poke and prod and find inefficiencies by asking the right questions and always seeking a better solution.
They should also have a growth mindset. An effective product person is always pushing the limits. It’s this ambition, this desire to keep moving forward regardless of the current situation, that often moves an entire team to keep up or risk getting left behind.
They aren’t followers. The ideal product person is willing to argue against a decision that the rest of the room agrees with. They stand their ground and explain their thinking in a way that’s productive and respectful. They might not be the typical extrovert, the person always willing to step up and lead, but when they speak up, their words have purpose. These types don’t follow orders blindly; they question them, looking not only at the task but also the desired outcome, in an effort to find a better way. “Because we’ve always done it that way” falls on deaf ears, as these types understand that what brings you success rarely keeps you on top without the ability to adapt and evolve.
The Collective Consciousness Inherent to a Product Team
It’s important to zoom out and remember that a great product team is about more than a group of individuals. When done right, it’s a collective that moves as one. Individual achievements become all but meaningless and the focus is always on the team.
This really boils down to culture. While a product leader chooses the shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes and knowledge that make up the team’s identity and work ethic, it is only the team that can internalize this collective consciousness and make the desired culture a reality. This is why one person can so easily make or break a team, so ensuring a good culture fit becomes the gel that holds the entire thing together.
For the most part, product teams need individuals that are team-oriented, individuals that care about propelling the team forward rather than just achieving individual goals. Understanding is everything, and an empathetic individual understands not only their own struggles but the challenges faced by those around them. The importance of these individuals cannot be overstated, not only for the culture of the team but that of the company as well.
Last, but not least, we look for people who make good decisions. This doesn’t mean they always make the correct decision. They are human, after all, but they are decisive in their decision-making and willing to take responsibility for decisions that go wrong. We don’t typically see the results of these decisions right away. Often, they play out several months, or even years, down the line. But we have to know that the person making these decisions is capable of weighing all the options, seeing all the angles and being decisive when called upon. This is particularly true at the senior level, the driving force of the team’s decision-making capabilities.
Culture starts from within, and though teams are of the utmost importance, they are composed of individuals. If we were to build a product team in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, we could do worse than identifying these characteristics in each member. One individual could propel the team to new heights or serve as a speed bump on the road to success.