The Secret To Product Growth is Your People

Caz Brett

Director of Product Management at smartsheet


The Two Key Parts of Scaling a Product Team

When growing a product team, you need to consider two things: the product, and the people. You can grow one, or you can grow both at the same time. Many leaders focus on the people, and hire a lot of new team members without scaling the product. This often leads to an influx of ideas but can undermine direction. I believe that the best way to grow a product team is to scale both areas in parallel, with careful consideration.

How Do You Hire the Right People?

Although sustainable growth requires both areas, anyone who has scaled a team successfully will know that 90% of the work when scaling is about the people. However, product leaders have to be really careful about hiring too quickly. Velocity comes into play at this point, as product success needs sustainable growth based on consistent pace and a direction of travel. Who you have on your team has a huge impact on your scaling capability.

Hire at the right level: It’s important to gauge where your team stands and understand whether you are ready to hire. If you are, consider what level you hire at. Junior product managers are eager to learn, but it will take a significant amount of time to bring them up to speed. While they’re playing catch-up, product growth will slow, and your team are likely to miss targets.

On the other hand, bringing in very senior product managers that are established in their field has its drawbacks as well. These individuals will be comfortable working in a certain way, and they will want to replicate that. They will have a preference for tools, methods and techniques. In my experience, senior hires struggle in high-growth teams when the environment may not allow them to work within their comfort zone, which may cause frustration and tension. As they focus on process and handle change, your product growth is likely to slow.

Balance visionaries and realists: Product management doesn’t need somebody that can do absolutely everything. It needs someone who can balance product thinking (the “why” approach) with delivery thinking (how to implement and deliver the product). You will need more of one than the other depending on your product and existing team. The drawbacks are clear for both sides: creative thinkers may lack execution for their products, and delivery thinkers may not be able to find root problems and further your vision.

Finding the talent: Once you know what type of candidate you’re looking for, the challenge is to find them. One option is to reach out to your network, although I would caution that your network is limited, and often is filled with people that are similar to you. Humans love hanging out with people who are just like them, and often avoid people who aren’t - something called the Affinity Bias. Candidates brought on simply by hiring from your immediate network often don’t challenge leadership or product ideas as they don’t want to rock the boat. The better option is to leverage a diverse pipeline for hiring candidates. This is really difficult, and it’s best to work with your company recruiter or talent acquisition leads to identify solid strategies for hiring great talent.

How to Structure a Scaling Team

In periods of growth, many teams make the mistake of structuring things wrong at first, thinking they can change it later. Taking advice from Melvin Conway: there’s a close relationship between the structure of the product and the structure of the team that creates it.

Cell Division: My preference, and how I’ve scaled a team before, is to build one small team and then continue to expand. Once that team gets to a certain point, you’re able to take the knowledge and good practices from that team and separate it into multiple squads (similarly to cell division).

Empower Your People: Don’t make the mistake of creating towers within your team. The most effective way to unlock growth is to empower your teams to work on the product end-to-end, with a cross-functional team of product, engineering and design. Provide ownership and space to try out new things. These squads, or cells, can collaborate and work together on problems, unblocking themselves and seeing things through to completion.

Avoid creating a batch environment where work can get stuck with one team, preventing another from being able to deliver. This encourages resentment and an us versus them culture. Not only will this make it harder to scale, it’s not something you’d even want to scale.

Bring in Fresh Perspectives: At the point your team is growing and operating effectively, I recommend introducing juniors to the team. You will better understand the structure, growth, and team direction and that’s the perfect opportunity to bring in new ideas. Juniors introduce energy and change to the team, which may be useful once your growth is sustainable. Be open to the change, and use it as an opportunity to assess your product and processes.

I believe that the end goal for a scaling product team should be bringing in juniors and offering them career progression within that team, integrating them with the existing model to nurture and retain them. However, this is only achievable once you’ve reached sustainable growth and pace, and built a culture of empowered product teams.

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Caz Brett

Director of Product Management at smartsheet

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