How to Scale Product Teams for Empowerment & Impact?
5 November, 2021
Director of Product at Babbel
Scaling an organization calls for setting the stage that will enable your company to grow exponentially without being hampered. Our challenge was two-fold. First, we wanted to scale our product and engineering organization, not just in terms of people but also processes and culture. Specifically, we wanted to double the Product Management team I was leading; from 6 to 12 PMs, and eventually to 15.
Secondly, our new CPO joined us with whom we wanted to devise a product strategy and action it. The 6 teams we had initially owned specific features & surfaces, each with a solid backlog. Post scaling, we wanted to have 11 teams. This meant ensuring that they are working on the most meaningful user problems and not just owning features. But a couple of months into that setup we realized that the biggest leadership challenge was to define missions for each team so they could autonomously drive impact. Did setting 11 missions make sense? Of course, not.
Here’s what we did instead:
At first, I explored the customer journey, product surfaces, and underlying technology to identify areas of ownership for each of the 11 teams. However, the outcomes weren’t what we had hoped for from the additional capability. In retrospect, we had imagined that backlogs would split to match the newly formed teams. Since we also wanted to retain our unique culture, I explored our current ways of working and cross-functional collaboration by running a 2 week diary study with 2 teams to see how they collaborate cross-functionally, balance discovery & delivery and work towards achieving mission outcomes.
So, I proposed grouping teams into 3 areas along the customer journey. The first area focused on attracting and convincing new users to drive revenue & growth; followed by one helping users learn, get feedback and succeed to drive progress & retention; and lastly an area focussed on bringing them back to the product driving discovery & engagement. To bring various functions together, we set up a cross-functional council for each area to set goals and track progress. In addition to our company north star metric, we identified (in some cases, hypothesised) driver metrics to measure success so that each team was empowered to select opportunities they believed would drive expected outcomes.
Once we organized 11 teams along these 3 areas, I realised that leading 3 areas — without any leads or group managers — was a big ask to provide effective leadership. Especially in a functional setup that heavily relies on influence and often suffers from unclear accountability. I worked with the CPO and the CTO to rethink the leadership structure, and after speaking to peer companies came up with the idea of introducing tandem leadership for each area. This meant hiring 2 additional product directors so that each area had a Product & Engineering leader; a structure we could replicate from the C-level down to the teams for empowerment and autonomous missions.
- Hiring at scale doesn’t mean hiring in bulk. As a product leader, you need to understand skills that a particular team and mission needs in order to be successful. Not only does it help set expectations to evaluate profiles, it aligns with team purpose and elevates the overall capability of the team they’ll be part of.
- As you scale, be more self-aware of your potential. In the beginning, it may feel as though you can scale infinitely. If you hire talent for potential, you can only provide meaningful guidance and coaching to a limited number of people. To scale further, this talent must either advance quickly, or you must hire a competent next level to continue developing the team.
- Experiencing this evolution also uncovers expectations from your own role and uncovers areas in which you need to develop yourself to be an effective leader.
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