Hallway Studio

February 13, 2018

A few weeks ago I met with the product and design team members from a big company. I asked them what they were driving towards. Their first answer was to say they need reduce the metric for the amount and effort a customer needed to put in to make a purchase. After doing some work and some digging, the truth came out. The metric was important but what really mattered was the opinion of the team leader.

I was meeting with a devout agileist about plans for this year. I asked about about the goals and strategy. What I heard was about the process and practices of the team. I tried a few more times to redirect towards strategy and never heard what it was.

There is a gap in product leadership today. It’s slowing down teams, reducing morale and putting a damper on innovation.

Some leaders care a lot about the WHAT, what it looks like, what the feature is, what’s included in and out of a release. They hold all the decision-making close causing teams to idle without their input because they are afraid of making the wrong choice and being punished.

Some leaders care a lot about the HOW, they focus on methodology, the process or the practices. They are devoted to agile, lean or design thinking and believe that alone will guide the team. Their teams follow the process dutifully and make incremental improvements because they don’t have the context to drive them further.

Other leaders talk about WHERE we are going as a team and as a company. They tell the team what mountain we’re climbing and what it looks like from the top. These leaders talk about what problems they solve for customers, what value they create for the business and how the company will grow. They know that they are going to get things wrong and constant adjustments are needed but it doesn’t scare them off.

They talk about WHY the climb is worth the effort and how it will serve customers, better the product and grow the company. The team can tell you why they are working hard, they see themselves as part of something bigger and not just instruments of an executives whim.

These leaders empower teams to do the planning and execution of the climb. They support and guide the team, they don’t dictate. They encourage the team to minimize time to value and make small bets. They allow everyone to bring ideas to the table while also being unafraid to force decisions when the team gets stuck in a loop.

These leaders inspire and motivate. They allow their teams to be creative, take risks and learn quickly. People join the team not just because of the salary and benefits but because they buy into the vision.

The leadership gap in product development is large. On one side are leaders focused on execution who are unwilling or unable to paint the vision, so they control the output because it’s easier. On the other side are leaders who take a risk by pointing up and challenging their team to join them on the climb. Which one are you?

Image: The Great Wall of Badaling outside of Beijing that I edited using Polarr Photo Editor

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