In all my years of working with product teams, I’ve found that the teams themselves are their worst enemy, not management, not their customers, not even limits on budgets or technology.  There are several team dynamics that contribute to compromising on the best possible outcome to make your product great.  Here are a few:

  • What’s Hot.  There are many “waves” of technology that become popular over time, like virtual reality or creating a social network. These are great technologies for sure, but are they great for your customers?  The best technology is not the hottest technology. The best tech is what your customers need to solve their problems.  No matter how low-tech your solution is, if it’s right for your customer, they’ll think it’s the best tech of all.
  • Group Think.  Sometimes ideas become popular within a group or corporate culture, and they become the “accepted way” of how things should be.
  • Not Speaking Up.  We’re all guilty of this as I’ve done it myself, and seen it on countless teams: everyone just wanting to get out of a meeting, and/or not rock the boat.  Best to do just do your part and go home, right?  No.  To truly make your product (and team) stand out, everyone must be passionate that the product is the right product for your customer, even if it means looking crazy.

In this article, I want to break down the Not Speaking Up phenomenon in more detail.  I’ve heard of manufacturing assembly lines where everyone on the line is given authority to stop the entire operation if something isn’t right.  On a product team, that may be drastic, but in principle everyone on the team should be equal in standing up for the customer.  If a person on the team has data from customers that can point to something that is desperately needed, or should be avoided, then team leads and management should pay attention and give ear to what the person has to say.  This is a critical part of a healthy team culture.

Let me tell you a story that indicates a common scenario.  We had feedback from previous releases that customers wanted what we called a “Big Back” feature to navigate throughout our product.  Typically, “Back” in software happens within a window, but customers were telling us that they often had so many windows open, that they needed the ability to go back not only within a window, but across windows.  We assigned a small team to address the issue and get back to the rest of the team with a solution.  However, after weeks of deliberation, they decided not to pursue the feature.  Why?  Well, one of the key developers didn’t think it was a good idea and thought it was too difficult to implement.  (There were other products that, indeed, had the feature so we knew it was possible.)  In the end, the customers suffered and didn’t get what they wanted and needed.  And in the process, the team members who worked on the designs for “Big Back” felt dejected and that they hadn’t been listened to, plunging morale into the toilet.  In the bigger picture, the team knew that implementing “Big Back” was the right decision, but no one wanted to fight the battle with the developer to get it done.  No one called B.S. (Barbara Streisand) on the developer, who was, frankly, being lazy.

The Navy Seals have a concept called “Extreme Ownership.”  This means that if the mission is failing, it falls on YOU, to fix it.  Don’t think that you don’t matter or can’t make a difference.  If you need to carry injured soldiers on your back by yourself, in the snow, under enemy fire, make it happen.  Because without YOU the mission will fail.  It’s this kind of ownership that is needed by everyone on a team, not just the powerful, the experts, management, or team leads.

Are you creating an environment that puts your customer first?  And are you enabling everyone on the team to be able to bring customer data to the table that says, “We need to address this”?  Once someone has done that, the team is on the hook.  You’re going to make a right decision for your customer or you’re not.  So, create the culture that allows for “speaking up” so that your customers can get the best product available.


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