Billy Bean character in 2011 Moneyball (via Filmofilia)

The Dos and Don’ts of Leading Inherited Product Teams

Know Your Game Plan before Stepping into a New Locker-room

How do you Product Manage teams that know more about a product than you do?

When Product Managers inherit pre-existing products (whether it’s a change of company or an internal re-org) there are a lot of factors that need to be locked-down. Team Dynamics. Product Strategy. Performance Assessment Timelines.

Having a clear game plan in these situations can help you stay on the offensive, and not just feel you’re digging your product out of a hole. Below are some dos and don’ts I’ve picked up along the way after going through this process a number of times myself.

Game plans often need adjustments, but some truths remain constant and can be used to guide decisions as you move forward.

Do: Establish the Right KPI’s

Right as you step into a new product, figure out how the teams are measuring success.

How are we tracking performance? I’ve seen both extremes here. Teams that are drowning in data, and teams with no data at all. What’s the objective of your product? And what is the best metric to measure this objective? Getting to the right metric for your product is important.

I like Dave McClure’s Pirate Metrics, “AARRR!”, as well as Jonathan Kim’s refresher of the model.

What’re your retention metrics? You’re being judged on how much you’re moving it forward – it’s your responsibility to find the best way to measure success.

Define success for your product and illustrate that you’re doing a good job. This is your best chance to setup the goal posts–because if you don’t someone else will.

Don’t: Lead Blindly

Just as you shouldn’t blindly go along with whatever KPI’s were previously in use, you also want to avoid blindly doing what you think execs want you to do. Don’t build products without actively understanding why you’re building them.

Following orders without reason is not a strategy.

Analyze the issues your product is aiming to solve and make data-driven decisions. Read more on How to Say No to Your Boss in a previous post.

Do: Focus Your Strategy

Are the teams utilizing random, or no, feature prioritization? Are there disorganized backlogs? Is there a software methodology in place?

Whatever the current picture, these items need to be established from the outset.

Consider bringing in outside perspectives. Whether it’s a design consultant, or someone who can help to shape your strategy. It helps on multiple levels to seek fresh and objective approaches to the problems the team’s been living with for months or years. While you may be thought of as the “outside” perspective it may be more effective for you to facilitate that process and have an ally.

Seek to build a strategy that’s based on the objective of the product, and centered on customer needs.

An outsider’s perspective in Moneyball really helped Billy Bean (via Filmofilia)

Don’t: Think You Have Nothing but Time

People can tend to think too long-term in these situations. Deciding they need to completely redo the app. Start all over, in a new direction. Thinking, “it may take us a year and a half but it’s going to be worth it once we get there.”

Leaders often underestimate how much time they have. They take a long term, waterfall approach to rebooting the app of the team but fail to realize they need to produce results in the short-term in order to get to make it to those further-out time-frames.

The reality is, as a leader, you’re often judged much sooner than you’d like to be.

Do: Get Early Wins

It’s important to have a long-term strategy and make investments that are going to pay-off in the long run. But it’s also important to get some smaller wins under your belt along the way. Identify ways to move the product forward between now and the three month mark. Then again at the sixth month mark.

These may seem small, but it can signal to the rest of the organization: look, things are changing. Things are getting better. We’re making improvements.

Some of those early wins that you chose to go after can be useful teaching moments for your teams, and they can also buy you time to go after the goals you’ve set further-out. In business school a good deal of focus was spent on “change management” principles like those of John Kotter’s Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail [$] in the HBR. Around that time, I posted some thoughts on large company inertia on my website as well.

Don’t: Create Toxicity

It may sound obvious, but some leaders who step into an environment with poor cross-functional relations, see an opportunity to create camaraderie around their shared, negative sentiments. It’s “Us vs. Them”. Essentially fanning the flames of dysfunction and creating toxic cross-functional dynamics.

While this may create an instant gel around you and your team, it won’t pull the cross-functional teams together. And until you’re able to unpack that and create a collaborative environment amongst the other teams you have to work with, you’ll be drudging through a negative work environment.

Do: Get In-Tune with Team Dynamics

What’s going on? Are the different functional areas collaborating with each other?

When stepping in to manage a product team a couple years ago I found that Engineering, UX Design, and Product weren’t communicating. They were all completely silo’ed, which wasn’t helping the product. This is a good example of an instance where I brought in an outside perspective who was able to reboot everything and get it humming along. I was given a different area to manage after doing well with that team and to this date they’re still a well-functioning unit.

See what other dysfunctions there may be. Who’s getting in the way? Move them out of the team, or the company – quickly.

Who’s being undervalued? Find the diamond in the rough. Can they take on more responsibility?

Don’t: Think You Have All the Answers

Between implementing all your clever frameworks and reboots, don’t forget to listen to the team members.

Leaders seem especially prone to this mistake – failing to listen to the teams – when a product is failing and they step into fix it. It’s intuitive to think the quality of a product is reflective of the teams but sometimes this just couldn’t be further from the truth. Often you’ll find the team members themselves are frustrated with the product and have a pile of ideas that nobody seems to be listening to.

So listen.

If you were a coach stepping into to work in a new organization, you’d want to understand who your star players are. Who are the people that are going to be creating problems in the locker room? Who’s really talented but has a bad attitude? In sports though, the KPI’s are straightforward.

You’re judged on your wins. In Product, wins can be much more ambiguous. Getting clarity on what type of wins you and your teams should be going after will bring a lot more focus and success to your efforts.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera.