Empowering High Performing Product Teams

Empowering your Product Teams: How and Why You Should Empower your Product Team

Empowerment is a word that seems to be thrown around to try and motivate Product teams, when in reality many use it as a management buzzword. True empowerment can help shape and drive high performing product teams and encourage the fast delivery of great products and services. Recently I spoke to Prasad Gupte (Director of Product at Babbel), and Daniel Burckhardt (Former Head of Product) about what it takes to be successful as a Leader within the Product Space. One of the topics both leaders alluded to was the importance of empowering your product teams. So given that this was a topic both Prasad and Daniel brought up, I wanted to explore the topic further to find out more about why and how to create empowered Product teams.

Why are Empowered Product Teams Important?

I recently read a quote that said “great product teams are made of ordinary people who are empowered and inspired” which to me means that in order to build great teams, you need to hire people with the competence and character for the role, and then provide them with the resources they need to excel and solve problems, as well as a clear product vision, coaching and support. That’s really the equation for a great Product team, and empowerment is key to that. 

An empowered product team is a cross-functional team made up of product, design, and engineering who focus on solving specific customer problems in a way that serves the business. Empowered teams are often much more motivated, customer-centric, faster, creative and innovative. Businesses with empowered Product teams will easily outperform competitors without empowered teams in terms of speed, quality, agility, adaptability, creativity, and innovation.
Motivating Product Teams: Intrinsic Motivation and Empowerment

Daniel Pink lists three key elements for intrinsic motivation in his book Drive which are: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If these three elements are all present you should have an empowered Product team who are engaged and stimulated to deliver their best work. These three pillars are all present and encouraged in empowered product teams. Often the most important pillar is seen as autonomy. 

Product leaders can give their teams autonomy by enabling them to make decisions about what they want to work on, what needs to be worked on first, and how to work on it. Marty Cagan, Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group explains that “the litmus test for empowerment is that the team is able to decide the best way to solve the problems they have been assigned.” For this to happen, managers must be confident and secure enough to take a step back and provide resources and guidance to their teams to action their ideas. This creates a sense of belonging, loyalty, and investment in the product and business. Giving team members autonomy usually results in higher job satisfaction and better performance. Daniel Burckhardt adds to this by saying leaders should “talk about the importance of owning a problem. Let others know and equip them to do the same.”

On mastery, a Product leader should provide tasks to people that challenge and stretch them, whilst proving the correct tools and support to enable to them to foster improvement and growth. Simply giving someone tasks that completely match a person’s current skills will cause stagnation and dissatisfaction, which then leads to disinterest and boredom. Mastery and autonomy both feed into purpose. Elizabeth Moss Kanter, Professor at Harvard Business School states that “people can be inspired to meet stretch goals and tackle impossible challenges if they care about the outcome.” Product leaders need to inspire their teams to be inspired by something bigger than themselves, whether that’s the mission statement, the vision, or the strategy, a leader needs to give their teams something to really invest in by connecting their work to people and values. This stems from being a great coach and source of knowledge and support. 

How to Empower Your Product Teams

Paint a Clear Picture of the Mountain

Richard Hackman, an organisational psychologist, found that showing the team the mountain you all need to climb and allowing them to choose the route up had the greatest success. Having a clear vision of the mountain makes it easier for Product teams to make effective decisions quickly and means that leaders don’t have to step in and make all the decisions. If teams know the mountain they are climbing they are able to understand the progress they are making, or if there is an obstacle in the way and they can therefore decide what steps can circumvent problems and get them closer to the top of the mountain. A clear vision from the start is imperative, as Prasad Gupte explains “Strategy (0.5 – 2 years) sets direction and choices while current guidance (quarterly) navigates ambiguity and changing realities”.

Set Clear Boundaries and Rules at the Beginning

By setting clear boundaries from the very start of a project, your team will feel confident and brave enough to push themselves to the very edge of the boundary line and therefore drive creativity, productivity and delivery. Teams without boundaries are often too fearful to try anything new because they don’t know if they can or should, or they are the opposite and push too far. Boundaries and rules enable teams to make complicated decisions quickly, and include things like prioritisation, stopping, instructions, coordination, and timing. Boundaries and rules sometimes change, however it’s always important to clearly communicate them to the full team. 

Encourage Learning & Development in your Product Team

Think out loud! As a product leader, share with your team how you investigate a problem and create a solution. If you make your problem-solving process clearly visible, your team will be able to learn and improve their own processes, thus encouraging constant learning and upskilling. The same goes for mistakes. If leaders are honest about their thought processes, their failures, and their mistakes, team members will feel psychologically safe and supported when they make mistakes. This will then mean that mistakes can be rectified and learned from at a faster pace. Empowered teams are teaching teams in that “personal development is a two-way street. Individuals commit to goals, and managers commit to creating opportunities to learn and practice the skill or behaviour.”

Managing an Empowered Product Team

As Daniel Burckhardt suggests, you should “be your teams’ biggest fan” and “connect the interests of various teams in the company” and Prasad presses the importance of complementing goals with opportunities in the team. Essentially as a leader you need to give your teams room to grow, progress and make decisions (even bad ones) so that their development is priority. An empowered team is more productive, creative, and invested in the work they do, and therefore will produce much better results.

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