Stunting Greatness: Why expert product teams still fail
“Product-Market Fit” is the buzzword of today. The digital revolution is upon us and success is up for grabs for those companies that can just nail the product-market fit thing. Right?
The real truth: People get in the way of building great products.
Even companies with a great idea will get left behind. Great ideas go a long way, but long term success is never guaranteed. It’s people who fail to deliver greatness - then companies lose momentum and are left choking in the dust.
Leadership - The Make-Or-Break difference
There are many ways to skin a cat. Organization charts are wildly different across industries, but managers who have people report to them are present in every company on the planet. By default, they are “Team Leaders”.
“Leader” can be – and often IS – a complete empty, undeserved title. The gap between good and bad leaders is the most genuinely hyperbolic distinction in business. True leaders are superheroes of effectiveness, while substandard leaders cripple progress and unwittingly sabotage business results. It’s a binary difference. Effective leaders stand for something – holding values and specific business priorities as sacred – and subsequently act as role models, encouraging their team to do the same. They exude an attitude of success, create a culture of performance and inspire intrinsic motivation.
At TheoremOne, we’ve devoted serious intelligence to decoding the practical nuances that make heroic leadership happen in organizations. This article details three core principles that – when implemented – create leaders and teams who build incredible and successful products.
3 keys to avoiding software leadership disaster
Great leadership motivates a group of people around a specific purpose. It gets them excited about participating.
The actual spadework of doing the above happens when leaders ensure that politics, process and skills are optimal, intentional and consistent for all employees in the organization. When these three areas are given intelligent attention, they form the backbone of a culture of greatness.
Politics, process and skills will never be a topic of everyday conversation - they shouldn’t be. People need to focus on tasks at hand. The challenge is that these meta-dynamics can easily fall by the wayside. A ritual and habit within the organization needs to be established to check in. Leaders need to objectively discuss and modify these dynamics to bring them closer to ideal.
Here’s how to do it:
Dysfunctional office relationships spell disaster. Bad politics is cancer that destroys morale, ruins communication and paralyzes production. This can happen between large groups or at the micro level between individuals. The higher up the org chart the dysfunction exists, the worst the train-wreck.
The ultimate priority of (good) leaders is to seek out and resolve issues between teams and individuals. Every organization is unique and possesses similarly unique challenges, but a few guiding principles can be used in all cases:
- Be friendly and neutralize negativity
- Personally address undesireable behavior in a calm and respectful manner
- Participate in activities outside of typical work responsibilities
Staff need to enjoy their work atmosphere. Leaders need to nip problems in the bud and foster an environment where creativity can flourish.
Some personalities won’t be able to handle even this approach. Though they may be talented, they may have an unresolvable tendency to cause conflict. Employees of this kind are a risk and need to be carefully monitored. We suggest a cautious optimism though: Encountering resistance to efforts to curtail negative politics is an opportunity for growth - both on the employee’s part, and the leader himself.
One of the biggest challenges for executive leadership in technology companies is confusion and lack of insight into the day-to-day mechanics of process. This knowledge gap can be a death sentence to organizations.
The process for building software is constantly evolving. Teams must fully understand customer needs, be experts with technologies that are in constant flux AND function under deadlines requiring input from team members and stakeholders.
Team size is the variable with the single biggest impact on success. Small teams are in vogue for a reason. The catch is that they need to be empowered to make decisions. There is enormous pressure for a small team to deliver and adding the objective of “pleasing the higher ups” versus complete focus on building products customers love… will derail process.
Give the team a business strategy and let them execute.
Large organizations crawl through decision-making, design and delivery. Small teams are able to get into an agile state of “Flow” that is utterly inaccessible to large corporate teams obsessed with satisfying the agendas of every member on the org chart. Like professional athletes – and their teams – enter into a flow-state, an expert software team can do the same.
The idea of a professional sports team tasked with a requirement to consult with their executive management for in-game strategy decisions is preposterous, but this is precisely the approach most large organizations embrace when building technology products.
Beyond team size, several other factors make a huge difference. Techniques such as prototyping, lean methods of gathering customer insights and lightweight programming languages have allowed smart teams to accomplish tasks in cycles that were unforeseen just a few years ago. New tools that enhance communication and execution are being released constantly - the smart leader will make experimenting with such tools a priority.
Improving process through intelligent experimentation can completely break down when high level leaders lack expertise in their own domain. This grave capability gap puts product quality and project success at risk. At TheoremOne, we strongly believe that middle management needs to spend 25% of their time engaged in hands on project work. This goes a long way to closing the gap between executive leadership’s insight into what teams are doing, and why.
We definite “Skills” as the individuals competencies that enable them to expertly (or not) contribute to “Process”. An employee needs to have the expert skill to use the appropriate tool within a process or project. He needs to have the awareness to apply the right level of fidelity and the judgement for how much time should be spent on construction.
All employees should be dedicated to improving their own strengths and capabilities. Growth in craft, communication and organization are all critical priorities. When individuals are strengthened, the group moves with better dexterity. Leaders must be the driving force behind this focus.
Regrettably, most companies do little to foster a culture of skill-improvement. Indifference is the default - most organizations treat their employees as hired guns with fixed qualities of performance. This shallow approach perversely discourages employees from investing in a company’s success.
When an organization prioritizes employee growth, they instantly forge a culture and environment of growth. Employees feel cared for and get a sense their personal path matters. Retaining great talent hinges on creating and maintaining this focus for ambitious employees.
Even the task of recruiting new hires are not immune to the effects of skill-focused leadership. When it becomes an entrenched part of the company culture, employees will emphasize asking skill focused questions when interviewing new candidates. Prospective hires will be critiqued not just based on their resumé and advertised skills, but also their ambitions and plans for the short and medium term future. Their trajectory as individuals will be anticipated and invested in. Successful hiring will bring an abundance of talented folks who enrich and enhance the company culture – and bottom line results – over time.
Building a bulletproof organization
Unforeseen market conditions happen. So do competitors. Products fail for all sorts of reasons, but by tasking leaders with three priorities described in this article you can ensure your organization never fails because of internal dysfunction. Optimizing politics, processes and skills will give your company the best possible advantage in the ever-changing world of digital technology and innovation.