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The Team is the Product

Ryan Frederick | July 2nd, 2020

Every product is a reflection of the team that creates it. We spend a lot of time in product paying attention to tools, processes, and methodologies and not enough time focused on the makeup, perspective, and culture of product teams.

Anything that gets created — a movie, a book, a song, a piece of art, a building — is impacted by and is a tangible manifestation of the creator(s). The end product captures the imagination, expertise, experience, and biases of the creator(s). Digital products are no different, yet we often lose sight of this and focus too much on everything but the team. The team is the product. The two are inseparable, just as an artist can’t be separated from a piece of art they create.

We attempt to drive the human complication and imperfection out of digital products even though these human aspects are revered in other creative endeavors. Creating a digital product is still, and should remain, a creative endeavor guided by and supported by principles of doing it well and successfully. Just as songwriters write songs based in principles of what makes a song enjoyable and successful. Just as the director of a movie leverages successful movie making principles to create a movie people want to watch and enjoy. Principles as part of a creative process help to foster creativity as it allows the creators to create on a foundation of success.

AWH is a professional services firm, and because in most cases we don’t sell a product (we are a Partner with some product companies), our team is our product. This is also true for product companies though. A product and the team that creates the product are inseparable. This, of course, can be good or bad. A committed and capable team that understands the problem well has a chance to build a great and successful product. The opposite is also true.

The product itself can display whether the team that created it was collaborative or combative. Whether the team understood the problem before creating or started solutioning too early, whether the team is a skilled group of craftspeople or making things up as they go. Every product is a direct result of the team that created it.

The best products are created by the best team and even more specifically the best team for that product. What does the best team for a product look like? Here are some attributes:

  • Committed: The product team is committed to solving the problem the product intends to solve and for the users of the product to receive value and have an improved life for using the product.
  • Capable: The product team is uniquely qualified and skilled to create a product that solves the problem in a valuable way using a combination of problem knowledge, design and development skills. Be mindful though that the best developers and designers from an individual skill perspective might not make the best members for a particular product team. Being skillful is a key aspect, but a highly skilled, egomaniac is not going to be a great team member and is not going to help a team create a great product.
  • Culture: The product team checks their respective egos at the door and work in the best interest of the problem, users, and the product. The product team is supportive and empathetic with each other and users. It’s also important to understand the company’s culture and the product team’s culture as the team will have to operate inside of them for better or worse. Some product cultures include data driven, design driven, development driven, brand driven, and more.
  • Communication: The product team communicates with candor, authenticity, and transparency so there are no hidden agendas or politics as part of the product creation process. Everyone as part of the team is valued equally and has an equal voice.
  • Diversity: The product team is made up of team members with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Every product deserves to be created through as many different viewpoints as possible to best serve users of varying backgrounds and perspectives. Product teams need to reflect the diversity of a product’s user community and resonate with, and be valued by, as many users as possible. The best products are an amalgamation of many informed but different perspectives.
  • Collaboration: The product team needs to be able to collaborate easily and effectively to be able to move and operate as efficiently and productively as possible. Product teams need to be able to iterate quickly and operate with on overall sense of speed and urgency. This can’t happen if a product team isn’t able to work well together. Fast decision making and effective prioritization make are required of every successful product team making collaboration of utmost importance.

Investors invest in the team more than a product or problem and it’s because they know the team means everything to building the best product and company. It means the environment and culture in which a product gets created dramatically impacts the effectiveness of the team and the value of the product. Products that get created through undue contention and turmoil display that. Products that get created through highly skilled and highly collaborative teams also reflect it.

Products are a mirror of the team. It’s easy to tell when you start to use a product what the product team valued and was good at. Product teams that are unbalanced and that favor one thing over another, like development over design for example, will produce a product that embodies this. A successful product team and product must balance and respect all aspects of a product and the product creation process.

Companies from startups to enterprises need to give much more thought and attention to who is part of a product team, what the product culture of the company and team is, and how well a product team is performing together, rather than what the tools, processes and methodologies are. Sure, the people part is messier and more complex than just picking tools, creating processes, and implementing methodologies, but they don’t compare from an importance and value perspective. The tools, processes, and methodologies help a great product team to work faster and better, but these things will not make an average product team great. Great product teams have been building great products long before some of the current tools, processes, and methodologies existed. In fact, many of the current tools, processes, and methodologies were created by these great product teams improving the way they worked. It is unlikely a bad and dysfunctional product team ever created a tool, process, or methodology to perform better at creating great products. It just doesn’t work like that.

A product is a tangible thing that users get to interact with, use, enjoy, and get value from and it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a product is the outcome a team of professionals that put their hearts, minds, and hands to work to make it happen. Great products should be revered and honored, but the people and teams that made them should be held in higher regard because without them, there are no great products.