Every company is different when it comes to structuring a software product team.
Some businesses have a single person responsible for product while others have an entire product team complete with a chief product officer, a vice president of product, two directors and three product managers.
As an executive recruiter focused on product management for software start-ups, I talk with product leaders all day about their vision and the challenges they face while scaling organizations.
Then, I help these companies strategically build out their product teams.
In this article, I want to teach you how to strategically think about building balanced product teams.
The Two Types of Product Professionals
Typically, product professionals can be broken down into two types of people: those who are market-facing and those who are technical.
A market-facing product professional is attuned to the market. They tap into clients, prospects, the sales team and general market observations. They are usually forward-thinking and create the overall strategy and vision for the product.
The technical product professional works closely with engineering, development and design to define and help implement the technical steps needed to bring the product’s vision to life.
While there is often overlap between the two types, people in product usually gravitate toward one side. An ideal product team, however, has an even blend of market-facing and technical product people.
What Happens if a Team Doesn’t Have Balance?
Answer: You could fail to read the market properly, which could result in too much emphasis on feature building rather than addressing the real needs of the market, which could lead to building the wrong product.
According to a study, 49 percent of the product managers surveyed stated that the biggest challenge they face is the inability to carry out appropriate market research that validates whether the market needs the product they are building.
Conversely, there could be too much emphasis on the vision without a concrete execution plan.
Either scenario can frustrate the team and those around it, possibly reducing morale and increasing turnover.
How to Create Balance
Good product leaders mitigate these risks by first analyzing their own strengths and weaknesses and those of the team and then filling in the gaps accordingly.
For example, if a company has a director of product with a deep technical background but little experience on the market-facing side, adding a product marketing manager might be a good counterbalance.
On the flip side, if the company has a chief product officer with a deep technical background, it may want to bring on a few product folks who are more strategic and market-facing.
While this sounds straightforward, building the right product team may require some trial and error. Inevitably, a team will evolve as its team members grow and progress in their careers.
Prepare to Pivot
Your role may also change. For example, you could have a technical background but move into a strategic role over time.
Similarly, the composition of your team may change as the company scales and the market matures.
What you need today could look different from what you need in 6 or 12 months. Finding the harmonic balance between market-facing and technical product professionals is the ideal state, not a goal that can be achieved overnight.
For software start-ups, the biggest hurdle in building the right team is a lack of resources. Maybe a company needs two product managers, but it only has the resources to hire one because it is waiting for the next round of funding. It is best to play on the strengths of others to help bring the product to the next level.
“Amalgam Rx”: A Balanced Team Ready for Anything
One of my clients, Amalgam Rx, is a small and growing healthcare software company. Amalgam’s scrum team is cross-functional with leads from each discipline. For example, client leads manage Amalgam’s clients, a development lead is over-engineering, a project lead is the scrum master, etc.
The client lead is 100% customer-facing. They listen to the customer to determine Desired Outcomes (i.e., the “why,” not the “what”) and share that as a possible Opportunity (problem to be solved) with development and UX. Development creates Solutions to problems. UX does both: they capture “whys” and create UI Solutions. Amalgam uses Teresa Torres’ “Opportunity Solution Tree” to keep Desired Outcomes, Opportunities, and Solutions clear and distinct. This is helpful because clients often approach them in the reverse order, starting with, “I want you to build this for me.”
An example of how they’ve maintained balance across their team is illustrated in a quick, six-month transition from being a scrappy start-up, focusing on getting a proof of concept (POC) into a market, to a small growth company managing many possible opportunities.
“We switched from Development engaging directly with client users to optimize the ‘whats’ of the POC, to engaging with clients using our new cross-functional way of working (WoW). A key moment came when our Client Manager explained our WoW to our #1 client. Instead of pushing back, the client saw it as a step forward and requested a copy of the process. They now actively support its use among their users” – Jay Butterbrodt, Head of Product at Amalgam Rx
Achieving a company’s long-term goals might take time but focus on a well-balanced Product team is one of the surest ways to get there.