Innovators

Future-proofing your product strategy with adaptive teams

Tanya Cordrey Product & Growth Advisor; Former Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News & Media

Do you ever feel, as a product leader, that you’re unpopular in your company?

Having worked with many product leaders over the past 20 years, I’ve repeatedly heard that balancing the needs of users, engineering teams and the business—all while building a successful product function that drives innovation—is tough.

A product manager’s job is inevitably going to make them unpopular at times, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The role requires you to balance business needs and user needs—you simply cannot make everybody happy all the time. But how do product managers know they’re bumping up against normal day-to-day resistance versus creating bigger problems?

Many product managers come in fully intending to transform the business, but too often they struggle to properly engage with other teams and to evangelize product management as a function, which in turn causes innovation to come to a standstill.

The reality is that companies can’t afford to hit the brakes on innovation at any point—they should be accelerating on the execution of their roadmap to set themselves up for future success. 

That’s why I developed a new model for product-led engagement based on building adaptive product teams that, by definition, adjust their actions and behaviors to the organizational context. Below, I’m sharing some guiding principles to help teams move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to product strategy. 

Lifting & shifting: the common pitfall of product teams

Building a product-led culture that delivers innovation at a fast pace requires an acknowledgment that every organization is different.

For organizations that aren’t digital natives (e.g., those in automotive or field insurance), a new product function can impose a heavy cognitive load on other teams. I’ve observed this first hand in many legacy companies that became completely stifled by a new product strategy that was perceived as a threat to the existing culture. 

Though product teams often don’t realize there’s a misalignment with the larger organization, there are some clear warning signs that indicate an approach isn’t working—for example, the addition of unnecessary governance, or endless debates about methodologies.

Whether product teams aren’t taking the time to explain what their role is, or they simply don’t respect the current organizational setup, introducing a new approach can make other teams uncomfortable to the point that it creates more silos, and damages future-proofing efforts. 

Enter the adaptive approach.

Engage differently with an adaptive approach  

An adaptive framework ultimately supports a healthy operating model that prepares organizations for the future.

The objective of this framework is to apply the appropriate behaviors to the right type of product team, allowing them to adopt a more bespoke approach to how they work with the rest of the business.

  • Analyze your product operation and its gaps: as a general rule, product teams can be broken down into four categories based on how close they are to the customer, and how much they are the actual product as opposed to simply representing it (see chart below).
  • Apply the right adaptive attributes to each group: once you’ve identified the features that best represent your team’s current behavior, you can correct your trajectory to start building a product-centric culture focused on future growth.

The 3 virtues of adaptive teams

Along with the ability to adjust core behaviors to the organizational context, adaptive product teams share three attributes that enable them to be more successful in how they operate and engage. 

1. They spend more time on strategy, and less on execution

A lot of CEOs tell me they’re frustrated because their product teams are stuck in a cycle of optimization and are not being strategic or innovative as a result.

One company I worked with became so obsessed with constantly talking to users (which is, of course, critical) that they stopped delivering on their main purpose: shipping code! They were so keen to show they’d made a difference that they forgot about the importance of building a great product.

If left unchecked, too much optimization can kill innovation.

The truth is: you’re never going to future-proof your organization if you’re not looking at great opportunities through a strategic lens. Spending as little as 10 percent of your time thinking about strategy will enable you to start delivering where your expertise as a product leader is really needed—and have a bigger role in shaping the company’s future. 

2. They’re nimble

Don’t become obsessed with the process, methodology, or framework. It’s only there to help you understand the context and support your actions.

The natural tendency to be binary or overly prescriptive, or to brush aside opinions under the guise of process will only result in a lack of engagement. More governance does not always lead to better outcomes, so strive to adapt the process to fit the environment and the needs of your organization.

Simply making an effort to listen and understand the context of your organization makes a significant difference in how you operate as a product team. Great product managers always want to learn, and are open to feedback.

And remember—use common sense. It’s the most important skill in a product manager’s toolkit.

3. They share goals, and communicate them regularly

Too often, teams are left in isolation to develop their own objectives and key results, but product and engineering leaders should demand shared goals to push them in the same direction.

Making sure your operating model clearly outlines your strategy is absolutely essential, and should be fueled by your overall vision and objectives. This is especially true if you belong to the Product Thought Leaders category, where thinking about the future is your main priority.

Many product leaders I’ve worked with are woeful at thinking about communication, and see it as a nice-to-have. But being a proactive communicator is the most effective way to engage with your peers, reduce cognitive load, and align everybody to your goals. I include this skill as a requirement in job specs and have a constant dialogue, especially in 1:1 check-ins, about how team members are communicating. 

Prepare for the future now

While product roles haven’t changed much over the last 10 years, ways of working are massively different.

We’ve moved from waterfall to agile project methodologies; “scrum” is a common word even amongst business teams; and with remote or virtual working now being the norm across global organizations, product managers are further removed from their stakeholders. 

With the emergence of adaptive patterns, I’m expecting another wave of change in which product innovation no longer comes solely from product teams, but, with the right product-centric culture, is driven by different roles across the business. 

In practice, this means that team make-up is likely to evolve—we may not always need a product manager to design a product, or an engineer to build it.

The sooner we start embedding the concept of adaptive product teams into our ways of working, the more prepared we’ll be to adapt product strategies to the ways of the future.

About Tanya Cordrey

In her 20 years in the product space, Tanya has worked within product organizations of all stripes. Her unique mix of experience—which includes serving on the board of Schibsted; acting as Chief Digital Officer at The Guardian News and Media; and launching fixed pricing for eBay—has enabled her to think differently about what it takes to bring product centricity and data to the forefront. Now a partner at AKF Partners, a consulting firm made up of world-class technology experts, Tanya helps clients transform their business by driving product-led change and leveraging new technologies and emerging platforms for growth.

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