Joseph Darkins is the Head of Digital at JLL. He is responsible for large development, land deals and consultancy sales advisory in capital markets.

This article is adapted from Joseph's talk at the Product-Led World, London 2017.

"Your challenge is to build an effective product team. Easy, right?

You define your vision, hire some kick-ass Product Managers. Set your KPIs and your OKRs. Your customers grow and grow, they love your product. Job done.

‘That's it guys. Great work. We're happy! Let's head to the pub.’

Some books might have told you that's typically the way things go. But, I'm afraid to break it to you, it's much more complex than that.

Product is really hard. Companies are really complicated. And, product doesn't exist within a vacuum within an organisation. We need to interface with different people. And we need to interface with different departments. Not just marketing, not just sales, not just IT,  but there's a whole host of different people that you need to work with.  

So, let's try again.

Your challenge is to build a kick-ass product team. The process of building this is like cooking a lovely Christmas dinner.

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You've got all sorts of different dishes you need to deal with all at once. Everything's got a different timer, things are cooked in different ways. But, at the end of the day, you've got this one product that you're trying to serve up.

This is exactly the same with building products. You've got to be able to spin lots of plates in order to be able to deliver a fantastic and effective new product team.

First things first, Startups or Corporates?

This will affect your experience as PM significantly and will impact the type of team you want to build and the type of people you want to hire.

Startups

The bridges are smaller but you have to build them yourself. I've been in 20 person teams where we're all working in the same room. You can really galvanize and change the organization quickly. Roles are less defined so you have more freedom.

Corporates

They've got quite a bit of money. And, they've got some established products already. You can just start adding to that scale even further.

People see corporates as more comfortable. But actually, the challenges are sometimes larger within corporate organizations because you've got a lot of legacy. You haven't got this fresh canvas that you can just begin to splatter paint on.

I wouldn't say either is right or wrong. But keep in mind the different challenges that come with them.

Understanding the business before building your team

This next step is key. As we established, it’s not as simple as 'just hiring.'

It'd be very easy for me to just open the checkbook and bring in a load of Product Managers and set them off to work.

You have to have a broad understanding of how the business functions before you can start to envision which people you will need and why.

If you immediately hire a hoard of PMs, they might arrive and have nothing to do, because there's not enough pre-existing product. Some of the support functions that you need might not be mature enough in order to be able to do the job at hand. The company might not even have products in the first place.

So, how can we start building out that foundation?

The trick is, do your research first.

Here are three key areas to look out for in a company before building a team:

1) Product Maturity

This might be hugely developed. Think Spotify, Google, Facebook.

They know exactly what product is and what Product Managers do. You talk to anybody in the company and they're aligned in their understanding. You can go on training courses, there's loads of documentation. This is all great.

On the other hand, it might be zero. The business has no idea what product is.

Here are some characteristics of different levels of product maturity.

Let's look at these headings in a bit more detail.

Product What?  

That's the first level of maturity. To put it plainly, they've got absolutely no idea.

Your challenge here is to teach people the value of product within an imperfect structure whilst also building a team. It's tricky.

The leadership might not have a clear vision. They've hired somebody in because they thought, 'Tech is doing great right now. Let's do some of that!'

They will not always be thinking about the larger picture. I can tell you now, this is a big challenge. And you might never pass this, because leadership buy-in is essential.

Product aspiration

This is where the leadership wants to move to product. They kind of 'get it' but they need somebody to help you through that journey.

This one's a nice one. And it provides really good personal growth for those who have moved from a very well defined product role who want to supercharge their career.

Here is where you will learn leadership because you have to put in the processes and you have to start understanding the problems of the organization. This will, in turn, navigate that whole business to be more product focused.

Product driven

Your challenge in a product driven company is to just help the pre-existing products already there. You're going to get stuck into your KPIs and your OKRs. You're going to hit growth. This is an easier ride.

2) Cultural maturity

In order to be able to build a really successful product team, you need trust, fail-fast empowerment and a precise customer focus. Basically, all the good stuff that we talk about in books that we rely on as Product Managers.

If you don't have that, I would advise you against going into that organization.

You're going to find it very hard pivoting an entire culture, as well as delivering the product. You might be fighting a battle that the rest of the company don't want you to fight.

3) Digital maturity

This very much still exists.

If you're going into areas where they don't have product, don't expect them to be Google or Facebook.

It can be very difficult migration into technology for some of these organizations. If you're moving outside of the high tech industry to start building out new product functions, they might not have platforms to build anything on.

I'll walk in there and they'll say 'Yeah, we just use email and Excel.'

So, I can't really build any software platforms.

Then they drop, 'We also don't have any developers.' Okay, great.

You're really building things from the ground up.

That's also going to determine how you're going to flesh out your product team. You don't want to hire sales and marketing focused Product Managers when they haven't got anything sell to the market.

You'll need to hire more technical Product Managers to kick you off the ground.

You're also going to have to hire flexible people. Ones who want to come along on a journey. You might not give them a product on day one. But you do give them an opportunity to make a difference.

With highly matured tech companies, your PMs will have their data teams, they'll have their information, they'll have the KPIs and know how to measure their success. You don't always have this luxury.

What next?

Ok, so you've got your role and you're beginning to understand more about the company and working on growing the right sort of people for your team.

Now, the real challenge is convincing the company how useful product-led growth can be, so you can be as productive as possible in your role.

You walk into the office,

'Hey, guys. In two years time, you'll have this awesome platform that we're going to build. Okay?.

Your leadership are thinking, 'I'm paying this guy right now, what's he doing?'

Get some quick wins over the line

You might have to break product process a little bit, you might have to deliver a few things quicker than you'd like to. But, you can get some very quick wins if you lean on your product knowledge of what you've delivered before.

Get a few of those under your belt and your leadership will say, 'that's worked really well, we've seen some great traction on those. We're going to give you a bit more money in order to do something a bit more strategic.'

But be sure to maintain your vision and sell it as hard as you can in the meantime.

What structure should your product team take?

It completely depends. Absolutely every single product is different.

Understand as much as possible about the product and digital maturity of the company, and define your vision before you've even started to think about how you can build out your product team. You've then got a stick in the sand you can start working towards.

You need to write down a list of everything to execute your strategy. In terms of hiring, just start grouping things together.  'Oh, I need a Business Analyst, I need a Project Manager'.

Identify the roles that you've got, and identify the team structure that you need to start building to execute.

You need to be able to prioritize according to your unique needs. Do you need UX or UI? Because you might not have any front end yet. Have you got a data science team? So, think about some of the priorities as well as you move forwards.

To Summarize

  • The complexity of building product teams depends on maturity.
  • Understand what you can influence to reach your vision.
  • Each product team is different. Ensure you are building based on indivdual needs.
  • Selling the product role is key. Show your passion and then deliver on this.

Keep these in mind, and happy building!