How To Keep Your Product Team

How To Keep Your Product Team

It may seem unusual for a recruiter to be advising you on how to keep your team, but part of our company ethos is to help build product development teams, and as with any structure, the foundations must be solid if you want to build something solid.

You may be asking yourself, “what does a product recruiter know about building strong product teams?”. Fair question. I’ve never built a product team internally, nor have I been part of a business that’s had to do it. However, since 2009 (when people thought product was another name for project), I’ve worked with an array of companies to educate them on the best ways of building product teams, as well as helping them find the right talent.

Knowit do this by attending and sponsoring events as well as continuously building out our network. In short, we build relationships with people who are not always looking to leave, but if the right thing came up, they would want to know about it. In turn, this has given me a very good insight in to what frustrates product people. Patterns and commonalities begin to emerge.

In a growing digital world, the demand for talent is more competitive than the Champions League. Why? The first reason is that it’s no longer just the large digital businesses requiring talent. Over the last 10 years, the investment in start-ups by VC’s has dramatically increased and large companies who are transforming are also investing in building their digital capability.

Businesses in pharmaceuticals, banking, broadcasting, retail, media (I could go on) are all investing substantial amounts of money in to growing their digital presence and using technology to become more efficient.   However, the UK isn’t producing developers, UX or product people fast enough.

Another factor is the competition the UK faces from other cities. Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Australia have all got amazing tech companies and are making it easier than ever for talented people to move over. The effect of all of this, is a smaller talent pool, increasing salaries and more options for people in Product Development teams. Whether you like it or not, your team are probably being contacted about other opportunities on a daily basis.

A response to this could be, “well, that’s just the way the market is moving and if we lose people, we’ll just hire some more.” This is ludicrous. A cohesive and aligned product development team is potentially worth billions.  Not only is it financially beneficial for the company, because they won’t have to pay to replace people, lose the vital knowledge and spend time getting someone else up to speed, but a team that has been with a business for a longer period of time will understand their:

  • Customers
  • Culture
  • Values
  • Methodology
  • Industry
  • Regulations they may have to work within
  • Tech stack

…and because of this, they will ultimately be able to deliver better products faster than their competitors.

There are some obvious reasons why people would want to leave a business, such as salaries remaining stagnant, a lack of progression or there is one or two people in the office who make everyone’s lives miserable. These are common issues within any business and most leadership teams are comfortable in dealing with these issues. (If you do want advice on what the market rate is for Product, Engineering or Design people, get in touch and I’d be happy to help) otherwise here are 9 ways that I believe will help retain and develop your product development teams.

1. Develop Mastery

People always want to feel like they’re learning and becoming better at what they do. Implementing continuous training (internal and external), sending teams on courses and community events are all going to improve team morale and skill level which not only benefit them but the business as well.

2. Create a better work-life balance

This has become more prevalent over the last five years. Companies are offering benefits other than cash, such as remote working, work from home, charity days and the ability to be flexible. Work and personal lives are no longer separated and you’re more likely to get a happier and more productive team if you can provide some of these.

Also, entertaining teams is a cost effective way to keep them happy. Social events on a Friday, creating hackathons or surprising them with a day out of the office doing a fun activity can create a spike in productivity and morale. Our team at Knowit may be a little spoiled, but we’ve held incentives to take them to Barcelona, Lisbon and they’ve recently just got back from Las Vegas. I’m confident they enjoyed the trips but there is now a deeper camaraderie between them and it makes coming to work fun.

3. Make sure there is alignment in the leadership team

It’s not uncommon that the C-Suite are not aligned in their vision or communication for the product. However, this creates tension and consistent changes to the product roadmap.  This is extremely frustrating for product development teams because the ideas or features they are creating are never launched and are ultimately waste time and resources. The effect is that the team feels like they are not achieving anything.

4. Let them experiment

A lot of companies do not let their product development teams try new things. They need to follow the vision of the C-Suite and if they divert from it, there are consequences.  There is nothing wrong with this approach however it’s important to understand this before a team is built. If this approach is the desired outcome for the leadership team, a solution could be to take on an external development team for a fraction of the price and a project manager, but if the leadership team is looking to build an awesome product development team, then a change to the approach needs to be made.

Part of a product development teams job is to come up with ideas, test and improve them. It’s extremely unlikely that all ideas will work so there needs to be an understanding that the team are likely to fail at certain points.  The team need to be encouraged to learn from each step and take it forward, ultimately leading to a better outcome for your product.

5. Psychological safety

This follows on from the previous point but creating a culture where people are encouraged to bring ideas forward and test them will not only create a happier team, but it could also create a huge new revenue stream. An example of this is Charlie Ward, who was a software developer at Amazon and came up with the idea for Prime which is now one of the largest products for Amazon.  Another company that does this well is Google. Ambitious OKR’s are set by every level from the founders and management all the way down. They set out what they want to test in the next quarter, highlight where they have failed and what they have learnt from the previous one. Seeing the leadership team fail at some of their OKR’s gives the psychological safety that’s required to experiment and bring ideas forward.  Another approach is to create a framework to ensure ideas that are brought forward are thought through and are good enough to test…

6. Speed and autonomy

The speed at which products are delivered and launched is important.  This doesn’t mean that launching every day or every week is a must, however, taking 3 months to sign off a small change to a product that has already been shown to be beneficial, should be reviewed.  Teams need to be given a level of autonomy to do what they think is right. This depends on the level of trust from the leadership team. If there isn’t the level required to make autonomous decisions, there is a bigger problem.  Transferwise are a fantastic example of a business that has completely autonomous product teams and they haven’t done too bad!

7. Help them achieve their career goals

Only a fraction of people have thought about where they want to be in the future.  A proven technique which is talked about in Reid Hoffman’s book, The Alliance, is to sit with each member of a team and ask them to think about a five and 10 year plan for their career.  Together, identify the gaps in their knowledge, experience and what is required for them to reach their goal. Once this is done, create a timeline for the individual to work towards and highlight how the role you have offered them will assist them.  People are driven by forward momentum towards a goal and in the end, not only will you have a more educated and driven team, but a team that is more likely to turn down that £10k pay increase at another company because they will see the value in where they are.

8. Have a purpose and clear vision

People today are far more emotionally driven than the last generation. They want to do good in the world and you need to make sure you have defined a purpose.  Purpose driven organisations are far more likely to succeed – and this is exemplified by the work of Jim Collins (Good to Great) and Dan Pink (Drive). Once you have found a purpose that is authentic and transcendent – it deeply impacts the whole organisation – and will naturally resonates with you and your team. Purpose also inspires a deeper and more aligned vision – which should then be communicated clearly to your team.  Let them know where you want to be as a business and make sure they feel like they all have an integral part of getting there. However, this should not be a one time thing. This is something that you should reiterate every day, week and month.

9. Get out of the way

This came up a few times at a roundtable event that Knowit ran with Product Directors.  If a company purpose and vision has been laid out, the team will be able to align the product strategy with it.  The management team should get out of the way.  These teams are generally paid very well to build products and they should have far more experience doing it than most, if not all of the leadership team.  Setting up “Show and Tell” days at the end of the month allow the whole business to be aware of what changes are happening and what problems are being tackled. It’s also a great way for the leadership team to get monthly updates.  Another way the leadership team could get involved, would be to join a stand-up. This is a good way to see the dynamic of the team and understand if they’re on track, but it’s extremely important that the leadership observe as much as possible and try not to give their thoughts in the meeting.

Employee retention is critical to the long-term health and success of businesses and failing to retain key employees will be costly to the bottom line and will create organisational issues.  A long-term commitment requires effort in both directions – if a company expects employees to make and keep a long-term commitment to the company, it’s equally vital that the business provides an environment where they can thrive.

If you would like any further advice or have any questions, feel free to get in touch with the team here at Knowit.

Read more from Nick:

If You Do These 5 Things, You’re Probably a Product Manager!

4 Reasons Your Company Isn’t Attracting Talent

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