You know your product team is failing, but do you know why?

I build teams that build products. It’s my thing that I do. Engineering, design, marketing, and product management. That’s what I did with the pretty-big Firefox team at Mozilla. That’s what I did as a consultant with tiny to medium-sized startups in Toronto. That’s what I’m doing now with the growing and amazing team at Hubba. I love it.

Are you in charge of a startup product team? Do you love it? Because, and I want to be honest here, a lot of the people I talk to who run product groups are not having a good time. They are not even having an okay time.

They are having a not okay time.

What it feels like

The hard thing about a busted product org is that the problem isn’t obvious. The engineers seem to know what they’re doing. The product managers have roadmaps. The designers are always busy and things look nice. But it just. doesn’t. work.

Your team seems to run fast, they ship a lot of code, but features take forever. You never feel like you know when something’s going to come out. When it does, it never looks like you thought it would. The engineers celebrate when they complete a heavy project, but the rest of the org doesn’t get why it ever mattered. People don’t respond to new features, and bugs in old features never get attention. Things break that we should have seen coming, and you have to drop everything to fix them. Which makes the other problems worse.

If you’re hyperventilating right now, I feel you. I’ve been where you are. I wrote this post for us.

Whose fault is it?

“Everyone’s fault. No one’s fault.” I think I’m supposed to say those things. That there are a hundred reasons for product teams to fail to execute well. I guess that’s probably true.

But in my own life, almost every team I’ve seen struggle with this stuff fails for the same reason. There is one role in the product organization that we ask to be the integrators. The systematizers. And companies, especially startups, usually set them up to fail. We call those people product managers.

If your product managers aren’t on their game and well-supported, you will have a bad time. Not because it’s always their fault. At all. But because when they’re in trouble, strength in other areas is unlikely to compensate.

How to build your product team

Any time I write a new job posting for a product manager, I brace for impact. Few people would apply to be heart surgeons, or forensic accountants, without any relevant experience. But lots of people apply to be product managers without experience. Everyone thinks they’d be good at product.

If none of your founders or executives have run product orgs before, it can be hard to know what to do. These candidates have so many amazing ideas. They have a lot of energy.

If you find yourself saying something like, “anyone can learn how to file bugs and run a standup, but what I like about this person is…” you’re about to make a mistake.

Hire product managers as product managers

There are lots of times in the growth of a startup where you should take a gamble on candidates with gumption, even if they don’t have the background. It’s a great strategy for building a more diverse team, and gives your senior folks mentorship opportunities. There are many times when it’s a wise and progressive call to make.

Most product leaders love building things, and this is a good meaty role for the right candidate.

Your first few product management hires are just not one of those times. Your first PMs will set the tone for how your product team operates. And since few people have any kind of formal education in product management, your best indicator is significant, direct product management experience.

After those first few hires are in and operating well, go ahead and hire some trainees. Build a reputation for product excellence by training people up and setting the standard. Your people may get poached, but your inbound candidate pool will more than cover it.

That’s a high-quality place to be, but not until you’ve locked on fundamentals.

Hire product managers, not visionaries

Oh, I know it’s unromantic. Great product needs vision. And good CEOs want partners in setting that vision. You want PMs who understand it and can bring their own light to it. I’ve heard all that. And it’s not wrong.

But the truth is that I need vision from my PMs about five to 10 percent of the time. I need brilliant, focused, measured execution from them all the time.

I didn’t say zero percent vision — don’t straw-man me. Vision matters. But ideas are cheap and execution is very, very hard. Interview for the hard part. Hire for the hard part.

Your product managers are not the CEO of anything. They can’t sign partnerships. They do not live the 500 daily struggles of trying to keep everything alive and growing.

Product management is a real discipline, not a pretend catch-all title. That “anyone can learn” garbage up there undercuts the value of clear requirements, clean process, measurement, and accountability. Your product managers put the machine on rails and make sure it gets to its destination.

Vision is one of the tools they use to get there. The whole team benefits from clarity in the product’s narrative. You’ll meet candidates who blow you away with their list of ideas, prepared over the weekend looking at your product. It’s exciting.

But if they can’t tell you when a waterfall development process would be a better choice than scrum, or how they feel about personas as a user-empathy tool, or how they prefer to see new features instrumented, they aren’t your first product hire. Or at least, they wouldn’t be mine.

Hire product managers, not CEOs-of-the-Product

Poor Ben Horowitz. He said, “The product manager is the CEO of the product,” and I suspect he’s regretted it ever since. His intention was noble enough — arguing for buck-stop accountability and whole-product view. But it has armed a generation of asshats with a terrible self-importance. He even wraps that post with a disclaimer these days.

Your product managers are not the CEO of anything. They can’t fire people who are hurting the business. They can’t sign partnership deals. They do not live the 500 daily struggles of trying to keep everything alive and growing. It’s facile to pretend that the analogy holds.

PMs are much more hub-of-the-wheel than root-of-the-tree or top-of-the-pyramid. They synthesize, they decide, and they orchestrate. As Andy Grove would say: input, process, output. If you think of them as a CEO, you’ll manage the good ones badly and keep the bad ones around too long.

Be curious about how they listen and seek counterpoint during the synthesis phase. Challenge them on how they make trade-offs in the deciding and planning phase. Measure them based on their results in the orchestration and delivery phase.

(I’m sure someone will tell me that’s exactly what a CEO does. This is the internet after all. It’s still a broken and unhelpful metaphor.)

How to know it’s working

When you’ve got good product leadership, the chaos starts to make sense. You ship fewer features, but they speak directly to customer needs. They come with instrumentation so that you can measure their impact. Great ideas get amplified, missed attempts are spotted and quickly culled.

Most people can learn most things. And I’m a really big fan of treating people like adults. So talk with them about this stuff.

When your product team is working, the product connects directly to the strategy of the business. You can see how the roadmap elements move the needles you care about. You can elevate the conversation from “Ship this feature by Friday,” to “How should we tailor our onboarding to maximize engagement for different kinds of users?” Your PMs start to surprise you with vision and creativity that is rooted in reality. It makes sense. It matters.

This rarely happens right away. In my experience, good PMs often start with the safe, obvious bits. It helps them get processes in place, and ensures that they put up some immediate wins to earn the respect of their engineers and the broader team. On that foundation, I expect to see them take broader autonomy and scope pretty quickly and make the product their own.

A product manager that’s still running someone else’s roadmap a year in is effectively a project manager. A product manager that throws the roadmap away on day one in favour of their new vision is very likely a liability.

What if it’s too late?

You’ve already hired them, haven’t you? The ideas people. The CEOs of the product. And maybe you’re reading this and it makes some sense to you but you don’t think your existing team can get there.

You might be right.

But let’s choose to believe in them. Most people can learn most things. And I’m a really big fan of treating people like adults. So talk with them about this stuff. Ask them what they think of it, and what supports they need. Ask them if they agree.

And they may not. And it may be that they are not going to work out in your organization. And that can be okay.

If your team does agree they need a change, they’ll still need support to make it real. And so my second piece of advice, worth whatever you paid for it, is to hire an experienced product leader to drive that cultural shift.

Most product leaders love building things, and this is a good meaty role for the right candidate. Give them the founder’s vision. Expect them to want to see pitch decks and understand the state of the business. Get them to meet your existing product folks to see the potential that’s waiting to be unlocked. You can do it.

Sorry not sorry

If any of this stuck, I’ve made your job harder. You had such a huge candidate pool before! You could hire exciting people with great ideas! Now you have to go hunt, and you need them to have well-developed operational chops. There are fewer of those. And they are more hotly contested by savvy organizations that know what they’re trying to build.

But I’m not sorry. They’re out there. They work hard, they rarely get the credit, and they deserve to be courted. It can be thankless to wrangle a team of engineers and designers week after week. Particularly when the output is “reliable, measured, upward progress” which is easy to take for granted. So if I drive up their market rate a bit, I’m not sorry at all.

Go find them. Add your vision to theirs and their system to yours. Make something amazing.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. He is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Johnathan has built and operated organizations from 2 people to 250. He was the Vice President of Firefox for Mozilla during a period of intense turmoil inside Mozilla and in the web at large, helped build and launch the first Firefox offerings on Android and iOS, and still cheers every time the open web wins. After Mozilla he joined Hubba as their Chief Product Officer, and helped that team triple in size while improving their diversity stats instead of watching them slide. He is proud to sit on the board of Creative Commons, and is a big believer in the power of mission-based organizations. He has strong opinions about your coffee infrastructure.