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How to empower your product team to get shit done
The average product team spends a huge amount of time juggling loads of different tasks, pressures, and demands.
On an average day, urgent user requests and stakeholder asks pour in, meetings line up, the product backlog expands, and product team members find their best-laid plans changed or delayed.
These pressures are intrinsic to product work, but if you let them grow, they’ll destroy your focus, strategy, and delivery.
Luckily, they can be managed.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time10 min
To stay on track, you need to learn to anticipate productivity blockers and build a product culture that truly empowers your team to get shit done.
This article tells you how.
10 common productivity blockers for product teams
So why isn't your team getting things done? Here are some of the most common obstacles to productivity:
1. Unclear product priorities
Constantly shifting roadmaps and priority lists can generate confusion for the product team. When there’s a lack of clear alignment around the product and organizational visions, it’s hard for teams to feel confident they’re working on the right tasks, and they can feel a lack of direction.
Inconsistent product priorities also create major inefficiencies. Details get forgotten or overlooked when the team is swamped and constantly moving from project to project.
2. Collaboration and communication overload
Collaboration is a hugely important, meaningful part of product work. But, in complex organizations in particular, the product team’s agenda can get overloaded with constant meetings or the need to spend time checking different communication or workflow management tools, sifting through information to work out what’s relevant to them.
There’s a name for this phenomenon: collaboration overload.
Context switching—shifting between different types of work and various tools—wastes time and cognitive resources and distracts the product team from getting shit done.
3. Disconnection from other teams and goals
Too little communication is just as dangerous as too much. When product teams don’t connect at all with other teams and departments, they can end up working in a silo. This creates major inefficiencies and means the team lacks the cross-functional collaboration needed to boost productivity.
A lack of external input can make teams too focused on their own work area and keep them disconnected from the larger vision for the product and company. A lack of transparency around shared goals can also provoke this disconnect.
4. Changing product teams
Sometimes it’s necessary to form ad-hoc teams to meet pressing product management challenges, but constant changes in task teams—or the broader product team—can push productivity down.
Every time a new team or product squad is formed, members have to learn to work together from scratch. Without long-term collaboration, teams may struggle to make decisions and find themselves less focused on the most impactful tasks.
5. Lack of ownership
Lengthy approval loops, organizational drag, and complex governance structures leave product teams without decision-making power.
Teams who can’t effectively engage in stakeholder analysis to act quickly on product priorities will find themselves facing bottlenecks, delays, and disconnects. Ultimately, this frustrates and demotivates the team and means they can’t get the most important work done.
Lack of ownership can be debilitating, especially in teams without much experience working together.
You'll either get a request or assignment that's basically left ignored, or you get the wrong person taking the lead in implementation. Even if things go smoothly you now have unclear responsibilities on a team—is this person picking up the slack just this one time, or are they now the leader when it comes to similar tasks?
A lack of ownership slows down production by creating too many new questions.
6. Linear methodologies blocking responsiveness
Linear or waterfall approaches to product development follow a fixed sequence of steps. First there’s an extensive research, design, and planning phase; then the product is developed in one go before tests and launch.
This means product teams are faced with tons of delivery deadlines right at the end, causing stress. If you’re not testing as you go and engaging in continuous discovery, there’s a good chance you’ll push out a product that will require major fixes and debugging soon after launch.
This waterfall of defects at the end of the process is a blocker that stops the product team from responding dynamically to improve the product in stages.
7. Focus on outputs rather than outcomes
Often, product teams are seen as feature factories. They’re judged according to whether they’re staying on track with product tasks or deadlines, with little weight given to each task's overall impact or importance.
Ticking twenty bug fixes off your list is great—but not if you’ve missed the key fixes that will boost user satisfaction. In a product culture that measures product success based on outputs rather than outcomes, the team might get things done—but they won’t necessarily be the most important things.
8. Too many grandiose objectives
Ambitious objectives are great. But goals that seem intimidating and unachievable can generate panic and make the team feel less confident in their ability to get things done.
Techniques like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are supposed to focus the product team on what really matters, but if you set too many of them, your team will feel overwhelmed and disoriented.
9. Too much time putting out fires
When product teams spend most of their time responding to the loudest stakeholders or putting out fires, they can end up focused on tasks that are urgent but not important.
If the team is stuck in the weeds of urgent responses, they can’t see the big picture to know whether their day-to-day work has maximum impact. They’ll end up hopping from task to task without a strategic perspective, like one of the most dangerous animals of product management, the WOLF (Working On Latest Fire).
Learn more about some of the dangerous animals in product management and how to tame them!
10. Overwork culture and burnout
Time crunches are part of product work. But there’s also a tendency to glamorize stress, exhaustion, and long hours to get things done.
Studies show that overwork decreases productivity. If the product team is expected to consistently work crazy hours, they’ll end up burned out, demotivated, and churning out sub-par work. They definitely won’t have the headspace, energy, and enthusiasm to prioritize, innovate, and get impactful work done.
10 ways to create a product culture where product teams get shit done
Now that you know why your team is flagging, it’s time to learn how to help them get important shit done. Here are our top ten strategies for boosting productivity:
1. Align your product team around a shared product vision
A product culture is a shared mindset. Design your product culture so your team stays connected to key priorities for the product and company as a whole by communicating overarching objectives.
Customer focus should be the North Star that guides product teams. Use product experience insights tools (like Hotjar) and user research techniques to keep your team in tune with how users are experiencing your product. Session recordings and VoC feedback tools can generate user empathy across the team.
For stellar alignment, connect business goals with product goals, which shows the team how their roles fit into the broader organizational vision. This stops them from working in silos or failing to look outside their role and gives them the context to stay motivated and innovate solutions that meet user needs.
2. Streamline and simplify your workflow and comms
Keep things as simple as possible to free up time for your product team. This may mean simplifying communication and workflow management tools for more effective product processes. It’s all about balance: you need clear processes to keep things on track, but if you create convoluted steps, your team will spend more time doing busy work than getting shit done.
Make sure you centralize key data and communications—you’d be amazed how much time can be wasted trying to find documents or product information. Centralize product team reporting and define reporting leads for different tasks to ensure team members don’t lose time reporting to the wrong stakeholders.
It’s also key to make sure you’re not holding meetings just for the sake of it. Try creating a zero-based time budget for meetings, where you have a limited ‘bank’ of meeting time. This forces team members and stakeholders to consider which topics merit meeting time.
3. Break down overarching objectives into small, meaningful goals
Goal-setting frameworks—like OKRs—should be tools that genuinely help the product team. Set ambitious but realistic objectives, and ask the team to work on one or two main objectives at a time rather than getting lost in a mass of unachievable goals.
Once you’ve determined the most meaningful guiding objectives, break them down into small, achievable steps and use only the most important Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure success.
Breaking work down into smaller steps allows teams to replace future-oriented anxiety with present-day dopamine. Small, rapid wins increase morale and create a sense that lofty ambitions are achievable.
Rapid wins lead to tighter feedback loops, an increased learning rate, and often even more customer conversations due to having more to share. This creates a virtuous loop that leads to achieving goals that felt lofty when the team first started.
4. Promote transparency
Ensure transparency is central to your product culture. Make sure your team can access a shared set of consistent metrics and documents that outline historical, current, and future data relevant to the product and organization.
Instead of bombarding the team with masses of documentation, stick to what’s relevant and necessary. For instance, you could make a lightweight but clear product vision statement, product strategy, and product roadmap available at all times, and remind your team to check these documents at regular intervals.
5. Build a culture of learning and deep work
Minimize context switching between apps, platforms, and tasks by taking a minimalist approach to tools.
Product managers should protect time for their teams to engage in deep work and ensure they have the time and space to brainstorm and engage in high-level thinking. Google famously uses 20% time, where employees are given a day a week to stop working on urgent tasks and focus on promising side projects and ideas.
Building a learning culture also involves promoting risk-taking, problem-solving, and innovation. This means welcoming failure as a learning opportunity and giving your team the confidence to make decisions and challenge assumptions.
6. Create cross-functional teams or squads
One of the best strategies for boosting productivity is creating small teams or squads with specific functional areas.
Product squads usually consist of product owners, designers, and back-end and front-end developers. Since they’re responsible for particular types of product work, rather than entire product lines or ad-hoc projects, product squads develop deep expertise and strong collaboration. If product squads are given absolute autonomy and ownership, they can make decisions quickly to respond to user and organizational needs.
This means faster development cycles, more successful products, and a more efficient product workflow.
7. Clarify roles on the product team
If there’s ambiguity around who owns what on a product team or squad, team members step on each other's toes, and work gets duplicated—or worse, no one does it.
Though the product team should be working together on the same overarching goals, it’s important to define a clear sense of ownership for different tasks.
There should be some flexibility around responsibility splitting, though, and it’s most effective if the team has some say in—or ideally leads—the process.
8. Give product team members accountability and ownership over outcomes
Stop your product team from obsessing over outputs by keeping them accountable to desired product outcomes.
If they own outcomes rather than outputs, they can react to new information and get creative around executing the product roadmap. They can also flag when busywork is distracting them from key goals, which means something needs to change.
Empower the team to work on the most meaningful tasks and to set boundaries when they’re pulled off task. Create forums or spaces where they can escalate concerns and suggest solutions.
To avoid the most common obstacles to productivity on product teams (like slow decision making, waiting around for others to decide, for meetings to happen, for products to be built) we empower our teams to make decisions quickly, to fail fast, and iterate with user validation, to own their decisions and the portions of the product they are responsible for with clear OKRs and KPIs focusing on results and outcomes, not mere activity.
9. Ensure the PM is a product team evangelist
Product managers should fight for their product team to stay focused on the most important tasks.
This may mean PMs need to triage the stream of stakeholder requests to ensure developers and engineers aren’t overwhelmed and advocate for the product team where necessary.
Build a strong product narrative and use product experience insights tools like Hotjar to convince stakeholders when you need support or additional product team resources. Developing a strong sense of organizational awareness will help you ‘read’ stakeholders and your product team for effective communication.
10. Prioritize time to refresh and recharge
Effective product cultures build in space for the team to disconnect. Include regular timeouts and wellness opportunities—yoga or mindfulness classes, time to chat with coworkers—in the working day.
But time out isn’t just about spacing out the workday. Product teams must have time that’s entirely theirs to disconnect from work and work culture. By setting boundaries and protecting time off, the team will bounce back refreshed, engaged, and ready to get shit done.
Instead of making your team come in five days a week, allow more flexible schedules—for example, on Mondays, people can work from home, or they have Fridays off for a three-day weekend all summer. It’s absolutely been found that summer Fridays off and flexible hours can raise productivity because people feel this helps create a healthy work-life balance.
Keep getting better at getting shit done
Creating a productivity-oriented product culture isn’t about quick fixes—it’s about finding ways of working that will bring about long-lasting change.
To ensure the most important work gets done, product teams should commit to continually learning more about their needs, the teams’ needs, and their users’ needs.
The best product managers and product team members regularly step back and reassess the product workflow and product outcomes. By committing to removing key productivity blockers on an ongoing basis, you’ll free up the time and space your product team needs to thrive.