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Growing a product management team successfully: expert tips (and pitfalls to avoid)
Successful product management is more than just building a product: you’re also building a team.
The mix of multiple departments, new heads, skills, and goals can seem chaotic, but it doesn't have to be. With some foresight and preparation, you can grow a successful product management team—one that works together to build a product that truly delights your customers.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time8 min
Growing a product management team can be as complex as it is exciting, but it’s hard to know whether things are working well for the team when there are so many moving parts—and the parts are moving so quickly. We spoke to product managers from a handful of industries and varying company sizes about lessons they’ve learned while growing their teams.
How to grow a product team successfully
Rapid team growth doesn’t mean you need to give up balancing your projects, iterating and testing, or building a new product.
Each growing team is different: some teams will spend a lot of time brainstorming, planning, determining cost of delay, and discussing initiatives; others might lean toward taking a lot of action (and risks).
When your team is small, it’s easy to see who’s responsible for the success or failure of each product or feature. But when there are hundreds of PMs involved, each with overlapping responsibilities, things can get messy.
There’s no one right way to approach growing a product management team, but there are some best practices to keep in mind, and some universal pitfalls to look out for:
3 common pitfalls to avoid when managing a growing product team
There are many challenges and product workflow red flags to be aware of when it comes to managing a growing product team. For example:
Bruised egos from split ownership
Not sharing a vision
Unclear domain areas
No single source of truth
And a lot of these challenges come from common team management pitfalls, like:
Hiring too fast instead of incrementally
Too much focus on data
Too much focus on qualifications over capability
Let’s break these down a little:
1. Hiring too fast instead of incrementally
Having a large team is difficult to manage on its own, but having a large team that arrives too suddenly can be a burden on your existing team.
You might think that adding a bunch of product managers would supercharge productivity. But growing your team too quickly can lead to inconsistent decision-making and slow you down. The faster your team grows, the more likely you are to spend more and more time on maintenance instead of innovation.
Hire systematically to maintain a decent and smooth growth cadence.
Your PMs end up being an extension of the sales team or the engineering team rather than a cross-functional leader focused on moving the product forward. This isn't to say that PM teams shouldn't stay close to sales and engineering, or that those kinds of "rapid response" or project management functions are unimportant to their role, but it is to say that too much of that reactionary work can lead to the team, the product, and ultimately the company falling behind their competition.
2. Too much focus on data
The more experienced a product manager, the more likely they’ll look at Tableau dashboards or Mixpanel charts for answers. But numbers don’t tell the whole story—your users and customers can tell you a lot, too, and help you connect the dots between what's happening and why it happens.
Ensure your team has the right balance of people who look at numbers and those who have conversations with the people who matter most: your customers.
3. Looking only at formal qualifications instead of capabilities
As the hiring manager of a growing product team, you need builders and optimizers, and it can be hard to figure out the right mix of experiences and perspectives.
It might work at scale, when people come from established companies with a mature product culture—you might find that you've got a great team of experimentation gurus, there.
But what if you don't need to optimize?
What if you need to build from scratch?
In that case, you’ll need a product manager who will have more of a zero-to-one background.
If I were to offer someone a senior PM role, but they're not as great at experimentation as an existing Senior Product Manager, my team will think ‘how on earth could you call them a senior? They don't even know how to do multivariate tests!’ It’s really difficult for the hiring manager to explain to their team. Somebody can be a similar level of seniority with a completely different skill set and a completely different qualification or profile than you.
Sometimes, the person you need isn't a product manager yet—your PMs could be internal hires and domain experts. Or, they might be an external hire with dedicated PM experience. It depends on what your product management team needs.
When hiring, ask yourself:
Who has the judgment, the will, the curiosity, the humility to be a builder?
How can they channel that into being a great product manager?
Having a balanced team from the start will help prevent growing pains.
9 expert tips on how to manage a growing product management team
Hiring the right people, distributing responsibility, managing cross-functional teams, and getting internal buy-in. All things every PM team will have to address.
Here's what our own product team and PM leaders from other industries have learned:
1. Get ahead of the hiring process
Don’t hire just for the number of roles you need. Hire n+1 or n+2, and use a probation period to onboard, train, and ensure you have the right people for your team.
On that note, hire the right people when you find them.
You never know when you’ll have resignations, or somebody going on parental leave—or any extended leave. Don't wait until a role is open—hire proactively.
2. Prove that the PM team is there to build a cohesive and whole product business case
Too many organizations don’t understand the role of the product team. According to Roger Synder, VP of Marketing at 280 Group, other teams often see it as a gap filler; a project management role focused on scope, schedule, and budget; or 'just' a customer researcher role.
Demonstrate that product management teams are there to build a cohesive, whole product business case. Your work is based on customer needs, business objectives, backlog management, and a realistic view of what the company can deliver now and in the future.
This will help you get the resources and buy-in you need to scale.
3. Build a scalable system to understand client needs
It’s hard for a large product team to always be on the same page. How do you prioritize features, integrations, add-ons, and the rest of the product roadmap? It takes a strong internal communication system.
Renée-Jeanne Ruel, Product Marketing Specialist at DashThis, keeps an open client feedback document the whole team can access. Everyone can see Hotjar Session Recordings, user interviews, and even demos to understand exactly what their needs are, and it keeps the whole team on the same page.
4. Build a product team culture
What’s a good team without culture?
Without a team that’s 100% on board, sharing a unified vision, the next iteration or innovation won’t move the needle. While PMs are responsible for implementing great product practices, it's equally crucial for them to educate all stakeholders about what 'great' looks like.
Stacey Kane from EasyMerchant says the best thing a Head of Product can do is delegate day-to-day decision-making to the product team. That way, they can focus more on capability uplifting, coaching and training, and culture to build leaders among members.
5. Developing and communicating a shared product vision
Just like sharing a culture, sharing the same product vision can be a challenge. As new members join the team, they may not always have the same vision for the product.
Miranda Yan, Co-founder of Vinpit, keeps an open document on the company's product vision and strategic goals. The whole team can access and agree on it to avoid future confusion on product priorities.
Rick Hoskins from FilterKing solves this issue with a clear hierarchy and definition of the team goal: an employee with experience in the company takes the lead, keeping the vision intact.
Aligning a growing team to one vision can be tricky. With the core team you know what you want, you know what you have tested, and you know where you want to go. With new hires, the lines can be often transgressed, and you may find yourself testing old versions just to satisfy a new team.
6. Keep your product management team focused with progress reports
Product Managers are some of the most oversubscribed people in an organization. They have to constantly juggle the fires of today with the priorities of tomorrow. It's easy for your PM team to burn out or scatter their attention across too many objectives.
Henry Shapiro (Reclaim.ai) says growing teams should implement a weekly status review process across the PM team as early as possible. A great weekly status review process requires PMs to report regularly on 'the three Ps': Progress, Plans, and Problems. And Shapiro adds another P to that list: Priorities. He couples this status reporting process with a weekly one-on-one meeting with direct reports and an occasional calendar audit.
A PM leader can help reduce distractions by removing blockers, refocusing the team on the strategic product objectives for the organization, and giving permission to drop low-value projects or tasks.
7. Prioritize your roadmap
Focus isn’t just about staying on track—it’s also about prioritizing.
A growing product management team can be bombarded with ideas and customer requests, and get confused about what to build next.
Have a single KPI or a set of KPIs for the entire product team that they can work on. For example, the customer lifetime value or the churn rate. Once everyone is on the same page and working together on a common goal, they will be more motivated to get things done. No matter if you have 3 or 13 people, they’ll all work towards the same goal.
8. Make time for maintenance—and time for innovation
Too much reactionary work can lead to the team, the product, and ultimately the company falling behind their competition. Henry Shapiro from Reclaim.ai says it’s important to separate maintenance and innovation.
The key is a deep inspection of each member of the team through the lens of status reports. Ensure your team has separate time (or roles) for innovation and maintenance.
9. Have a fully dedicated PM team
Rich Hoskins (FilterKing) says not to pull resources from other teams if you can avoid it. If you want to grow a product management team, you need a dedicated copywriter, graphic designer, engineer, and a complete team in general.
But before making a play for more resources, try sizing up the opportunity you have to make a business case. What could you deliver with dedicated resources?
How Hotjar can help product teams to grow successfully
Every team is different. You’ll each face different growing pains, you’ll have different systems in place, and you’ll have different team dynamics.
At Hotjar, we’re not only continuously growing our own product team—we help other product teams grow smarter and make the right decisions.
Hotjar helps PMs stay on the same page about customer needs and product vision. Instead of stepping on toes and making guesses, look at product experience insights from Hotjar to prioritize tasks and validate ideas with your team.
With Hotjar, it becomes clear which tasks to prioritize and why, and it's easier for your Senior PM team to delegate and share a vision with newcomers. Everyone can be on the same page, using the same data.