The traditional pyramidal team structure is outdated. Though the arrangement has served the IT industry well so far, we need something else to take us into the future.
With ever dwindling margins in IT services it is imperative for organizations, especially in India, to build innovative software products and services that would command premiums and ensure robust profitability.
The pyramidal team structure is inflexible and ineffective in anything but the most industrialized domains, and software product engineering is least amenable to industrialization.
My small team of 10+ serves over a couple of thousand users with our product offerings. We are based out of Bangalore, India and most of the clients based in the US. Our usual functions include envisioning the roadmap, participating in pre-sales processes, rolling out to new clients, maintaining and enhancing current installations, production support and providing inputs to the finance team. Basically the whole gamut of activities in running a product.
With a variety of factors- different time-zones, no face contact with customer, accent differences etc. not in our favor, the way we organize and manage ourselves has critical impact on our ability to meet and exceed customer expectations.
The key factor that drives this is in how we organize ourselves. From that emerges a host of required patterns that are instrumental to our success.
Patterns for Winning Product Teams
Activity based leadership
A static pyramidal model has is too straight jacketed to serve diverse opportunities for product growth. We follow a model where each team member ‘owns’ a particular function or client. While it resembles a traditional model, it differs in the sense of being dynamic in execution. I might be the product manager normally, but can play a senior developer role under the ‘owner’ of that particular feature. Such an activity based leadership allows most team members to be groomed into leaders and allows other senior folks to have a low level perspective first hand.
We call this the hierarchy of equals. The person most skilled to do a job takes the leadership role. And is willing to be subservient in another role in a different context.
All decisions will typically be made by the owner of that initiative, usually after discussions with other relevant team members. Which leads us to the next point.
Collaboration and Consensus
In a situation where a person is new to the role it is essential to mentor and groom them in the process. Or if the problem has many aspects, then it becomes necessary to have all relevant team members weigh in with their views. Instead of an arbitrary fiat, consensus becomes the way forward, aided by collaboration within the team.
Collaboration requires transparency, which is the next item.
The key to good decision making in such a fluid team structure is transparency, to ensure complete information flow about all the nuances of the problem. Be it an irate customer, the expectations of senior management or even organizational process hurdles, each of these is approached collectively by the team. If we have to take shortcuts, either in product implementation or managing external expectations, both are done with the clear understanding and buy in from the team.
This assumes that each member of the team has a wide understanding of the product envisioning and delivery process. This is our next pattern.
A continuum of skills
A narrow role definition of a QA or a developer of a small function does not provide people with the best context to contribute to the success of the product. Enable people to play a variety of roles within the team. We have QA folks who manage client relationships, do product roll-outs, conduct product training and pre-sales demos. Each of these non-core activities widens their understanding of what makes the product tick. Instead of a being restricted to a skill silo, we now have multi-skilled people who do their core functions better after viewing the product in a different light.
Acquiring such skills is not a easy matter, especially if it requires traditionally introspective folks to be extroverted in dealing with customers or participate in pre-sales processes. We need people with ambition to grow.
This entire model does not tick if people are not ambitious. To re-invent and re-learn skills quite divergent from the core skill is trait few posses. And it is essential for rest of the team to believe in the individual who goes through the re-skilling process. Through all this pain of change, ambition can act as a strong motivating factor.
With ambition so plainly laid out, there has to be a moderating factor, and this is political savviness!
All this change and adrenalin of swimming against the tide of mediocrity produces tension, both within and without the team. It requires political savviness to deal with inter team issues that would invariably crop up or to deal with stakeholders who want things just done and care a hoot about how you organize the team or even with customers who want the product delivered to them yesterday.
Managing these often conflicting priorities require people and political savviness. And what good is savviness without the ability to communicate in an articulate fashion?
Much depends on the leader’s ability to communicate within and without the team. To sell a new product vision to stakeholders, to convince a potential customer about the strengths of your product, to generate internal buy-in to a new process initiative. Each of these require the ability to articulate a vision and initiate discussions on how the team might get there.
All of the above factors could merely be accidents of people and circumstances, the entire approach could go in flames one fine day. What will determine the eventual success of the team is the next quality.
Every failure and stumbling block to an overarching ambition can be a lesson learnt, the tuning of the team into a fine instrument to build, own and sustain a successful product. Take a long term perspective and do not judge your progress by the fruits of a momentary setback. Identify the weakness and address it. Refine your strategy, process and mindset. A healthy dose of resilience is all that is required to turn every situation around.
There is a ton of detail we could cover, especially on the people recruitment and mentoring front, in how customer management is done from a remote location from another time-zone, how we manage innovation etc. But all these essentially are built upon the first tenet of having a hierarchy of equals, to believe in the best people and enable them to exceed every expectation.
About Mahesh Ramakrishnan
Mahesh manages a Research authoring and workflow product for Thomson Reuters. Adept at both business and technology aspects of Product Development, Mahesh brings about an unique value to the table. He runs a professional blog as well one that borders on philosophy and mythology from around the world.