(4) Secrets to the success of high-performing product teams

Teams are what get things done in the world of work. Even though we often get to hear about individuals taking the limelight — be it Elson Musk sending spaceships to Mars or Jeff Bezos building drones to ship products straight to your drawing room — we all know that behind every blockbuster success there is a high-performing team. And there are certain characteristics that define these teams whose greatness is legendary. These are the teams whose alignment and synchronicity within themselves seem magical. You feel it when you walk into a room with them.

So, what are the common elements that truly great teams have? And, most importantly, can we reproduce them?
The answer, it turns out, is yes.

In their original paper that described what became Scrum, “The New Product Development Game”, Professors Takeuchi and Nonaka described the characteristics of the teams they saw at the best companies in the world:

1. Transcendent: They have a sense of purpose beyond the ordinary. This self-realized goal allows them to move beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary. In a very real way, the very decision not to be average, but to be great, changes the way they view themselves, and what they are capable of.

2. Autonomous: The teams are self-organizing and self-managing. They have the power to make their own decisions about how they do their jobs and are empowered to make those decisions stick.

3. Cross-functional: The teams have all the skills needed to complete the project — planning design, production, sales, distribution.

In my quest to find more about high-performing teams I found about Greg Geracie, President, Actuation Consulting who has been conducting extensive market research for several years to find out key elements in a high-performing team. I interviewed Greg to understand these elements and published the interview on my podcast. Greg also talked about a few other topics in the interview like the difference between product strategy and roadmap, the Product Management Book of Knowledge (ProdBOK) of which he is the Editor-in-Chief, and others.

About Greg Geracie:

Greg Geracie is the President of Actuation Consulting, a global provider of product management training, consulting, and advisory services to some of the world’s most well-known organizations. Actuation Consulting provides popular training courses for product managers as well as product teams. Greg is the author of the global best-seller Take Charge Product Management and the Editor-in-Chief of The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK), an industry-wide effort to standardize the practice of product management. We will talk more about it during the course of the interview. Greg is also an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on high-tech product management. Greg earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and continued his executive education at Harvard, MIT, and the Wharton School.

Greg is a regular contributor to a wide variety of industry publications. Recent articles have been published by the Silicon Valley Product Management Association, the Boston Product Management Association, the Association of International Product Marketing and Management, the Project Times, asapm, IPMA and the Business Analyst Times. He is also an active contributor to webinars and blogs and speaks frequently on the subject of product management and product team collaboration.

Books written by Greg Geracie

Listen to the entire interview here:

Subscribe to the podcast using iTunes at www.yoursproductly.com

Here are the highlights of the interview:

  • What is a body of knowledge and why was the ProdBOK created?

A body of knowledge is an attempt by an industry or a profession to codify terminology and processes for the respective profession. For example, PMBOK, is the project management body of knowledge introduced by the Project Management Institute (PMI). That is by far the best-known body of knowledge industry wise. I have a lot of respect for PMI and they did a fabulous job of centralizing their knowledge, building training curriculum and standardizing the lexicon and practices of the profession overall. There are a whole host of other books of knowledge like the BizBOK for business architecture discipline and BABOK for Business Analysts. The basic rules of creating a body of knowledge comes down to being sponsored by an industry association. For project management, it was the PMI and for product management, it was AIPMM. It also needs to involve a wide array of industry thought leaders and practitioners. In our case, we had around 60 contributors ranging from Steve Johnson, Linda Gorchels, Greg Cohen from the 280 Group and many others.
The third component of creating a body of knowledge is it needs to help practitioners become more effective.
It’s important to keep in mind that all books of knowledge are primarily reference guides that help you practice more effectively and are not prescriptive in nature. It’s best to think of them as a checklist that you can refer to while you are managing your product throughout its various lifecycle stages.

  • You conduct a very extensive research to measure the effectiveness of high-performance product teams. Please share about it briefly.

We have been conducting market research since 2012 where more than 1500 companies participate. We began researching the factors that statistically differentiate high -performance product teams from the rest of the pack. Once the study closes, we source it out for regression analysis to an independent statistician who comes back with regression analysis and that forms the kernel of our annual white paper. We then publish the findings in an annual study of product team performance. It’s the only study of its kind and is commonly used to source material for a variety of books and publications.

  • What were your motivations to conduct these annual research?

Our philosophy is that product managers lead teams, and when they are armed with statistically significant data, that helps them make better product decisions. And data trumps opinions or subjective points of view. We are in the business of helping not only product managers who are our focal area but to all the functional components of a product team so that they have accurate information to make better decisions and end up making better products.

  • What are the five factors that contribute to the success of the product teams that you gathered from your research in 2015?

From 2015 study:

  • Strategic decision-making aptitude: Only a third of all organisations (37%) were good at making and sticking with strategic decisions. And those organisations that had an aptitude for making strategic decisions performed better. So, there is a clear correlation between organisations that make and stick with strategic decisions and the way they perform.
  • Standup frequency: The bottom line is that standup frequency matters. The data showed that increased standup frequency correlates with improved performance. The majority of survey respondent (41%) said that standups are effective but not conducted at regular basis. The top 40% said that daily standups were an effective cornerstones of their product development process. Therefore, a higher frequency of standups have a higher likelihood of higher levels of performance.
  • Quick problem recovery: The question we asked in our survey was how does the culture of the company react when unforeseen issues are encountered in the product development process. What we saw in the data is that the more nimble organisations are in overcoming issues, the more effectively they perform. However, 64% of the organizations struggle with this challenge.
  • User experience: The data shows that active user experience involvement in the product development process leads to better outcomes. The majority of organizations tend to leverage user experience at the development of the product at 65%. Organizations are beginning to use scarce UX resources on the front-end of the product development process all the way to testing stage.

Q. How have these factors changed over the years?

From 2013:

  • Importance of aligned strategy: Product teams must understand the overarching corporate strategy. The more they are aligned to the corporate strategy, the more they are successful.
  • Business-unit leader engagement: The more actively involved whether it is CEO of a small company or the General Manager of a mid-size/large company is with the product teams themselves, the more likely it is that the product teams are going to perform at a high level. It’s not only because they display some level of care, but because they get to hear what’s involved, provide resources. remove obstacles, the same kind of things that they are uniquely suited to be able to do at their level in their organization.
  • Product Manager role definition: We found that organisations that actually had a clearly defined role for PM were more likely to be successful than those that didn’t.
  • Importance of product launch: The organizations that had a single point of accountability for product launch activities were more likely to be high-performing than those that didn’t. So if you have three people that senior executives are going to, that responsibility is dispersed as opposed to one person who has the responsibility to launch, they are more likely to fail.
  • Onboarding practice for team members: We found that only 4% of organisations reported that they had an effective on-boarding best practice. Organisations spend a lot of time and resources in recruiting, identifying candidates, bringing them to their organization. But when they get to being onboarded into the product team, the prevailing practice is sink or swim.


  • Product team culture: Explained in the question below.
  • Understanding of the sales cycle: As it turns out only about a third of the product teams acknowledge that they understand their product sales cycle and revenue recognition patterns. This is somewhat startling. You would assume that product team members would have key stakeholders who are channeling that information back to the team. Unfortunately, a majority of the product teams don’t understand their own sales cycles.
  • Optimising the product teams relationships with sales organization.

Q. Not much attention is paid towards nurturing a positive environment in product teams? What has your research shown in nurturing a positive culture in a high-performance product team?

In our 2014 survey, the data showed that the teams are more likely to perform at the higher level if five sub-factors exist in the team:

  1. A common goal which unites the team.
  2. Effective line management because they can remove obstacles, provide resources etc when the team needs.
  3. Strong engineers and the recognition of their importance. A lot of engineers feel like they are under-appreciated for their contribution.
  4. Inclusion of user-experience professionals in the product teams. The teams that had UX professionals in them were more likely to be successful and perform at a higher level.

Q. In one your last studies your participants identified that poor handoffs and transitions are a performance landmine for 20% of your product teams. Approximately 56% of these underlying communication issues involve product managers. Why is this and what can be done to improve this?

Yes, 56% involving product managers is a pretty high number. But to balance it out, it is also important to point out that project managers are the next highest at 32%. If you look at the two roles, product and project managers, I think it informs whats going on here. What this tells us basically is that the cross-functional roles that span the team are the most prone to communication breakdown. And because product managers can’t strive to keep everyone happy, issues occur. But as a product manager, if you are going to keep everyone happy, you are going to struggle in your role. There are times you have to say no and that dissatisfies people. Part of this problem is also because product managers don’t always speak the same language as some of their product team counterparts. But in order to improve the situation, product managers first have to be cognizant of the fact that they are perceived as the issue which our data shows they are by almost two-thirds of the product team members.

The few things that product managers should consider doing is to attend standup meetings as often as possible to get instant feedback and hash things out immediately instead of allowing the issues to build up. And it also makes you more visible in the team.

Doing walk-arounds makes a big difference too. So much of product development boils down to relationships and being able to have healthy ones and informally talking to your counterparts. A lot of product problems get resolved not in the meeting but actually in the informal communication that takes place outside of the formal meetings.

It’s important that product managers in an effort to overcome this perception need to realise that they have to over communicate within reason. There is so much you can do and can’t pull everyone along with you but you can certainly do a lot better than what the statistics reveal at present.

  • One of you research findings was on whether product teams are aware and aligned to the product sales cycle. What potential problems can result from not being aligned to the sales cycle?

This is a real problem and we were surprised when we originally uncovered that only a third of the product teams know the sales cycle of their products. It’s pretty astounding that the numbers are that low. The majority of the teams appear far too internally focussed from our perspective. The truth is that high performance teams understand and integrate back the sales cycle knowledge. The teams that don’t are from organization where they pay too much importance to the execution at the expense of customer engagement directly or via sales. It all comes down to the awareness of the nature of this issue. That is the first step towards change. The reality is that knowledge of sales cycle is important as it should favourably impact the release planning and messaging of the product.

Q. What are some of the books that have influenced your career in product management?

  • Steve Blank’s Four Steps to Epiphany.
  • Greg Cohen’s books
  • Roman Pichler’s books

Q. What are some of the key skills that you think would help in a product manager’s career?

  • Time management and dealing with conflicting priorities
  • Anticipating problems and trying to remove them before they impact you.
  • Leadership and influence skills especially since we do not have direct control over team
  • It all boils down to building trust. Most problems come down to managing interpersonal relationships.

Other Questions posed to Greg:

  • In your recent blog post you mentioned that customer satisfaction metric is the only universal metric for product managers. Can you explain why is that?
  • What is the difference between product strategy and product roadmap?
  • In one of your recent blog posts you mention that customer satisfaction is the only universal metric for product managers? Why do you consider so, could you shed more light into it?

Building nextgen real estate platform at PriceHubble & podcaster at productlessons.com. I blog about products, business around products, and growth strategies.