4 Focus Areas in Leading a Rapidly Scaling Product Team

David Jesse February 26 2021
4 Focus Areas in Leading a Rapidly Scaling Product Team

My most rewarding yet challenging roles have been as part of a fast growing business. These come with an opportunity -- plus an expectation -- to grow the product team to fuel continued expansion. I’ve been lucky enough to see hyper-growth early in my career at eBay, as the first head of product at Groupon and most recently at Fetch Rewards.

When your team scales rapidly, you outgrow the ability to be in the weeds on everything. Your focus will shift from being involved in defining requirements to setting up the team to manage the ever-growing demands. This is similar to the change of role as you progress from being a PM to a manager of PMs to a manager of managers -- though in this case the entire organization is undergoing rapid change simultaneously. 

It’s been said that for product leaders, your team is your product. It should get deliberate attention to improve and evolve just as the product does. With that, here are implications for rapid growth of your team and how it relates to your individuals, organization, team culture -- and your own role.

#1. Scaling Individuals


In a rapid growth situation, every team member’s scope expands even without a formal role change. This arises through business growth (supporting more customers than ever), adapting to product dynamics (lots of new data and learning) and being part of a larger team (managing more complexity and points of interaction). Things to consider:

  • Seek people who embrace change and ambiguity. The only constant will be change. Your strategy will evolve. Processes and reporting structures will get refreshed. Quality standards will increase. Look for people who are excited to contribute to this rather than expecting stability. Be transparent about this during interviews and look for examples from candidates’ past where they have managed ambiguous situations. Hiring is as much about finding fit with the situation as it is assessing capabilities.
  • Hire for the team, not just for specific roles. Sometimes it’s tempting to hire someone who comes from a very specific profile to fill a narrow need. Before you do that, consider the certainty and longevity of this need. Ideally find people who learn quickly and have the potential to contribute in multiple areas. They will thrive as your team evolves.
  • Anticipate individuals’ scaling limits. If your company is growing exponentially while your people are growing linearly, even the best people will encounter challenges. Look 6-12 months into the future, anticipate the team and skills you will need, and work towards that. That might mean a combination of bringing in more experience and getting outside coaching. No shame in needing help -- it is a sign of your success that you got the product to this point. Look for leaders at least one full level ahead of the team they will be managing so as to up-level experience, extend your runway and leave room for existing team members to grow. It’s even okay to slightly “over-hire” if you find someone great who is willing to roll up their sleeves in the short term and brings experience you will need very soon. 
  • Reward those who step up. Being on a rocket ship provides an abundance of personal growth opportunities. Your PMs will get stronger from this experience. As they rise to meet new challenges, they deserve to be rewarded. Giving them first access to internal opportunities will continue to grow their career. Look for individual contributors who are informally acting as leaders and ready to become managers. This will help keep their engagement high. You will also benefit from staffing these areas with trusted people who already have company context and know what it takes to succeed there.

#2. Scaling the Organization


As you hire, the number of teams, squads and tribes will grow. When this happens, review your overall organizational design and process. Getting the right organization can scale the team while preventing bureaucracy. Things to consider:

  • Set squads up for success. A team that has clarity of purpose and the right staffing can be productive even with minimal oversight. Align on each team’s focus so there is a shared understanding of what’s expected of them. They should have a well defined mission organized around an important customer problem with a relevant North Star KPI to improve. In addition, staff them to be as self-sufficient as possible in pursuing their goals, limiting external dependencies. 
  • Evolve process and communications. Growth of a team has implications for your management systems. Many rituals you were directly involved in will need to be delegated and decentralized. Be intentional about what happens at the squad vs. tribe vs. department level as well as who should participate. Seek to streamline, consolidate, decrease frequency -- or even cancel -- items that are relatively less important in order to avoid process creep as the company scales and your team matures. This includes planning, team meetings, design reviews, progress updates and any recurring items.
  • Addition vs. expansion. For new teams, consider whether you are entering a new problem space or increasing depth of an existing area. Often building a significant innovation will warrant establishing a new tribe entirely -- especially if geared towards a new persona. Iteration of an existing product area warrants splitting an existing team into multiples within the same tribe, i.e. going deeper. One way to think about this; are you staffing within the same or a different branch of your Outcome KPI pyramid?
  • Let managers fill their team -- yet hire for the company. Having a manager lead their own hiring empowers them, helps align incentives (they find their own help!) and scales recruiting capacity. It’s also helpful for forming a good relationship between the manager and their future employees. One caveat: involve interviewers from other teams to promote a strong cultural fit -- after all, you want people who share the same values, will collaborate across squads, and will do well even if a reorganization moves them to another manager.

See also our previous blog post8 Ways to Organize Your Product Development Squads”.

#3. Scaling the Team Culture


In a small team, the culture may be implicit among the early team members. As you scale, you want to keep what’s great about that plus continue to build that out. The growth will also highlight emerging new gaps and wants from the team. Things to consider:

  • Formally define team values. Articulate explicitly what it means to be on the product team and what attributes are expected of its members. These should form a consistent thread reinforced through related team documents such as your PM career ladder, job descriptions and interviewing focus areas. It’s even better if you can agree on shared values meaningful to the teams you work with the most such as engineering and design.
  • Enlist help from the team. Everyone should feel ownership in creating the environment they are excited to be a part of. At Groupon, team members initiated organizing hackathons, launching interest leagues, formalizing an employee training budget and many more things. The more inclusive and distributed this can be the better results you’ll see.
  • Celebrate positive examples. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Find ways to recognize and reinforce people and actions that embody the culture you are working toward. Whether it’s a note in team Slack channels, a callout at a team meeting, or even making these contributions part of performance evaluations and promotions, having a positive feedback loop encourages people to practice what you preach.

#4. Scaling Yourself


Just as you are looking at other ways to scale the team, don’t forget about yourself! Your role will also change quickly and maybe take you into uncharted territory for your own career. (Jeff Jordan, partner at a16z and an eBay executive when Ben and I worked there, has a great blog post about this.) Things to consider:

  • Delegate thoughtfully. Just because you can do something well doesn’t mean you should necessarily be the one to do it. Your organization will increasingly need you to do things that are harder to delegate, such as developing vision and strategy -- not to mention working to scale your team! A rule of thumb that I like: if another person can do something 80% as well as you, consider delegating that task rather than owning it directly. Often it will be a great growth opportunity for them while letting you focus on something important that can’t be delegated.
  • Empower and decentralize. Closely related to delegation is empowering your team. This can take a few forms such as liberally sharing context to help inform work and pushing decisions down that shouldn’t require your input. Done thoughtfully, the team members closest to the problem will make excellent decisions with minimal support required.
  • Watch for your own limits. Get regular feedback and also note areas where you feel most challenged. The more you can be aware of your own limits, the better you can work to mitigate those. This can be through hiring team members who compliment your skills as well as through focusing on your own training and coaching.

Closing Thoughts

Every company is different, and each stage of growth is unique. The key is to be intentional about your people, organization and culture to make sure you are looking for continuous improvement to meet your next phase of growth. This is a clear case of “what got you here won’t get you there.” 

Revisit the above items regularly, as a dynamic team will warrant periodic adjustments. With regular attention you can make changes that feel more evolutionary and thus are less disruptive to the team. Also be sure to check in regularly with your team to see how they are doing and how you can collectively manage through this better together. This situation is fun but also hard!

If you are looking for help managing the growth of your team or adapting your own role, please contact us.

Written by David Jesse

David is a Senior Product Advisor / Coach at Prodify. Prior to that, he was a product leader at Groupon and worked on Marty Cagan's team at eBay.

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