Foundations of High Performing Product Teams

David Jesse December 14 2023

Between us, the Prodify advisors have earned more than our share of gray hair working in product management. From this, we see patterns of success – and failure. These hold true across companies from different stages of growth, team sizes, industries and business models.

As our mission is to help companies become more product-driven to achieve better outcomes, we wanted to distill these. While whole books have been written about many of these topics (including by us), this article is meant to be a thought starter to quickly take inventory of the most important practices.

These are framed in a way that can be quickly assessed, at least for initial takeaways. You should be able to review each item, instantly know if you are doing it well, and potentially have some ideas for improvement. Your peers outside of Product can also observe these from afar in many cases.

Foundations of High Performing Product Teams

At the core, being a high performing product team comes down to a combination we have distilled into three major areas and three elements of each:


Focused on What Matters
All work is customer-informed, vision-led and building towards a differentiated product


Results Oriented
Teams are outcome focused and business accountable, with goals aligned for all functions


Built to Win
Critical priorities are led by a strong, empowered team working with balanced roadmaps


Focused on What Matters

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening the ax.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Many teams over-emphasize velocity of development and releases at the expense of clarity of direction. They rush into conceiving and building cool sounding features to keep engineering busy without sufficient understanding of customer needs, validation of key assumptions or long term thinking. In a hurry, decisions get made with the best information they have – often raw, uninformed intuition picking random areas for improvement. 

While they ship ideas that sound good, their success rate is low and/or unvalidated. The product includes a lot of small, incremental improvements which survive an A/B test but get low customer adoption. At the end of the year, it’s hard to identify key innovations that added up to material improvement in their product. 

You can identify many of the flaws in this approach. Insufficient customer understanding or clarity of focus is the path to building a bloated, mediocre product, regardless of the number of features it contains. To use Lincoln's metaphor: they are exerting a lot of energy swinging at a forest of trees, but using a dull ax. This creates a scattered pile of small wood chips but doesn't chop big any trees down.

Instead, you want a focus to do what Gibson Biddle defines as “DHM: ”delight customers, in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.” At a high level, this focus requires your team to do three high level things well:

  • Customer-informed. Too often, we see teams skip customer research or use biased methodologies designed to sell existing ideas rather than understand customer needs. Instead, great customer research should inform the team’s direction at all stages – even before feature solutions are conceived. The best plans begin with a deep understanding of your customer, their needs, and specific problems your product solves for them. This builds awareness of higher value pain points to focus on as well as intuition and feedback about features that will have a higher success rate – both of which compound into higher impact.
  • Vision-led. As Steve Jobs said, “Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.” A clear vision helps you pick carefully and maintain focus, while inspiring the team to achieve bigger goals. What makes a good vision? Consider this in terms of “ABCDE”:
    • Achievable: is it possible for this team to realize the key pillars in an appropriate time frame?
    • Bold: does it describe an inspiring, transformative outcome for customers and the business?
    • Clear: is it explicitly documented and communicated so that the team can work towards implementation?
    • Differentiated: does it describe how your product will stand out to customers?
    • End-to-end: are all parts of your team’s customer journey addressed?
  • Differentiated. Beyond the long term vision, your strategy and roadmap need to reflect how your product will do things in a way that attracts and retains your target customers. This involves understanding your competitors as well as your customers. We recommend using the Kano model to validate your vision and connect your immediate work towards achieving that while standing out in a competitive market.

Results Oriented

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”

– John Wooden

At many companies, product teams are goaled based on hitting dates and number of features launched. This can confuse ends with means. Shipping new features is necessary for building a great product, but it’s not sufficient. A great release can change the trajectory of a business, but many features don’t make the product better. Moreover, some features can target areas that don’t connect back to achieving business goals or getting closer to the focused vision.

Innovation requires forming hypotheses, taking some calculated risks – not all of which will pay off – and learning from both good and bad results. This requires a team to know how they will define success, measure progress and how that will lead to overall company success. The best chance of this happening is when there is cross-functional alignment on these to get focus across teams and maximum contributions from each team member.

This includes a few core attributes for a results-oriented team:

  • Outcome focused. The team should be clear about its key customer outcome and product metric inputs, then assess feature releases in these terms to evaluate results, uncover new insights and inform ongoing iteration. As a leader, you can focus on helping the team “fall in love with the problem” and connect their plans back to hypotheses toward achieving related measurable improvements. This gives them more freedom to innovate in ways you didn’t anticipate while making results easier to assess objectively.
  • Business accountable. Product teams exist also to serve business goals, and investment in product innovation should be commensurate with actual results and return on investment. While product work has to start with customer needs, the team should also understand the relationship between product outcomes and business results. This relationship informs planning, priorities, team resourcing and even performance evaluation. (We often help companies define this via Outcome KPI pyramids, though there are multiple approaches.)
  • Team aligned. When goals between teams are misaligned, they are bound to get compromised or diluted – team members rowing in different directions, or not paddling at all. If some team members don’t care about impact, they will focus instead on whatever else they are evaluated on. The best teams do the hard work to get goal alignment up front, then work together toward achieving the greater good. PM, design, engineering and analytics/data science all participate in defining as well as building great features, and these enable achievement of broader stakeholder goals. While people play different roles, everyone has shared ownership of success and failure.

Built to Win

“Vision without execution is hallucination.”

– Thomas Edison

Strong focus and alignment around impact are important, but execution by a team set up for success is where the rubber meets the road. A plan only helps to the extent it leads to great achievements – at least at the key outcomes level, even if the team iterates on supporting details based on changing conditions and new insights.

The details of this could encompass much of product management and product operations, but to distill into key areas: it requires having strong people with enough capacity towards the most important initiatives, a way of operating to help the entire team contribute to the success, and a balance of time horizons and objectives to hit plans while progressing towards the longer term vision.

Having a team built to win includes these key areas:

  • Winning team. This is a combination of “how many,” “how good” and “how utilized.” Aspiring to have a large all-star team is great, but small teams can achieve great things as well. Focus should be on aligning the team you have against the product initiatives where they can have the biggest impact. You want key roles and critical priorities to be led by people with the resources and support to achieve ambitious plans. Any gaps need to be addressed – or plans need to be even more focused.
  • Empowered. Leadership is enabling a team to do incredible things. Many people we work with initially misunderstand the role of empowerment and how it can enable bigger accomplishments. It is neither absenteeism nor micromanagement, but rather developing the conditions for their teams to succeed with greater autonomy. It means a combination of building higher ownership among team members while providing the support, monitoring and (if necessary) intervention to help each team achieve their goals – ensuring the collective contributions roll up to meeting the overall plan.
  • Balanced. Product investments compound, for good and bad. If a team is too focused on the long term, they will miss easier optimizations to achieve business results. If too focused on the short term, they will miss the innovations that drive longer term experiences and success. The mix of bold innovations and smaller iterations will vary by team and company, but almost always roadmaps should include a combination of both. A strong team will have and apply a framework to create a balanced roadmap.

Closing Thoughts

While the above foundations are patterns we see across successful teams, implementation needs to be customized. Your team is unique and facing dynamic situations – many of your own creation including progress. The above are also not Boolean items, where you can check a box and consider the area “done.” Implementation and improvement are ongoing initiatives, e.g. how to evolve your vision as you achieve key milestones, the highest impact ways to deliver results and continually improving your team’s chances of success.

Hopefully reading the above helped serve as a reminder or trigger for areas to improve your team. How well is your team doing on each of these? Usually it’s a case of “if you know, you know” – your first instinct upon reading this blog will be a good indicator of your confidence levels.

Whether you want help with a more detailed assessment or support in how to make improvements, we’re here to help.

Feel free to email me at or request a call.

Written by David Jesse

David is a Senior Product Advisor / Coach and Fractional Product Executive at Prodify. Prior to that, he was a product executive at DoorDash, Fetch Rewards, and Groupon. David also worked as a product leader at eBay on Marty Cagan’s team.

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