If you’re in product management and you haven’t come across Richard Banfield yet, you may want to consider reading more.
I became aware of Richard when his last book Product Leadership was being promoted on another site I read. Coincidentally enough, he and his co-authors cited some UserMuse data which we published on Mind the Product. So when we heard on twitter that he was working on a new book, we had to know more.
Despite a ridiculous schedule as the CEO of design agency Fresh Tilled Soil and writing excellent books in whatever spare time that leaves, Richard agreed to answer five questions for us ranging from team composition to product vision and more (my questions in bold). Enjoy:
Your last book Product Leadership examined the challenges of leading people who manage products and how different people and organizations have succeeded at it. Does your forthcoming book continue to develop those themes or are you focused elsewhere now?
My new book picks up where the last one left off – how high performing teams work together to deliver value to each other, the company and the end user.
That first element of delivering value turns out to be the most important. If a team can develop true respect and deep confidence in each other, they can move mountains. So far, my research suggests this applies to almost any level, whether it’s a team of interns working on a small project or an executive team developing groundbreaking strategies.
It’s a little early to say if developing this confidence is a product of good leadership or clear vision or both. My goal is to understand what gives these teams the ability to acquire these characteristics and apply them to daily challenges.
I find that some of the greatest leadership challenges arise when the vision is in flux – whether you’re pivoting or trying to make sense of market feedback or whatever it is. Is there anything you’ve noticed that enables teams to be successful amidst strategic uncertainty?
So true. Having a vision in flux is definitely a serious problem. The challenge is creating a vision for your product that illustrates a future that is almost timeless, and thus doesn’t need to be “pivoted”. This is unlike a strategy, which can pivot to account for new insights of feedback.
Here’s an example, Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy. That’s been their mission for a while now and will probably remain unchanged for several decades. Whether they are building electric cars, batteries or solar tiles, or whatever comes next, it’s still a valid mission. A great vision comes from focusing on a perennial customer problem worth solving. Where companies start to struggle is when their vision is based on a temporary problem or a passing technology.
This might be misinterpreted as saying you should never change your direction based on feedback, but that’s not the case. If you have done the work to really understand the customer problem, and avoided trying simply to justify a solution, then a product can evolve without having to constantly change the vision. You can switch out technologies, products, and strategies to evolve with the needs of the customer, but the vision should be agnostic of those things.
Returning to the question of how a team acquires confidence and respect in one another: There’s always pressure to hire the “best” people — witness the growing number of startups applying artificial intelligence to the hiring process. Getting high achievers to over-achieve as a team is elusive though. What are some of the things you see companies do to foster the right team dynamic once they get who they want on board?
Team dynamics are definitely one of the hardest things to understand, but this shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid mastering that aspect of work. We’ve observed that leaders that encourage team members to get to know each other and solve problems together, are more likely to develop a collaborative environment. This means a leader must actively create opportunities for those interactions to happen. They can’t leave it to chance.
Also, more diverse groups tend to bring new perspectives so it’s important to curate that diversity from the beginning. The personality of a company founder can have a profound influence on the culture of a team. If the founder only hires people that look and sound like themselves, you’re going to find a lack of diversity and perspectives.
Finally, and most importantly, you can’t expect to raise the performance of the team by only hiring high performers. The velocity of a team is dictated by the lowest performing member of the team, not the highest. It’s the responsibility of the leader to identify who is falling behind and who needs help. By raising the level of performance of the weakest members, you’ll raise the bar for the entire team.
One distinction I should make here is that a troublesome individual that is a disruptive influence on the team isn’t the same as someone who needs help raising their performance. Don’t waste time on bad apples. Get rid of them quickly so you can spend your time on the people that want to improve.
I find myself dwelling often on the subject of team diversity. I believe ethnic and cultural diversity are beneficial for the reasons you mentioned, yet I also feel like we need a new vocabulary to bucket different kinds of problem solvers in the same way we might bucket people as “extroverts” or “ENTJs.” Do you think it’s possible to do that, and if so do you have any advice for hiring managers trying to build a diverse team in terms of how people approach problems or generate ideas?
This topic of inherent skills has been on my mind a lot lately. As I’m working on book about high-performing teams, I’m also looking for research that supports or disclaims the idea that we are all born with different problem solving abilities or approaches.
I’m seeing research that environments, diversity, backgrounds and even the timing of the work have a big influence on problem solving. If teams have already invested in personality assessments then they might be inclined to put people in the “buckets” you’ve described but the evidence doesn’t suggest that doing this helps. It turns out there are a lot more grey areas than expected. A self described introvert might actually benefit from a social break in the middle of the day, and an extrovert might need a solitary morning session to be productive.
Daily rhythms play a big part in work. There’s ample evidence to show we’re more analytical in the early part of the day, and more creative in the later parts of the day. A leader should consider these environmental factors before simply saying “the survey you did says you’re an analytic type, now go do all the analysis”. We’re way to complex for that to make sense.
Structuring work around the interactions between personalities, their chronotypes and the work environments will amplify a teams ability to deliver higher quality solutions. It’s a constant balancing act but very rewarding when it you find harmony.
I for one can identify with being an extrovert who needs ample solitude. As managers we all have to balance optimizing for the individual against optimizing for the team, and it seems like this balancing act is a real struggle for many. Do you have any advice for managers who agree with what you’re saying but still crave predictability in terms of when everyone is in the office, reachable, et cetera?
When talking about predictability in people, you’re really just saying you want to be able to trust them. If you ask someone to do something, you want to trust it’ll be done. This only happens when teams have a chance to get to know each other. Of course, that not always possible for early stage teams, or people coming together on a project for the first time.
If you can’t trust your team when they are sitting right next to you, there is no way you’ll trust them when they are in another time zone. Managers and leaders need to build environments where trust can be created and nurtured. This isn’t easy, and I’m not suggesting that it’s possible for all teams, but it’s a requirement of making remote working predictable.
The best way to create trust is to ensure there are an ample amount of active conversations happening between members. These conversations shouldn’t just be about the work, they should also be about the way team members behave and communicate.
For example, there’s a lot been written about the radical transparency and feedback at Ray Dalio’s company Bridgewater. At Bridgewater they encourage team members to be extremely honest with each other and learn how not to take criticism personally. They see feedback as a growth opportunity and this drives trust levels higher. It’s very unlikely that all of the principles that Dalio writes about will be relevant in every team, but it’s worth studying and understanding to see if those principles can be applied to other teams.
We saw this in high performing product teams too. They really take the time to relate to each other and to understand each others’ perspectives. It’s built into their weekly routines and communications. Mostly it’s built into their values.
You can follow Richard on Twitter here.