The key to any successful startup is close collaboration between product
and engineering. This sounds easy, but can be incredibly difficult. Both
groups may have conflicting goals and different definitions of success that
have to be reconciled. Engineering might want to build a product that is
perfectly scalable for the future with the best developer experience.
Product might want to quickly validate their ideas, and put features out
that will entice customers to pay for the product. Another example that’s
common to see is an engineering-led “engineering roadmap” and a product-led
“product roadmap” and for the two to be completely independent of each
other, leading to confusion for product engineering. These two mindsets
put two parts of your organization at odds. The easy path is to skip the
difficult conversations and operate within silos, coming together
infrequently to deliver a release. We believe that aligning these two
disparate organizations into cohesive team units removes organizational
friction and improves time to value.
How did you get into the bottleneck?
At the beginning of a startup’s journey, aligning is natural because
you are a small team working closely together, and likely the product and
tech leaders had close personal relationships before the company was
founded. The initial startup idea is very strong and as it quickly gains
traction, what to work on next is obvious to all groups. As the company
grows, however, skill-based verticals begin to appear with more layers of
management, and these managers don’t always put the effort in to create
an effective working relationship with their peers. Instead, they focus on
urgent tasks, like keeping the application running or preparing for a
funding round. At the same time, the startup faces a critical juncture where the company needs to
to decide how to best invest in the product, and needs a holistic
strategy for doing so.
Well-run startups are already working in cross-functional product
teams. Some functions will naturally work well together because they fall
under the same vertical hierarchy. An example would be development and
testing — well integrated in startups, but often siloed in traditional
enterprise IT. However, in the scaleups we work with, we find that product
and technical teams are quite separated. This happens when employees align
more with their function in an Activity Oriented
organization rather than with an Outcome Oriented team, and it
happens at every level: Product managers are not aligned with tech leads
and engineering managers; directors not aligned with directors; VPs not
aligned with VPs; CTOs not aligned with CPOs.
Ultimately, the bottleneck will be felt by reduced organizational
performance as it chokes the creation of customer and business value.
Startups will see it manifest in organizational tension, disruptive
exceptions, unchecked technical debt, and velocity loss. Fortunately,
there are some key signs to look for that indicate friction between your
product and engineering organizations. In this article we will describe
these signs, as well as solutions to lower the communication barriers,
build a balanced investment portfolio, maximize return on investment, and
minimize risk over the long term.
Signs you are approaching a scaling bottleneck
Finger pointing across functions
Figure 1: Friction across a typical
Team members align themselves with their management structure or
functional leadership as their primary identity, instead of their
business or customer value stream, making it easier for teams to assume
an “us” versus “them” posture.
At its worst the “us vs them” posture can become truly toxic, with little respect for each other. We have seen this manifest when product leaders throw requirements over the wall, and treat the engineering team as a feature factory. They might abruptly cancel projects when the project doesn’t hit its outcomes, without any prior indication the project wasn’t meeting its KPIs. Or conversely, the engineering team continually lets down the product team by missing delivery dates, without warning that this might happen. The end outcome is both sides losing trust in each other.
Engineers often stuck due to lack of product context
When product managers pass off features and requirements without reviewing them with the
engineers (usually within the constructs of a tool like Jira), critical business and customer context can be lost. If
engineers operate without context, then when design or
development decisions need to be made, they must pause and track down the product
manager, rather than make informed decisions themselves. Or worse, they made the decision anyway and
build software based on an incorrect understanding of the product
vision, causing time delays or unused software. This friction disrupts
flow and introduces undue waste in your delivery value stream.
When engineers and architects operate with minimal context, the full
scope of a change can be overlooked or misunderstood. Requirements or
user stories lack depth without context. Customer personas can be
ignored, business rules not taken into consideration, technical
integration points or cross-functional requirements missed. This
often leads to last minute additions or unintended disruptions to the
business or customer experience.
Work slipping between the cracks
Tasks slipping between the cracks, team members thinking someone else
will be responsible for an activity, team members nudging each other out
of the way because they think the other team member is operating in
their space, or worse, team members saying “that’s not my job” – these
are all signs of unclear roles and responsibilities, poor communication
and collaboration, and friction.
Technical debt negotiation breakdown
Technical debt is a common byproduct of modern software development
with many root causes that we have
discussed previously. When product and engineering organizations
aren’t communicating or collaborating effectively during product
planning, we tend to see an imbalanced investment mix. This can mean the
product backlog leans more heavily towards new feature development and
not enough attention is directed toward paying down technical debt.
- Higher frequency of incidents and higher production support costs
- Developer burnout through trying to churn out features while working
- An extensive feature list of low quality features that customers quickly
Teams communicating but not collaborating
Teams that meet regularly to discuss their work are communicating.
Teams that openly seek and provide input while actively working are
collaborating. Having regular status meetings where teams give updates
on different components doesn’t mean a team is collaborative.
Collaboration happens when teams actively try to understand each other
and openly seek and provide input while working.
How do you get out of the bottleneck?
Eliminating the wall between Product and Engineering is essential to
establishing high performing product teams. Cross-functional teams must
communicate and collaborate effectively and they must be able to negotiate
amongst themselves on how best to reach their goals. These are strategies
Thoughtworks has applied to overcome this bottleneck when working with our
Identify and reinforce your “First Team”
At its most basic, a product team is a group of individuals who come
together in a joint action around a common goal to create business and
customer value. Each team contributes to that value creation in their own
unique way or with their unique scope. As leaders, it’s important to identify
and reinforce a team dynamic around the creation of value rather than an
organizational reporting structure. This cross-functional product team becomes
a team member’s “first team”. As a leader, when you define your team as your
group of direct reports, you are enabling a tribal concept that contributes to
an “us vs. them” dynamic.
The First Team mindset was defined by
Patrick Lencioni and referenced in many of his works including
The Advantage and The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team: A Leadership
Fable, and while it’s typically used in relation with the
establishment of cross-functional leadership teams as the primary
accountability team rather than organizational reports, the same concept
is applicable here for product teams.
Simply changing your organization’s language, without changing its
behaviors isn’t going to have a measurable impact on your scaling woes. Still,
it’s a simple place to start and it addresses the organizational friction and
larger cultural issues that lie at the root of your performance issues.
Changing the language
The more hands-on an organization is willing to be in breaking
silos, the more likely it is they will be effectively be breaking some
of the implicit ‘versus’ states that have enabled them.
Taking a hands-on approach to moderating the language
used in your organization is a simple first step to breaking down
barriers and reducing friction.
- Referring to your organizational group of practitioners as anything other
than “team” – such as squad, pod, or whatever term fits your organization’s
culture is a small change that can have a strong impact.
- Naming your cross-functional product delivery teams,
ideally with the name of their product or value stream, is another simple change that helps
these multi-disciplined individuals adopt a new team identity separate from
their organizational reporting context.
- Drop “us” and “them” from the professional vocabulary. Coming up with
alternative terms but keeping the same context of ‘that group over there – which
isn’t this group’ is cheating. We filter ourselves and our language in a
professional environment regularly and this language needs to be added to the
‘not allowed’ list.
Change the behavior
Those of us trying to
change our organizations’ culture need to define the things we want to
do, the ways we want to behave and want each other to behave, to provide
training and then to do what is necessary to reinforce those behaviors.
The culture will change as a result.
Changing an organization’s culture when it isn’t delivering the desired
results is hard. Many books have been written on the subject. By
defining and communicating the expected behaviors of your teams and
their respective team members up front, you set the underlying tone for
the culture you are striving to create.
- Leaders should set a principle and expectation of a blameless culture. When
something goes wrong, it’s a wonderful learning opportunity, to be studied and
used to continuously improve. An example of this is the concept of
a blameless post-mortem.
- Set expectations and regularly inspect adoption of desired behaviors. Hold
team members accountable to these behaviors and refuse to tolerate
- Orient “team” constructs around value streams instead of functions.
Differentiate “teams” as groups who deliver common value from Communities of
Practices or Centers of Excellence which are typically formed to deepen or
deliver specific competencies such as Product Management or Quality
- Acknowledge that some personality types are less compatible than others.
Shift talented people around to find the optimal team synergy.
Define and communicate how your scaleup delivers value
A company is, in many ways, just one large team with one shared goal
— the success of the organization. When product and engineering don’t
have a shared understanding of that goal, it’s hard for them to come to
a collaborative agreement on how to achieve it. To avoid this source of
friction, executives must clearly articulate and disseminate the overall
value their organization provides to its customers, investors, and
society. Leaders are responsible for describing how each product and
service in your portfolio contributes to delivering that value.
Management must ensure that every team member understands how the work
that they do day in and day out creates value to the organization and
The goal is to create a shared mental model of how the business
creates value. The best way to do this is highly dependent on the nature
of your business. We have found certain kinds of assets to be both
common and useful across our scaleup clients:
Assets that describe customer and user value
These should describe the value your product and services create, who
they create it for, and the ways you measure that value. Examples
- Business Model Canvas/Lean Canvas
- User Journeys
- Service blueprints
- Empathy maps
- Job forces diagrams
- Product overviews (one-pagers, etc)
Assets that describe your economic model
These should describe the value your company receives from customers,
the cost of creating that value, and the ways in which you measure that
value. Examples include:
- Business flywheels
- Value stream maps
- Wardley maps
- Retention/churn models
- Customer acquisition models
- Customer lifetime value models
- Projected balance sheets and income
Assets that describe your strategy
These should describe why you’ve chosen to serve these customers in
this way, the evidence you used to make that decision, and the highest
leverage ways you can increase the value you create and the value you
receive in return.
- Target customer profiles
- Issue trees
- Impact maps
- Opportunity/solution trees
- Hierarchy diagrams
- Causal loop diagrams
- Other bespoke frameworks and models
Once you have these assets, it’s important to constantly refer to
them in presentations, in meetings, when making decsions, and most importantly,
when there is conflict. Communicate when you change them,
and what made you make those changes. Solicit updates from the
organization. In short, make them part of your normal operations and
don’t let them become wallpaper or another cubicle pinup.
A simple heuristic that we’ve found to understand how successful
you’ve been in this communication is to pick a random individual
contributor and ask them to answer the questions answered by these
assets. The better they can do this without referring to the assets, the
better they will be at incorporating this thinking into their work. If
they don’t even know that the assets exist, then you still have a good
deal of work to do.
The alignment and focus these assets create allow for better
deployment of organizational resources, which enables scaling.
Additionally, they redirect the natural tension between product and
engineering. Instead of unproductive interpersonal friction, you can use
creating and updating these assets as a venue for true collaboration and
healthy disagreement about ideas that strengthen the company.
We’re releasing this article in installments. Future installments
will add more information about how to get out of the bottleneck by
creating multidisciplinary stream-aligned teams and creating a balanced product
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