There is no perfect organizational structure. Who reports to whom and who has a seat at the table is much less important than having the right people on the team and a strong vision to guide them. Success has much more to do with culture and priorities than the perfect org chart. The key to developing successful, user-centered products is user-centered teams, not specific titles or ratios. Great products come from companies where a passion for brilliant user experience and a fanatical focus on customer outcomes is a priority for the company, not just Product Management and User Experience. It’s the customer that needs a seat at the table, not you.
Your business cannot have a fixed shape. It needs to be fluid, yielding easily to external pressure and signals. It must sense and respond, in the same fashion as proper product discovery. You need to be truly lean and agile in every part of your work, not just your software development process. The ground can’t be continuously shifting, but regularly evaluating that you have the best people, on the right teams, working on the most impactful projects is good leadership. A holistic review each six months is not too soon to ensure that you’re still positioned strategically to win.
Product teams must be small, (ideally) co-located, cross-functional, and autonomous. They should be empowered and trusted to discover, build, and deliver on their own (to a production environment). But, there are dangers to being dogmatic about this. It’s the right people that will produce results, not the template. There is power in the the product trio (PM, UX, Engineering Lead), but I’ve seen marketers that know the customer better than a Product Manager, Engineers that care more about usability than a User Experience Designer, and Product Managers that can talk circles around a developer about artificial intelligence and machine learning. And, if your teams are too independent, they can end up shipping separate products that just happen to be behind the same log-in screen. A single product should have a single roadmap.
Confidence is important, but I have found that many software companies have the cart a few paces ahead of the horse. It’s great that you want to be a platform. More integrations and verticals should be part of your plan. Your customers are asking for new features and your competitors just released an update. It’s hard to not salivate over the additional revenue that can come from a second product. But, this is all premature before strong product-market-fit. A flashy matrix of features might sell well, but if the product is a mile wide and only an inch deep, it won’t last. At the end of the day, customers are more interested in success today than your vision of tomorrow.
Your number one priority should be delivering value to your users today. And, I specifically said “users” and not “customers,” because I mean the people that are actually using your product, not just paying for it. That is where you must start; everything follows from there. When your users succeed, your customers succeed. When your customers succeed, your business succeeds. Your customers will continue using and referring your product when it makes them money, saves them time, or increases their happiness. Don’t let anything or anyone distract you from delivering value—not your competitors, the market, investors, your board, or even your ego.
It requires focus and patience. It’s critical that the entire business is unified around the same vision and driving towards the same objectives. If any one group is pulling, even a few degrees, in a different direction, you’ll make little progress. It’s critical that the value your company provides and how that is measured is clear.
You shouldn’t go longer than about eight weeks without looking across the entire business and product and asking if you are working on the thing that will result in the biggest impact for your customers. It’s nice for teams to be dedicated to an area or experience so that they can go deep, but the consequence of too many teams, driving too many independent goals, is that they may not be working on that which delivers the biggest impact, and it can easily and quickly result in a poor experience.
After building and leading many product organizations, I have come to learn that success is achieved through alignment in purpose, focus, and moving quickly. You must be fluid and nimble, which requires clear boundaries, accountability, psychological safety, and a culture that supports continuous learning. The way to figure out what needs to be done is to start doing real work.
Commit for a cycle. Fixed time; variable scope. Build, measure, and learn. Done means deployed. Then evaluate. Everything. Priorities change. The market changes. Competition changes. Technology changes. Your product changes. Your opinions (hopefully) change. Require defense of each investment to ensure that it’s the right problem to solve at the right time.
We usually assume or imply that Conway’s Law is bad. You will ship your org chart, so make sure that it’s a good one. For today.