Create a high-performance product team

    Recently, Elon Musk's approach to engineering was discussed on Twitter. Despite having only 150 engineers (significantly fewer than the competition), the Tesla autopilot AI team had achieved infinitely more, dispelling the myth that the only way to boost engineering productivity was to hire more engineers.

    This story resonates with us because proSapient (my first company) created its entire software platform for the same amount of money that our largest competitor spends in just six months.

    How did we do it?

    By focusing on what matters.


    Set your goals at the company level

    Before we talk about product excellence, it's important to understand what your company's mission is. If you don't have a clear vision/mission, best to start with that.

    With a clear vision and an understanding of the implicit goals of a private company (profitability, risk removal), the leadership team should create 3-5 strategic goals that are communicated so regularly that it feels as though you are repeating yourself.

    Each function (product included) should be given the autonomy to deliver the projects that they believe will have the highest impact on those strategic goals, leaving a small amount of capacity for projects that have large impacts on other parts of the business.

    Everything else should simply be deprioritized.


    Give autonomy to your product team within those strategic goals

    There are a million things a product team could build and most of these things will deliver some impact somewhere but the trick to high performance is to allow product leadership the autonomy to deliver the features/products which deliver the highest return for those strategic goals.

    Product teams will always have more things to build than they have the capacity to do. The funny thing is that if you double the size of your product team, the backlog magically doubles also. No matter how big your product team gets, you will always have more work than you can comfortably do - accept that bigger teams don't solve the backlog problem and get comfortable saying no.

    For those in other functions, your support is essential to a hyperproductive product team. Every person in your company has 'just one feature' that would help them. If you tally up all these 'just one features' you will quickly find that all product's time will go into this disparate group of features at the expense of ignoring the core strategic goals.

    A well-functioning product team should say no to the features that don't impact the core strategic goals (which means most of them).


    If you are desperate for your favourite product/feature to be implemented, show the product team how it will impact the Company's core strategy, and remember that it will compete against other features. If you feel that your feature has a higher impact on the business than they think, then have a constructive discussion to explain your viewpoints but if the deprioritization is simply because there are other features that better support the company goals, trust they are doing the right thing for the company.


    Measure what matters

    Strategic goals are subjective and in order to have an objective measure, define the measurable KPIs that determine when the goal has been met.

    Strategic Goal Example: Make our software so easy to use that clients' just get it.

    This strategic goal (Objective) makes rational sense. If a product is easy to use, then the product will be used more, and it will be adopted more quickly. It may also be one of your customer's key demands.

    We make this goal measurable by agreeing on a set of measurable criteria which, if met, will get us closer to our strategic goal. Let's call these Key Results:

    • Client's rate ease of use as 4/5 or higher in our next survey
    • Sessions per user grow 20%
    • Average session length increase by 30%
    • The number of help requests drops by 20%

    If the leadership team has made the above a clear strategic goal, then whatever features would impact any of the selected Key Results will be prioritized


    Drop the world 'deadline'

    It may sound counterproductive but trying to force a high-quality engineering team into deadlines will have several negative consequences including lower-quality products, less teamwork, increased stress, higher staff churn, and missed deadlines.

    If you want to learn more about why you should ditch deadlines, read this article.


    Want a high-performing team?

    • Set your company's vision
    • Create 3-5 strategic goals which, if met, would move you closer to that vision
    • Give the product team full autonomy and trust to deliver the features that most impact the strategic goal
    • Use the OKR methodology to run your product teams
    • Drop the word deadline