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ITX Product Momentum Podcast – Episode 23: The Product Leader's Path to High Performance

Posted by Peter Sullivan on May 01, 2020 4 min read

As a community, have we gotten better at product leadership? And if we haven’t, what’s it going to take to get there? The answer to both depends on who we ask and by what yardstick we use to measure our performance. For example, is there alignment between the big organizational vision and our individual product vision? Have we mastered the softer skills to bring together such diverse groups of people? And do our teams know how to think through complex problems and adapt when the ground shifts beneath them?

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean and Paul pose these questions to Richard Banfield, VP of Design Transformation at InVision. Richard’s natural curiosity provides some helpful takeaways:

  • The notion of high performance is not new; powerful examples exist in every industry and sector. Find one that works for you and imitate it.
  • Effective product people first need to be people people.
  • Building a practice of high performance requires us to teach our teams how to work together, think together, and decide together.

Better Performance Through Team Alignment

Product leaders have gotten better in part because we’ve come to understand the challenges we face, Richard says. Part of that is sharing the realization that we're not the first to go down this road. High-performing teams happen in every industry and across sectors, and it’s been this way for a long time. Many powerful examples exist for us to model and pick out the things that work.

Once we do, the secret to unleashing that power is figuring out a way to get people to work together, he adds.  

We don’t know how to work together. It’s not that we don’t want to. We do. But we're struggling to figure out what's the best way to do that.

— Richard Banfield,  VP of Digital Transformation at InVision

“We don’t know how to work together,” Richard says. “It’s not that we don’t want to. But we're struggling to figure out what's the best way to do that. What models, what modalities, what communication, what leadership skills are appropriate in different organizations?”

For product leaders and their teams, that’s a lot to absorb. Now more than ever, product leaders are being called on to get all the people in the room – architects, developers, designers, product managers – aligned around a common goal.

For Product Leaders, Soft Skills Are the New Hard Skills

“We need leaders who not only understand the hard skills – the technology and the systems,” Richard offers. “But even more so we need leaders who have the softer skills.

“And maybe we should call ‘soft skills’ the ‘hard skills’ because as we’ve seen they really are difficult to master.”

To be effective in the roles, product people first need to be “people people.” Just because we've got friends and colleagues and connections doesn’t mean that we know how to work with them, that we know how to collaborate.

A special set of interpersonal skill is required. And it’s not merely the assimilation of team member ideas, intellect, and insight that elevates the challenge – though that’s clearly part of it.

Maybe we should call ‘soft skills’ the ‘hard skills,’ because as we’ve seen they really are difficult to master.

— Richard Banfield, VP of Digital Transformation at InVision

The thornier prospect is in mediating people’s biases and backgrounds and providing a structured framework within which creativity is simultaneously harnessed and then set free; those are components to an advanced skill set that will bring about a different kind of understanding to what's going on.

The design sprint is a useful example of this skill set in action. It’s not the only one, Richard stresses, but it offers a popular framework where creativity and formality co-exist.

“I like design sprints because you can learn a great deal in a very short space of time,” Richard adds. “You can practice them, you can experience them, and you can select from them the things that you care about and discard the things that are not relevant to you at that time.”

The Decision Stack

Richard points to co-author Martin Eriksson’s decision stack as an important tool for teams that struggle with where to invest time and other resources. High-performing teams embed the decision stack into their making daily decision-making process – a process that connects an organization’s vision all the way through strategy, objective, and principles and values.

It helps to create true alignment – the sort of alignment that doesn’t occur by luck or happenstance. High-performing product teams achieve this point in their evolution because they’re actively and intentionally doing all the things that need to be done to make it happen, Richard says.

“High-performing teams spend a disproportionate amount of time doing the decision stacking and the value work to find mutual agreement. Once that's in place, they can always turn to that as an objective source of truth and say, "hey, I don't agree with you on this thing, but we've got a higher cause. We have an objective thing that we can use as the tiebreaker, as the way to reach a decision.”

High-performing product teams achieve this point in their evolution because they’re actively and intentionally doing all the things that need to be done to make it happen...and they spend a disproportionate amount of time doing the decision stacking and the value work to find mutual agreement.

— Richard Banfield, VP of Digital Transformation at InVision

Building a Practice of High Performance

This objective truth is a big part of building a practice of high performance. A smattering of high-performance in an organization is positive start; but the key is to get to a point where you’ve institutionalized high performance into the organization’s very culture.

Highly performant organizations like the ones Richard describes are the product of getting people to think through problems together.

“When building a practice of high performance within an organization,” he adds, “the most important thing you can do is teach people how to work together, think together, and make really interesting choices and decisions every day.”

The Essence of Product Leadership

Have we gotten better as product leaders? It’s all about the eye of the beholder. But at least we now what yardstick we should use.

“A lot depends how much you are able to distance yourself from the day-to-day work and take a bigger picture viewpoint,” Richard concludes. “If you're in the weeds every day, it's hard to believe that we're making progress because those daily challenges haven't necessarily gone away. But if you take a step back and look at the entire industry, you can see we've got better at a bunch of things.”

Technology will continue to evolve. So the value delivered by product leaders who are capable of adapting to continuous change by thinking through problems, above all else, will be timeless. The essence of product leadership is creating an environment in which teams are equipped to sense and respond to complex new situations, and then learn from them.


Related Product Momentum Podcasts:

Developing Organizational Agility, with Jeff Gothelf.

Evolution of the Product Manager Role, with Jake Sorofman.

Simple Steps to Achieve High Performance, with Christina Wodtke.

 




Minutes to Read:   4