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Product Leadership: Autonomy, Alignment, and Psychological Safety

July 14, 2020

Product Leadership

We’re seeing a change in management styles, and it’s about time. As a leader myself, in both a product manager and CEO capacity, I am thrilled to be riding this renaissance wave on how leaders should be managing their teams.

This shift has been in the wings for far too long, failing to take center stage and keep up with the modern ways of working. Organizations are finally coming around to the idea that productive, happy, and long-lasting teams are developed from the top. This is why fresh, dynamic approaches to leadership have finally made it into the spotlight.

Good product leadership is not about having a stick, ordering people to do things as quickly as possible, and strictly to order. While this command and control type model may have been effective for manufacturing lines back in the day, it is redundant for knowledge-focused and creative companies.

What makes an empowered team?

An empowered team is balanced on three essential ingredients: alignment, autonomy, and psychological safety.

Alignment 

A starting point for any truly empowered team is to make sure that they all point in the same direction. This is where team alignment comes into play. A product leader should be ensuring that their teams are working towards the same set of objectives. This is achieved through frequent communication, so the team constantly knows where they are heading. Make sure your teams are aware of how to deal with particular challenges, competitors, or opportunities. Give them the knowledge to be able to navigate their way through your strategy, and feel secure enough to make the right decisions on their own. 

Autonomy 

I remember getting an early lesson in the value of providing autonomy when I was young and learning to ride a horse with my dad. I was unsure how I was going to guide my horse down the rocky ravines. Should I be tugging on the reins with my left or right hand? Would the horse know where to step or was I putting myself in danger? I was unsure of the process to reach my goal. However, my father advised me to not do anything besides maintain good posture and let the horse find its own footing and its own way down. Sure enough, it led me down the rocky path and through the ravine with nothing more than gentle direction on where we needed to go. The horse didn’t need me telling it what to do, or where to place its hooves. I gave it autonomy. 

In the same way, none of us benefit from a boss micromanaging our workload and telling us how something should be done. A good leader should surround themselves with smart, capable people, providing tools and training to make sure everyone is able to do their jobs, and then let them do their thing. A great leader knows when to get out of the way and let the expertise of their team shine through.

Alignment and autonomy go hand in hand in product leadership

You need both alignment and autonomy. If you’re missing one or the other, you can end up in dysfunctional organizations that range from  micromanaging nightmares to absolute chaos.

For example, product teams with high autonomy but poor alignment find themselves building stuff that doesn’t solve customer problems. This could have a much wider impact if it acquires tech debt and wastes valuable resources. 

On the flipside, teams that are aligned but not autonomous often end up in miserable cycles of building whatever they’re told. They miss out on the creativity and depth of the best possible solution that could have been found if the team was able to contribute to finding their own way to the solution. This might work for smaller, inconsequential projects, but tends to break the spirit of teams and wastes valuable talent.

Good leadership is ensuring that your company is both highly aligned and highly autonomous. 

Image by Henrik Kniberg
Image by Henrik Kniberg

Psychological Safety 

Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, stated: “There’s no team without trust.” This was after his two-year study on team performance, known as Project Aristotle. Upon identifying hundreds of their team members, Google identified why some were high-performing and whilst others were struggling. The underlying factor was psychological safety. This allowed teams to perform better.

The teams who performed the best were the ones who collaborated well, treated each other like respected human beings, didn’t chastise anyone else for making mistakes. As a result, they were willing to speak up if something went wrong or looked out of place. Mistakes were caught earlier, conflicts were resolved more easily, and teams were achieving more as a result.

Good product leadership is built from empowered teams
Psychological safety has an outsized impact on team culture

In the formula, psychological safety is a multiplier. Without it, all the autonomy and alignment in the world won’t get you anywhere. If your team doesn’t feel safe trying new things, they won’t speak up if they see something wrong. Psychological safety has an outsized impact in the formula, and an outsized impact on your team culture.

What makes good product leadership?

If you’re hiring smart people then you don’t need to be involved in every decision. Point them in the right direction and let them use their skills. Are you managing a coder? Let them use their skills in the best way they can to contribute to the company goals. If there’s a point of disagreement, don’t let it become a case of your opinion vs theirs: give them space to share their process and show their work. Have open discussions about how it aligns with the goals of the organization. 

It’s the same if you’ve got a team of product managers. Let them solve the problems. It’s your job as the product leader to assemble the team. As well as alignment, psychological safety, and autonomy, make sure they have everything they need. Are their working conditions comfortable? Is their salary competitive? Are they happy? Once you’ve ticked yes to all this stuff… you can get out of the way.

Your roadmap is an indicator of team culture

Here at ProdPad, we see a lot of roadmaps and get to see how a lot of teams work. We’ve spotted patterns, and it turns out the roadmap is very telling. A roadmap can be a diagnostic tool for the state of a company. A bad roadmap is a symptom of underlying problems in a company.

Here’s a quick-fire diagnosis for common roadmap problems. Compare the symptoms you might be seeing in your own team to get an indication of what your team needs to consider in order to build towards a stronger culture:

  1. Symptom: Your roadmap is filled with features or solutions, when they should be problems that need solving. Diagnosis: Lack of autonomy.
  2. Symptom: The roadmap or vision are missing. There is nothing linking work to company-wide objectives. Diagnosis: Lack of alignment.
  3. Symptom: Leadership is making all the decisions, there is no room for questions or experiments.  Diagnosis: Lack of psychological safety.

If you’re feeling one or all of these symptoms, don’t despair! It’s not uncommon, and like a product itself, your team culture is something that can be measured, learned from, and iterated upon until it gradually improves. 

To help you with this process, you can join for a free Roadmap Clinic to learn more about how your roadmap can be improved. Just talk us through your existing roadmap process, and we’ll help you with a diagnosis, plus a series of suggested fixes that you can start using right away.

Janna Bastow is co-founder of ProdPad, software that helps product managers plan and deliver better products. Janna also organizes ProductTank events around the world, including Mind The Product, a global community of product managers. She likes to inspire great product conversations by asking: “What problem are you trying to solve?”

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