Structuring scaling product teams to prevent silos: A conversation with Productboard’s SVP of Product
Srinivas Krishnamurti (or SK) has a little thought experiment for you.
Imagine you’re a fast-growing startup with three to five teams in place. You give each of them ownership over a key area. You provide them metrics to track their progress. This is all standard practice, but according to Productboard’s SVP of Product, it’s also where the trouble can begin.
“Before you know it, they’re so maniacally focused on those areas and those metrics that the silos appear,” Srinivas said during a session at the 2021 Product Excellence virtual summit. “As a product leader, it’s your responsibility to prevent these silos from happening.”
Easier said than done, of course. To offer some ideas on how to identify silos and drive alignment across product and other departments, Srinivas led a discussion with some very experienced CPOs. These included Georgie Smallwood, CPO of TIER Mobility; Varun Parmar, CPO at Mira and Laura Marino, CPO at TrueAccord (Editor’s note: these were their roles at the time of the 2021 summit).
In case you missed our 2021 Product Excellence Summit, this edited version of the conversation will provide you with the key takeaways — and if you like what you read here, join us for the 2022 Product Excellence Summit on Oct. 4, in person in San Francisco or online!
On structuring product teams
SK: Let’s start with talking about how your teams are structured, and why you’ve structured them the way you have.
Laura Marino: Our biggest product is a very complex B2B2C product — our clients are large financial services firms and fintechs whose customers are trying to resolve their debts. And then we have internal call center agents or finance teams who are servicing our clients and consumers in a highly regulated environment. So we have aligned our product and engineering teams accordingly: we have some teams that focus on client integrations, client configurations and reporting, and they work very closely with our client success team. We have teams focused on the user experience for those consumers in on the AI decisioning engine that’s at the core of the product. And then we have teams that are focused more on the internal operations. Of course there are dependencies across teams, but each team has been able to become an expert in their area.
Georgie Smallwood: We operate around three major stakeholders: the consumer, the city and the company. And our whole company strategy is built around those three key stakeholders. So at a primary level, we dedicate capacity to each of those three stakeholders. And that was really important, because otherwise you’re constantly reprioritizing. And when you’re scaling fast, there’s not a lot of solid ground to stand on. So when you’re building your teams, you need to think about where are you going. I always build org charts one or two years in advance to try and think about that. The team might end up looking different, but at least you’re being deliberate about where you’re going.
“Make sure that the core principles of what [you’re] trying to deliver are actually reflected in the structure.”
– Varun Parmar, CPO at Mira
Varun Parmar: For us, it’s really, really important to sort of think about the right architecture of the organization to make sure that the core principles of what we’re trying to deliver are actually reflected in the structure. Companies need to ask if they are app-first companies or platform-first companies or API-first companies. And based on that, what’s the right experience you need to deliver? So we think a lot about org structures from that perspective and make sure that, when you look at the software, it actually emulates the org structure, which then is emulating what the customer outcomes are.
On the challenges of scaling product teams
SK: What are some of the things that people shouldn’t underestimate in terms of scaling their teams? Where do things go sideways?
GS: Clear roles and responsibilities. It sounds like the most basic thing in the world, but I find that when you’re when you’re moving quickly, and you’re changing org structures, you have to make sure that the team is going to be successful for what you want them to achieve next year or even next week. You might have a generalist, and they’re an excellent generalist, but as the company grows you’re also going to need experts. And to do that you need to show them: here’s what the role looks like. This is the impact. And this is the space that you can make decisions in, because in the end everyone wants to be successful. They want to drive forward. They need to know where they can do that.
VP: One area where people often underestimate the impact of scaling is, how do you make sure the culture and norms remain? Because at some point, when you start to grow really big, you’re not able to have that physical connection or that intimate onboarding experience that you used to have when you had five people. You have to think about systems and scalability in terms of how do you continue driving the core product principles and philosophies that you’ve created over the past several years?
“You cannot overdo communication as the company starts growing.”
– Laura Marino, CPO at TrueAccord
LM: You cannot overdo communication as the company starts growing. What was potentially a very organic way of communication when the company was small — that doesn’t work as you grow. And it’s about communication between the teams, but it’s also about communication with the rest of the organization. Product needs to be so much more vocal to explain what we’re doing, and why.
On preventing product silos
SK: Perfect. So let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about some of the ways in which you have addressed silos from from calcifying. What kind of strategies or rituals do you have in place?
GS: What we saw was that cross-functionally, the teams were communicating really well. But the leaders weren’t, because the leadership team was growing. So what we did is introduce the cross functional leadership teams at the stakeholder level. It has marketing, it has product engineering. It also has market development in there. Each team has a different requirement, but we didn’t need to force the conversation in the teams. It was at the leadership level where we were actually missing a lot of alignment.
“It was at the leadership level where we were actually missing a lot of alignment.”
– Georgie Smallwood, CPO of TIER Mobility
LS: What we have put in place is sort of a layered set of alignment. We have the quarterly review meeting, where we review with the executive team what we did in the previous quarter and what we’re doing next. Then at each team level, they have their stakeholder meetings where they do a lot of this education, but I still have yet to find the perfect solution. It’s ongoing work to make sure that everybody’s aligned.
VP: Similar to joint product organization, we have a cross-functional team we call AMPED: Analytics, Marketing, Product Engineering and Design. Weekly rituals are all about taking the pulse of the organization — to provide an update on what’s happening. Then on a monthly basis, we’re tracking gains. Our quarterly meetings are all around planning and goal setting, and we have a product and engineering excellence team that runs that entire process. So we’ve got folks who are doing product operations at scale, across the entire organization and providing operational support as needed to all of the different streams.