How to Build a Mature Product Organization

For early-stage product teams, your secret weapon is staying scrappy. Despite your lack of formalized processes, constant experimentation can help you craft a product with clear value for your customers.

But as your team grows, you can’t remain a young product team forever. Not if you want to succeed.

How can you help your product team mature as the company grows?

We spoke with several product leaders about the differences between mature and immature product teams within the startup space. They highlight the right tools for cultivating maturity as well as potential hurdles young product organizations face as they grow and develop.


What Does it Mean to be a “Mature Product Team”?

First, we need to define what exactly comprises a product team.

There are three distinct roles that serve a product organization:

  • Design (Is the product usable?)
  • Development (Is the product feasible?)
  • Product Management (Is the product viable?)

When all three components operate in tandem, they form a complete product team. This definition goes beyond the constraint of “product managers are the product team” and aligns with the broader idea of what and who is needed to build product.

So, what is the difference between mature and immature product teams?

For Anne Nielsen, Executive Director of Product Management at JupiterOne, it depends on the level of collaboration between these roles.

She explains, “Maturity is really about developing collaboration. Design, development, and product management all have their respective strengths and weaknesses. By collaborating together, you’re minimizing your weaknesses and accentuating your strengths to ultimately build a better product and a healthy organization that stands the test of time.”

In contrast, immature organizations often find individual roles like product management focused on “conquering a hill with no connection back to what development and design are trying to accomplish.”

According to Anne, this strategy will only cause “your house of cards to eventually collapse.”

Less dire, you may find a developer who has really strong business acumen serving or a product manager with a strong design aesthetic. This gets you through the early stages of building a product, but hiring many people with that combined skill set can be tough to scale. This is when you need to specialize and build towards maturity or a balance of skills and responsibilities on a product team.


When Does a Product Team Need to Start Maturing?

With the stability and structure awarded by a collaborative organization, it would seem that product teams should seek to cultivate maturity from Day 1.

Not so fast.

Although maturity is eventually necessary for product teams to responsibly scale their products, fostering maturity should not be a priority for seed-stage teams.

Josh Tong, Principal Product Manager at CognitOps, argues that the “level of maturity for a product team is largely stage-dependent. Seed stage teams need to stay scrappy and experimental and do whatever they can to achieve that product-market fit.”

To Josh, product teams need to figure out “how to achieve a level of product traction before adding structure.”

So when should early product teams begin thinking about developing that maturity?

Josh suggests most teams reach this point after their Series A funding round.


He explains that by the time you raise Series A, you’ve likely achieved three things:

  • You found product-market fit
  • You’ve reached a level of predictable product delivery
  • You’ve become more strategic and less reactive

In sum, he explains, “A shift happens where being scrappy won’t bring you to the next stage anymore, and it’s at that point where product teams should start considering how they can add more structure and collaboration to their workflows.”

That way, seed-stage teams can focus on proving the value of their products without the worry of too much structure slowing deployments to a crawl.


3 Practical Tools to Help Young Product Teams Evolve into Mature Teams

Cross-functional Collaboration

The first step to building a mature product team involves formalizing collaborative practices between different departments in the organization. If early product teams become too siloed from other parts of the company, Anne Nielsen affirms that they “put blinders on” and “become too focused on executing without any connection to the value that the product delivers to the business.”

To improve collaboration across the enterprise, she stresses the importance of creating an environment where team members constantly ask, “Why?”

She explains, “Asking this question allows teams to understand what other teams are doing and why they’re doing it. In turn, this deeper understanding allows teams to deliver a better product.”

Likewise, product teams can develop a stronger cross-team partnership by prioritizing the customer experience.

When product and engineering teams collaborate, they start by engaging in the customer perspective and determining the pain-points and interests of their customers. By making a customer-centric product, the members of every team gain a better recognition of how their contributions impact each other and create business value.

For Anne, the best way to push product teams into this customer headspace is to give them more exposure to customer feedback. She adds, “We should all be meeting with the sales team because they hear direct feedback from customers. If product, design, and development all hear this feedback, they’ll be more empathetic and better understand the needs of the customer.”

Knowing this helps product teams ensure that they’re “solving the right problems.”

Note: For most early-stage startups, they’re usually working with a very small pool of customers. As a result, product teams may struggle to receive any useful signals from their customers about potential improvements to their products. Therefore, the responsibility often falls to engineers to contribute to product teams with constructive feedback on the products that they’re working on themselves.


Responsible Deadlines

Deadlines are often important tools of product organizations for prioritizing tasks and keeping larger projects on target for completion.

They can also cause a lot of headaches.

Anne Nielsen discourages manufacturing deadlines, citing that artificial due dates create “a level of distrust” within product teams.

In her experience, it’s much better for design and development teams “to be very honest when they’ve hit a snag. If things are more complex than they thought, they should be very clear on that to other parts of the product organization so they can look at that problem and assess their options.”

Enforcing a strict, superficial deadline will just pressure team members into concealing problems that arise during development so that they won’t disrupt the final ship date.

If your product team ends up facing a real deadline that you have to meet, Anne recommends two “levers” that you can pull to keep your project on track:

  1. Use additional resources
  2. Change the scope of the project

While these levers don’t always work, altering just one of these parameters will at least lessen the pressure that fixed timelines impose on product teams and encourage open communication between team members.


Flexible Product Roadmaps

When sketching out future goals for your product, staying agile is critical.

According to Melissa Chenok, Group Product Manager at Lattice, one of the key paths to building additional maturity within your product team is designing “outcome-based roadmaps” that you can “ideate and iterate on regularly.”

When your company is at an early stage and you’re building with uncertainty, you’re learning as you go and using your environment to decide your business priorities. You may have a one-year vision for your product, but smart product teams prioritize quarterly roadmaps early on so that they can easily adapt and change course.

Nevertheless, flexibility can be a double-edged sword.

Anne Nielsen warns of the danger of having an early-stage product team that constantly “chases something new.”

She says, “Doing a lot of experiments when trying to find that product-market fit sometimes makes it feel like every day is a different priority. That can burn out developers and be hard for your sales team because now they feel like they have to switch everything up.”

Therefore, mature product organizations want to “maintain a level of flexibility” but also want to “maintain a level of focus so that they’re not giving the teams whiplash.”

Pro Tip: Don’t forget to take dependencies into account when you build out your initial product roadmaps. This will improve collaboration between departments as well as help you prioritize your product backlog.


3 Roadblocks that Prevent Product Teams from Reaching Maturity

Adjusting to a slower pace of development

Working on a young product team can feel exhilarating. During that seed stage, new features seem to just fly out the door.

But as your team matures, be ready for time frames to stretch a bit.

Josh Tong explains, “On the product side, one of the biggest challenges that you have in Series A is that the pace of development slows down because you’re trying to clean things up and do things right. The early team had shorter time frames for features because they were so scrappy and weren’t concerned about architecture.”

Once you reach Series A funding, be prepared for some increased friction as team members get acclimated to a slower pace of development. But understand that this pace will ultimately yield more consistent and predictable output in the long run.


Transitioning toward specialization

For Luke Ruth, Chief Product Officer at Fundrise, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is shifting away from being a team of generalists. He explains, “The need for specialized roles grows as your product team grows. New team members will join in order to provide specialized skills or experiences. Others will join when an area of the business or aspect of the product matures, warranting a full-time resource.”

This transition is rarely clean or easy.

Luke elaborates, “At times, it can feel like a reduction of your scope of work.”

However, overcoming this obstacle will show you that while the process of specialization can feel uncomfortable, it reflects “a massive growth in the platform and product” such that what used to be part of one person’s responsibility “now represents an entire team’s full-time job.”


Holding onto a Limited Mindset

Luke explains that “One of the biggest roadblocks to a mature product team is a narrow mindset. If the team is overly concentrated on any one aspect of their role or one feature within the product, it can be hard for them to zoom out far enough to see the big picture.”

The challenge is that this mindset is valuable on a small team – when you need to be laser focused. But when it’s time to expand your product (and team), you need a broader view.


Conclusion: Don’t Fear Maturity

Taking the steps to become a mature product organization can feel scary at times.

After all, you’re actively moving away from strategies and processes that brought you success in the past.

Instead of fearing maturity, view it as the natural next step in the life cycle of your product team. Before you know it, this maturity will bring your product farther than you could have ever imagined reaching.

So go out and take that leap into the next phase of your product journey!

Author: Jonas Fryer

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