Empty organisation structure boxes
Photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash

As a product leader, it is said that how you structure your team is one of the most important decisions you will make.

A well-structured product team can bring significant benefits to an organization, ranging from improved product quality, faster time-to-market, to increased customer satisfaction.

Ultimately, the decisions you make around your product team structure directly affect the success or failure of the products you offer.

It’s very likely at some stage in your leadership career you’ll find yourself having to repair, refine or reimagine your product team structure. So, where to begin?

Do you start by sketching out your ideal team org chart and putting names in boxes? Do you adopt a structure that is used among the ‘best’ product companies? Or do you wing it based on the experience you’ve gained over the years?

At various stages in my leadership career I’ve adopted one of these strategies and in doing so experienced my fair share of failure! Unfortunately, I am not alone. Based on research recently conducted by the Association of Product Professionals, it found that 42% of product leaders are not happy with their current team structure.

In response to this situation, a group of product professionals joined forces to identify ways to help product leaders structure their teams to deliver better outcomes for their organization type. This group included Ken Sandy, author of the Influential Product Manager, Sanket Bhat, co-council lead at Association of Product Professionals, Adrienne Chan, Nick Costa, founders of Brainmates and myself.

Based on our collective experience and insights gained from conducting primary research with product leaders globally, we concluded there is a better way for product leaders to make decisions around their product team structure.

The outcome of this collaboration is a white paper titled: Intentional Product Team Design –Trade-off based decision making for optimizing long-term success.

This paper was presented at the largest product management conference in the southern hemisphere, Leading the Product 2023, as part of the leadership stream hosted by Ken Sandy and myself.

The white paper provides a step-by-step approach to make more intentional decisions around how you structure your product team. Key insights from the paper include:

1. There is no such thing as a ‘best’ structure: A core conclusion from the paper is there is no single best way of structuring your product teams. Rather, the right team structure is based around a set of deliberate decisions, tailored to your situation, that entail trade-offs. In the white paper we uncover the most common trade-offs you’ll face and ways to mitigate these.

2. Context is king: As a product leader, your job is to create the best possible conditions for the people in your team to succeed. These conditions will depend on the context you operate within and the corresponding decisions made by leadership spanning from the highest levels of the organization through to those at the individual level, each with corresponding trade-offs. Note: you will not always be in control of these decisions. In the white paper we outline the key contextual factors you’ll need to consider when designing your product team structure.

3. Six commonly adopted product team patterns: In addition to understanding your business context, strategy was defined as the most influential factor in deciding the type of team structure you adopt. Based on our research for the white paper we identified six team structure archetypes to consider. We unpack each of these structures including strategies that are commonly aligned to each (more detail below on each of these six structures).

4. Culture as a key driver of success: Culture can enable or inhibit the successful execution of your team structure. It is the invisible hand that shapes the way people think, talk and interact with one another on a daily basis. Ignoring or considering culture as an afterthought in making decisions around your team structure, significantly increases the risk of failure for your team. In the white paper we take you through the various layers that underpin team culture and how each of these require reflection and deliberate decisions around the role of culture in how you shape your team.

5. Adaptability in your structure: Your team structure is not written in stone, it should be written in chalk. As your situation changes, so should your structure. In the final section of the white paper we take you through the steps to embed and evolve your team structure for sustained success.

You can download the Intentional Product Team Design white paper at the Leading the Product website.

What you won’t find in this white paper is a silver bullet! Instead, we provide an exhaustive overview of the questions you should be considering as you evaluate the various trade-offs you may face when making decisions around your team structure. We also show you ways to adapt to decisions made by others that will impact you and your team’s ability to successfully operate and interact with the broader organization.

In writing the paper we learned that in making decisions around your team structure it is essential to take a holistic view around the organizational context your teams will operate within. Establishing your product team structure in isolation of the larger organization context is like setting sail with a leaking boat. You may be OK in the short-term, but in the long-term you’ll likely sink!

To help you think about, make decisions and take action around your product team structure, we’ve organized the insights outlined above within a framework covering how you gain Direction, Decide, and Deploy your product team structure.

Intentional Product Team Design Framework — Michael Sribney and Ken Sandy
Intentional Product Team Design Framework — Michael Sribney and Ken Sandy

The Intentional product team design framework, provides a step-by-step approach to understand your context, identify options to structure your team, and make decisions that best-fit your situation to maximize short and long term success of your product team.

A brief overview of each stage is outlined below.

In the Direction stage, we emphasize the importance of gaining a holistic view of your organizational context including the strategy, organization type, pre-existing organization design, and culture. We talk about how these factors set constraints around how you define options for your product structure. We also talk about the importance of having a clearly defined strategy that serves as the connective tissue between the organizational context and your product structure.

The diagram below illustrates the relationship between these factors and the importance of cohesion across these within the organization’s ecosystem.

Contextual factors for consideration in product team design — Michael Sribney
Contextual factors for consideration in product team design — Michael Sribney

One of the key insights from this stage is that whether it be at the organizational level, product team level or the individual team member level, the decisions that you or others make will involve trade-offs that ultimately affect the success of your product team.

The diagram below highlights some of these trade-offs, which are heavily influenced by the context you operate within. As a product leader, a core part of your role is to ensure you create the conditions for success of your product teams by managing these trade-offs effectively.

Trade-offs affecting decisions on product team design
Trade-offs affecting decisions on product team design

The more you are aware of the consequences of these trade-offs, the more likely you can manage the upside and mitigate risks of the downside of each. We go into these trade-offs in greater detail in the whitepaper.

In the second stage of the framework, Decide, we provide you with design principles to help you best shape your product structure and teams based on your situation. Through our global research with product leaders, we identified six commonly adopted product team structures.

Product team structure archetypes
Product team structure archetypes

Each of these are documented in detail in the white paper including an overview of the trade-offs involved in adopting each. A summary of these structures are outlined below:

Comparison of product team structure archetypes
Comparison of product team structure archetypes

In addition to exploring each of the six team archetypes outlined above, the Decide phase also covers the various decisions you will likely face at the team member level, including defining team roles, career pathways, as well as how you compensate team member performance.

In making changes to your team structure, it is impossible to get things right the first time. Even if you do, unfortunately, circumstances always arise that may hinder a once effective structure. Changes in leadership, strategy or a disruptive move by a competitor can have immediate and detrimental effects to a once effective structure.

Given this, in the third stage, Deploy, we recommend investing in a regular cadence to evaluate the effectiveness of your structure against defined success measures. Included in this section we explore the different ways to implement change to minimize team disruption and ensure your structure remains effective and fit for purpose long term.

In conclusion, defining and implementing a product team structure is a complex process that requires careful consideration of your organization’s context, strategy and trade-offs involved in corresponding decisions.

Yet, faced with making such important decisions, many product leaders fail to consider the full range of factors that influence product team success. The Intentional product team design framework overcomes this risk by providing a step-by-step approach to understand your context, identify options to structure your team, and make decisions that best-fit to your situation.

You can download this whitepaper at the Leading the Product website.

My hope is this white paper helps you overcome the barriers you may face in defining a product team structure that enables a successful and sustainable team in the short and long-term.


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