The 3 Main Reasons Product Leaders Struggle

Underlying assumptions are undermining our ability to assemble and lead teams in healthy ways.

The goal of product leads should be to provide a healthy environment for their teams to confidently do their work and deliver on their commitments. Unfortunately, we’re setting both teams and leaders up to fail because we spend way too much time teaching tactical workflow and not enough time teaching the fundamentals of working with others.

That’s a broad statement so let me clarify. While designers, developers, and engineers are generally great at their individual crafts, they are not great at the craft of working with others. My friend Andrew Godfrey brought this to my attention. Teams over-rotate on individual craft because it’s easier. Both leaders and team members have an unjustified confidence that highly-skilled designers, devs and product people can join a team and automatically know how to work with other humans.

Train teams to work with each other. Start work together and prioritize cross-functional communication. “But that’ll take too long!” In the short term yes, but learning each other’s context, communication styles and processes creates empathy and understanding. Understanding creates higher quality decisions and reduces friction caused by misunderstanding and back-channeling. Great decisions lead to higher velocity and throughput. Higher throughput increases confidence. Thanks to Nate Walkingshaw for teaching me this.

Just as we assume people know how to work with one another, we assume they know how to make decisions. Do you remember the courses you took at school on decision making? Remember the high-school course on mental models? No? Exactly, because they don’t exist. Without a clear decision framework, or decision stack, our brains default to monkey brain responses and subjective experiences. In stressful decision making situations fear and external incentives drive many of our decisions.

Establish a clear decision stack. Create a list of questions that narrow the choices and eliminate risk. I wrote a detailed list of questions on better decision making in a previous article or check out Martin Eriksson’s work on creating your own Decision Stack.

With very few exceptions teams don’t have agreements on the process they use to answer questions. How do you go from assumptions to understanding? If you’re like most teams, the loudest voices provide answers with little or no objectivity. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Objective processes that are simple to learn and elevate evidence over opinion are essential to providing teams with the safe space they need. We have so many great methodologies at our disposal. Directed Discovery, design sprints, prototypes, user research, testing, cohort analysis, etc.

Does everyone on the cross-functional team understand these tools? Do they all have access to them? Have they all been trained to use them?

Agree on the steps that your team will take to move through the discovery process so you have clear path to find answers to questions. Research suggests that the specific process is less important than just having an agreed process. Getting agreement on the process creates alignment and that drives throughput and confidence. Consider implementation, facilitation, and training of these processes as a key investment in your team health.

I’d love to hear other ways teams are aligning and finding better ways to work together, make better decisions and answer tough questions.



Dad, artist, cyclist, entrepreneur, advisor, product and design leader. Mostly in that order.

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Richard Banfield

Dad, artist, cyclist, entrepreneur, advisor, product and design leader. Mostly in that order.