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5 Strategies to Build a Kickass Product Team

Kick Ass Product Team

Ever wonder how legends like Michael Jordan soared to greatness? It wasn’t just his solo efforts – it was his team that propelled him to success. Have you ever wondered what truly distinguishes a good team from a great one? In the dynamic realm of product management, the challenge of building a remarkable team is more than just assembling a group of skilled individuals. Their success was a result of five specific practices that helped them build a kickass product team. Let’s dive in.”

Background: Michael Jordan’s Story

Michael Jordan, a name synonymous with basketball excellence, didn’t achieve his legendary status alone. His journey highlights the essence of teamwork.

Phil Jackson

Lets start with Phil Jackson, often referred to as the “Zen Master,” was more than just a coach; he was a visionary. His unique approach to coaching, heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, brought a new dimension to the game. Jackson’s greatest contribution to Jordan’s career was introducing him to a team-first philosophy. He taught Jordan the importance of mindfulness and being present, both on and off the court. This helped Jordan develop a deeper understanding of the game, seeing it not just as a series of physical challenges but as a mental and spiritual journey as well. Jackson’s strategies emphasized the importance of each player’s role, fostering a strong, cohesive team dynamic where Jordan could thrive.

Tim Grover

Secondly Tim Grover’s role in Michael Jordan’s career was pivotal in terms of physical training and mental fortitude. He didn’t just work on Jordan’s athleticism; he focused on building his mental resilience. Grover’s training regimen was tailored to Jordan’s specific needs, emphasizing injury prevention and overall health before advancing to more rigorous physical challenges. This approach ensured Jordan’s longevity in the sport. Moreover, Grover instilled in Jordan the importance of emotional intelligence, helping him manage stress and maintain focus during high-pressure moments. This holistic approach to training contributed significantly to Jordan’s ability to perform consistently at an elite level.

Scottie Pippen

Finally Scottie Pippen’s synergy with Michael Jordan on the court was a cornerstone of the Chicago Bulls’ success. Pippen was not just a supporting player; he was an integral part of the Bulls’ strategy. His versatility as a player allowed Jordan more freedom on the court. Pippen could take on defensive responsibilities, allowing Jordan to focus on scoring. Offensively, Pippen’s playmaking skills and ability to read the game complemented Jordan’s style perfectly, creating a dynamic and unpredictable offense. This partnership was critical in crucial moments, particularly in the playoffs and finals, where their combined skills led the Bulls to multiple championships.

For Michael Jordan to succeed he built a kickass product team

Background for Product Manager

Translating this to product management, consider the Venn diagram of human, business and technology. A good product manager needs to have the skills of all the three and needs to be in the center of the Venn diagram. Having said that anyone who is good in all these is also a unicorn. The book Who not how talks about how being good at everything is similar to be mediocre at everything and not scalable. So find out what you are the best at, focus on that and then invite others who are better than you at other things and bring them to the table.

What is a product manager?
Martin Erikssen

Marty Kagan said if you’re only using your engineers to code you’re probably only getting half of their value. That’s also true for product managers as well if you’re only using product managers to refine your backlog you’re probably only getting half the value if you’re only using your engineers to code or test you’ll probably only getting half their value the more we can bring everyone together into one cross-functional team the more likely we are to build great products.

Take the example of

NorthWestern Mutual Life

Northwestern Mutual Life, they took an innovative approach by including at least one “non-stakeholder” in each cross-functional team. This meant bringing in individuals who weren’t directly involved in the project’s core area. For instance, a team working on a financial product might include someone from a completely different department, like marketing or IT. The idea was to introduce fresh perspectives and skills that wouldn’t normally be part of the conversation. This diversity of thought led to more creative solutions and a broader understanding of potential challenges and opportunities. It was a strategy that mixed financial expertise with insights from other domains, enhancing the problem-solving process and leading to more innovative products. For NorthWestern Mutual Life to succeed they built a kickass product team


Or Apple For the iPhone, Apple brought together experts from various fields. This team included:

  1. Designers: Focused on the aesthetics, user interface, and overall user experience of the iPhone. They were responsible for the groundbreaking design that set the iPhone apart.
  2. Engineers: Worked on the technical aspects, ensuring the phone’s hardware and software worked seamlessly together. They were pivotal in integrating advanced features into a user-friendly device.
  3. Marketers: Developed strategies to successfully introduce the iPhone to the market. They understood consumer needs and preferences, helping position the iPhone not just as a phone but as a lifestyle choice.

For Apple to ensure the iPhone succeeds they built a kickass product team


Or Nokia’s approach involved gathering individuals with diverse, global experiences. This included:

  1. Scientists: Brought in-depth knowledge of new and emerging technologies, contributing to innovative features and functionalities.
  2. Engineers: Provided the technical know-how to turn these innovative ideas into practical, workable solutions.
  3. Leaders with Cross-Functional Experience: These were individuals who had experience working in various roles and locations, bringing a unique understanding of different markets and customer needs.

This combination of design, engineering, and marketing expertise was critical in creating a product that was not only technologically advanced but also immensely appealing to consumers.

For Nokia to succeed they built a kickass product team

the lessons are clear: success is not just the product of individual brilliance but the result of collaborative effort, diverse skills, and shared goals. For a Product Manager, the role transcends beyond managing tasks; it involves being a visionary leader who can unite a diverse group of talents towards a common purpose, much like a skilled coach leading a champion sports team.

So how do you build a kickass product team?

The Book “Who Not How” by Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy offers 5 strategies.

1. Purpose

In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek explores the concept of starting with “why” when inspiring action and leadership. Sinek highlights the importance of understanding and communicating the “why” behind one’s actions, rather than just focusing on the “what” or “how.”

  1. Apple:Simon Sinek uses Apple as an example to illustrate the concept of starting with “why.” He questions why Apple, a computer company just like its competitors, consistently stands out as an innovative and successful brand. Traditional marketing and communication often focuses on the “what” and “how” aspects. A typical message might be, “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?” This approach is uninspiring. Apple, on the other hand, communicates its purpose and beliefs before talking about its products. Their message is, “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”. By leading with their “why” and focusing on their core belief in challenging the status quo, Apple has been able to create a loyal customer base that extends beyond just buying computers. People buy into Apple’s vision, and this is what sets them apart.
  2. Martin Luther King:Sinek uses Martin Luther King as an example to demonstrate how great leaders inspire action by starting with “why.” He points out that Martin Luther King wasn’t the only person who suffered in a pre-civil rights America, nor was he the only great orator of his time. Yet, he led the Civil Rights Movement successfully. King’s “why” was his deeply held belief in equality and justice. He had a clear purpose and cause that inspired people to join him in his efforts. By communicating his “why” and his vision of a more just society, Martin Luther King was able to mobilize masses of people who shared his beliefs, leading to significant social change.
  3. The Wright Brothers:Sinek uses the example of the Wright brothers to further emphasize the importance of starting with “why.” He contrasts the Wright brothers with Samuel Pierpont Langley, who was also pursuing powered flight during the same era. Langley’s motivation was primarily driven by a desire for personal fame and riches. He was in pursuit of the result, not a greater purpose. In contrast, the Wright brothers were driven by a cause and a belief that powered flight would change the world. They had a clear “why.” Their team, despite having fewer resources and educational qualifications, worked tirelessly because they shared the belief in the Wright brothers’ vision. Eventually, the Wright brothers achieved powered man flight on December 17th, 1903, and their success was a result of their strong “why.”

In all of these examples, the common thread is that these product managers, leaders and organizations didn’t just talk about what they did or how they did it; they started with a clear and inspiring “why” or purpose. This “why” served as the driving force that attracted teams who believed in the same cause and led to their remarkable success and impact.

2. Psychological Safety

You might have heard of Project Aristotle from Google. They spent a couple of years studying their teams, trying to crack the code of what makes a team truly successful. Initially, Google thought the more Stanford engineers and PhD holders they packed into a team, the more successful it would be. Makes sense, right? But here’s the twist: they found out that these factors weren’t the secret sauce to a winning team. So, what did Google find? The top factor for team success was psychological safety. Now, this doesn’t mean safety goggles and lab coats. It’s about creating an environment where team members feel safe enough to be themselves.

It’s about being able to say, “Hey, I messed up,” or “I’ve got this wild idea,” without worrying about being judged or shot down. Psychological safety is crucial because it lets everyone in the team feel comfortable enough to take risks, voice their opinions, and be open about their mistakes. It’s about fostering a culture where diverse ideas are welcomed, and challenging the status quo isn’t just allowed but encouraged. This kind of environment leads to more innovation, better problem-solving, and, ultimately, a more successful team.

This discovery led Google to make some major changes. They stopped focusing solely on technical expertise and brainpower in their hiring process. Instead, they began valuing qualities that foster psychological safety – like empathy, openness, and the ability to embrace new challenges and ideas. So, what’s the takeaway for us? Whether you’re leading a team or part of one, remember that success isn’t just about skills or qualifications. It’s about creating a space where everyone feels safe and valued for who they are and what they bring to the table. Let’s aim to build teams where psychological safety is the foundation, and watch the magic happen!

3. Motivation

So, you’ve probably heard about Daniel Pink and his eye-opening research with MIT, right? If you haven’t, here’s the gist. He wrote this book called “Drive,” which flips the script on what really gets our motivational gears turning. And if you’re more of a TED Talk fan, he’s got that covered too.

We used to think that if you throw enough money at people, they’ll be more creative and driven. Sounds logical, right? But here’s the curveball: that’s not really how our brains work. Once you pay someone fairly, adding more cash to the pot doesn’t necessarily make them more innovative or successful.

Pink’s research boiled it down to three big motivators:

  1. Autonomy: This is all about wanting to direct our own lives. When people get to make choices about their work, their engagement levels shoot up. It’s like choosing your own adventure in the workplace.
  2. Mastery: This one’s about our desire to get better at stuff. It’s why you’re reading this blog or why you learn to play the guitar just for the love of it. We all want to be masters of our craft.
  3. Purpose: Ever want to be part of something bigger than yourself? That’s purpose. It’s about doing work that matters, that makes a difference.

Leading Teams with These Insights

Now, if you’re leading a team or a product, this stuff is golden. It means shifting from the old-school, authoritative style (think 18th-century factory boss) to something more empowering.

The best teams today, they operate on what’s called ‘delegative’ or ‘autonomous’ leadership. Here, you as a leader still set the direction, but the nitty-gritty decisions? They’re made by the teams. This approach works wonders, especially in creative and knowledge-driven fields.

But wait, autonomy doesn’t mean anarchy. It’s not a free-for-all. The trick is to balance autonomy with accountability. It’s like having a team of explorers who know the destination but choose their own paths to get there. This is where aligned autonomy comes in – teams have the freedom to make decisions, but they’re still moving towards a common goal.

In a traditional setup, goals trickle down from the top. But in an autonomous team, it’s more of a conversation. You set the big-picture goals, then let the teams figure out how they can contribute. This not only gives teams a sense of ownership but also gives you, the leader, a clearer picture of what’s achievable.

So, there you have it. Motivation isn’t just about dangling carrots (or bonuses). It’s about giving people the freedom to choose, the opportunity to grow, and a reason to care. Let’s lead our teams not just to do work but to love it and own it. Here’s to motivation that actually motivates!

4. Leadership Styles

There are three leadership styles: authoritative, delegative, and participative. Each has its own flavor,

  1. Authoritative: This is your classic leader-at-the-helm approach. You’re setting the course, making the decisions, and your team follows your lead. It’s like being the captain of a ship – you know the waters, you chart the course.
  2. Delegative: Here’s where you loosen the reins. You provide the vision and the goals, but leave the how-to to your team. It’s like being a coach rather than a player – guiding, motivating, but letting the team run the play.
  3. Participative: This style is all about collaboration. You’re not just leading; you’re actively getting input from your team, making decisions together. It’s like being part of a band where everyone jams together to create a hit song.

The trick is knowing when to switch between these styles.

  • Use authoritative when quick decisions are needed, or when the team is new and needs clear direction.
  • Switch to delegative when your team is experienced and can handle more freedom.
  • Go participative when the situation calls for diverse ideas and collective problem-solving.

Empathy plays a big role here. It’s about understanding your team’s needs, strengths, and areas for growth. It’s listening, adapting, and sometimes even stepping back to let others shine.

5. Play an infinite game

In his book “Infinite game” Simon Sinek shares a story about him speaking at a Microsoft Summit where he heard leaders present and most of the leaders spent time talking about how to beat Apple. Simon was also invited to speak at an Apple Summit, and he heard the Apple leaders speak all the time about how to help teachers teach and how to help students learn. One was obsessed with where they were going and the other was obsessed with their competition. Finite games are like football there is a clear winner and loser. In an infinite game the player understands sometimes they will be ahead of the competition and some times behind. Instead of focusing on the competition focus on how you and your team can serve the customer and maximize value

Building a strong, cohesive team is the cornerstone of success in product management. Integrating the principles of psychological safety, motivation, adaptive leadership, and a focus on outcomes can transform an average team into an extraordinary one. Once you have these five elements you will see a great team truly distinguishes from a good team. The Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner course is more than just training; it’s an investment in cultivating a high-performing team that can navigate the complexities of today’s market. Don’t let your team fall behind. The Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner course offers essential skills and insights for immediate application, giving you and your team a competitive edge in this ever-changing environment.Start your journey today and lead your team to new heights of success.

Share your comments with your ideas and suggestions about how you can build a kickass product team

Join our Advanced Product Management Course Journey where we go deep in these concepts


  1. Objectives and key results
  2. Product Owner case studies
  3. Who not How by Dan Sullivan and Dr. Ben Hardy
  4. Start with Why by Simon Sinek
  5. Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
  6. Drive by Daniel Pink
  7. Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
  8. Project Aristotle

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