Character archetypes in successful product teams
In an earlier post I discussed the make-up of a product team: the default roles that you can’t do without, as well as the support roles that I’ve worked with in different teams and the situations in which they have added the most value.
Establishing a healthy balance of character, skills, and experience, and fostering a positive culture can be just as important as optimising the shape of your team - often more so.
Three practical applications of this article:
- Factor some of the characteristics described below into your recruitment and deployment strategy
- Actively look to develop and encourage these traits within your teams
- Work on them as part of your own personal development
It’s worth noting that individuals can and often do have multiple archetypes. Whilst it’s very unlikely that any one team will cover all of them, having just a handful in place can make life that little bit easier.
Cast list (in no particular order)
The team captain 🤝
Firmly believes and often evangelises that you succeed as a team and fail as a team. Responsibility falls on the collective - not on the individual.
This mindset helps in several ways:
- It breeds confidence by preventing a blame culture - particularly formative for junior members of the team
- It gets the team bought in, with members seeing themselves as part of the decision-making process, be it product, tooling, ways of working etc.
- It supports and encourages cross-pollination
The timekeeper ⏲️
Appreciates just how precious calendars are, always striving to strike the balance between lean collaboration, socialising, and ensuring that each team member has enough “focus time”. Ever keen to provide a platform that instils morale, prevents fatigue, and enables everyone to get the most out of their time.
Tells people it's okay to reject meetings. Encourages asynchronous communication. Sticks an optional 15-minute fika in the calendar every other day. Is tuned in to the well-being of others and prepared to intervene when necessary.
The all-rounder 🛠
Always willing and confident stepping into another’s shoes. Takes “T-shaped” to the next level. Sees this for what it is - a source of strength and something to be encouraged, rather than being seen as a threat, or something that may erode authority or definition.
Inevitably, there will always be times when one specialist or another isn’t going to be available, so it’s great to already know who will likely step in when your tech lead’s cat needs to be taken to the vet.
Their very presence often encourages the team to be more lean and collaborative - swarming for example, as the team crosses the discipline boundaries to work together to unblock items that are closest to value realisation.
The over-sharer 📣
The life and soul of Slack. The emoji-slinger. Probably a writer of blog posts not unlike this one.
Whether it's work or non-work, you can always rely on them to keep your team channel fresh. It’s a two-pronged win:
- Their posts encourage your team to keep an eye on Slack, shortening those async feedback loops
- Buoyed by the regular content, but just as much by the reactions to others’ posts, others are inspired to interact and create content of their own
The polyfiller 🐡
Going one step further than the all-rounder, this team member sees where the gaps are in the team’s knowledge, skills, tooling, or ways of working, and takes it upon themself to fill the space.
In practice, this could be a business analyst who learns how to query Snowflake to get the rapid insights that the team needs in the absence of a data analyst, or an engineer who studies the WCAG guidelines and researches accessibility testing tools to help the team as a whole raise the bar. Or it could be smarter recruiting. Or championing the drive for a new dashboarding tool.
The early bird and the late riser 🌅
Normalises different working patterns and restricted availability. The user researcher needs to be out from three til four to pick the kids up. The automation engineer plays football over lunch. The product designer needs to take an hour first thing to speak to the solicitor to firm up a house move.
Life happens. Acknowledging and embracing that fact makes things simpler. Flexibility is a given.
The agile ninja 🥷
Someone who has been there and done that. Possibly formally trained in one or more approaches.
Has a comprehensive toolbox, but crucially gets the balance right - noticing when something smells off and tactfully offering up alternative approaches that might make things run that little bit smoother. Particularly useful in a new or inexperienced team.
The customer advocate 🗣️
Often, but not always the product manager or designer. Someone who regularly chimes in with insight - the latest on the A/B test you’ve got running, some serendipitous findings from another team’s user research, a summary of your Trustpilot reviews that they’ve done off their own back.
They regularly participate in user research themselves, encouraging others to do the same. Asks “why?” a lot.
The optimist 😀
Your A/B test didn’t go the way you were hoping? “Don’t worry about it,” the optimist will say. “We’ll get it next time.”
It could be that they’ve been around the block enough times to know how it goes, or maybe they’re at the other end of the spectrum serving up a youthful brand of enthusiasm.
Often it won’t go your way, and the value of having ever-reliable fonts of positivity in your team cannot be underestimated.
The gold watch recipient ⌛
A long-serving veteran. Having been at the organisation before your product even launched, they know the landscape as well as anyone.
They’ve often worked in multiple teams, sometimes in different roles, and subsequently, their knowledge is vast, regularly providing a shorter path to important insights. Why did we build that thing like that? Why did we decide not to build that other thing? Who is the best person to speak to about our legacy content management system? How do we submit a procurement request?
The honesty-keeper ⚖️
Never afraid to ask the “daft question”, or hold their team members to account.
Treads the fine line between efficiency and pedantry with aplomb, ensuring stand-ups don’t overrun, that Slack etiquette is maintained, that everybody knows what that acronym stands for, that the data playback that we cancelled last week gets rearranged, that we don’t change too many things on the back of each retro.
Makes the tacit explicit.
The data curator 📊
Knows your data landscape inside-out. Has dozens of their own queries and dashboards squirrelled away for various scenarios. On all of the mailing lists. Has logins for all of the different analytics and reporting tools.
Crucially though, they are able to put all of the data into context. Bring meaning to it. Give it purpose.
They probably share insights with the team several times a week, and their impromptu feedback regularly informs the team’s future efforts.
The soothsayer 🔮
The present is more important than the future, but that doesn’t mean the next week / month / quarter should be blindly ignored. That team member who has an eye on the next thing can save your team an age that might have been spent collectively wallowing in the mire.
Half a day spent exploring the three APIs that might give you the data that unlocks your next feature. The Miro board that illustrates how your top five competitors have tackled that particularly tricky user journey. Pencilling in that demo of your inventory management system with the SME so that when the time comes, you can give the rest of your team a crash course in what they need to know ahead of the looming integration work.
The scribe 📝
The custodian of your team’s digital footprint, be that in your GitHub readme files, your Miro board, your wiki, or your Slack intro bot.
Always thinking of how to make your team as transparent and accessible as possible so that new starters can hit the ground running, and anyone outside the team can get familiar with its inner workings should they need to.
Probably more concerned with keeping it clean, crisp, and concise than striving to capture every single thing.
There is much more to building a winning team than having the right blend of specialisms in post. Each team is unique and, as such, will have its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Like so much of product engineering, the key is to strike a balance that best suits the collective whilst providing a platform that enables you to deliver.