There are few things more magical than watching a group of people come together to move toward a common goal, invest in themselves and one another, and lead innovation in their discipline. Except, maybe, being one of them. When we think about these kinds of high-performing teams, it’s easy to look at them in terms of their whiz-bang successes and forget about the intensive processes below the surface. In order to really learn from these teams and apply what they are doing in our own arenas, we need to examine those processes and use them to lay the groundwork for our own success.
In today’s technologically-connected world, it’s becoming easier than ever to communicate across distance and disciplines to learn from others. The highest-performing teams in today’s workplace don’t limit themselves to just what works in their own industry: they look further afield for inspiration, they know how to interpret and apply what they see, and they are not afraid of trying something new.
In this series of posts, we’ll share our journey in doing just that. We’ll describe how we use flexible business and management strategies to develop high-performing teams and achieve rapid results in higher education. These widely-applicable strategies can and have been used across industries, and among teams and organizations of any size.
Intimately Knowing Your Team and Your Product Portfolio
Every good project or organization starts in the same place: someone has a great idea for something they can make, provide, or do. This post isn’t a creative guide to coming up with a show-stopping idea; that’s all up to you. This is a jumping-off point to show adaptable, relevant methods to manage your ideas. Whether you are building something around a novel idea or inheriting existing products and services, teams across a wide range of industries can learn from established business management practices.
Product portfolio management (PPM) is used to manage resource allocation, identify areas for improvement, and keep products and services aligned with an organization’s broader vision and strategy (Lynn, 2020). In our nursing school, we’ve used it to more effectively manage our four different educational programs (two undergraduate, one masters, and one doctoral program). PPM differs from product management in that it considers every product offered and how they are related, as opposed to focusing on just one product and the processes contained within. This vantage point allows teams and leaders to make informed strategic decisions for the organization as a whole. It also helps clear the runway for teams centered on skills and goals, not product silos; we’ll get into that in the second post in this series.
The Learning Stage
The first step in developing a product portfolio management process in an organization is to simply take an inventory: list out every product the organization provides, or wishes to provide, and figure out what metrics you can use to determine the success of that product. Do you measure success by monetary return on investment? Customer engagement? Employee satisfaction? The importance of the product to your overall value?
The next steps will be slightly different for small, medium, and large organizations, but the principle remains the same. Have every member brainstorm a list of metrics and see where the lists overlap and where there are differences. For medium-sized organizations like our school, we had each team come together and create a collaborative list. For example, our technology team measures success differently from our student advising team; however, both strive for rapid responses to student or faculty inquiries so they can support the educational mission of the organization.
By involving everyone in determining how we measure success, teams can establish a clear and common purpose across the organization. Legendary management consultant and author Peter Drucker is often quoted saying, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
There are many tried-and-true processes for measuring certain things like profit or return-on-investment. For metrics like employee satisfaction or consumer engagement, teams may have to get creative and develop their own processes. Dr. Shelle Poole, the incoming Divisional Dean at Boise State University’s School of Nursing, worked for Hewlett-Packard prior to working in higher education; her teams worked under the mantra that “all work is a process, all processes take time, and all time is money.”
To enhance success across the product portfolio, teams must work together across disciplines. While still at HP, Dr. Poole traveled in a team of marketing, research and development, and sales experts on “a five-country blitz to visit customers in person so we could learn from them and learn what they needed from us…. [It was] magical to watch varied functions and disciplines work together to solve a customer business problem right on the spot.” This is a technique that can be applied over and over with multiple business challenges.
Knowing and understanding your teams is the key to understanding your product portfolio. Get to know what they do, what inspires them, and how to measure the teams’ success; all of these things together tell the story of who they are and how they move towards their goals. The next step is to develop a plan for growth and improvement as the organization moves forward.
Your Learning Playbook:
- Create a list of each product or service your organization provides, or wishes to provide.
- Have each individual or team independently create a list of performance metrics in the context of your product(s) and service(s). This is a good time to learn what those closest to the work believes works well, and what needs improvement.
- Gather all team members to look at these lists and identify common challenges, opportunities, and metrics needed to develop an overall “master list” for your organization.
The Dreaming Stage
Two-way communication between leaders and their teams is crucial in the growth or change of organizations at any size. Your consumer can tell you what they need, but your team members can tell you how to do it. Dr. Poole comments, “Those closest to the work know what works and doesn’t work, and they know what needs to be done. They tell you their ideas, and they tell you what needs improvement.”
The dreaming stage should be a collaborative effort, with everyone in the organization getting a chance to be heard. Leaders should meet with key players and subject matter experts on the team; every team member should be prepared to identify what they do well, and what they can streamline or get rid of entirely. As a whole, the organization should collectively acknowledge points of pride, brainstorm ways to improve, and decide what can be eliminated.
A dreaming stage is different from John Kotter’s “burning platform” stage, though both are effective in leading change. Instead of encouraging rapid, radical changes, a dreaming stage requires teams to methodically identify strengths and points of pride, and make a plan for improving these further. In the dreaming stage, teams prepare to build on their own excellence with an eye towards new ideas.
Your Dreaming Playbook:
- Encourage leaders/managers to meet one-on-one with each member of your team or organization and learn each person’s role. Set a timeline and make sure everyone knows about it: an organized leader should aim to meet with all key contributors of their organization. (it is not unreasonable to meet with 60 individuals within the first 30 days).
- Have each team or individual outline their skills and essential processes, and consider activities that can be made faster, better, easier, or eliminated entirely.
- Gather all team members to collectively acknowledge strengths and points of pride, brainstorm ways to improve existing processes, and decide what can be eliminated.
The Moving and Shaking Stage
At this point, you have determined a) what your organization does, b) how to measure if you are doing it well, c) your organization’s existing strengths and areas for growth, and d) what actions you can take to improve moving forward. Next is the “moving forward” part.
In medium or large organizations with specialized teams for different processes, bringing together leaders from each team can streamline accountability and communication. Identify the decision-makers in your organization, and bring them together to represent and advocate for their respective teams. At our school, we have organizational workstream leaders (we call them OWLs) who know the strengths and limitations of each of their teams, and connect administrators to specialized teams and staff.
Our OWLs can keep track of the processes in their teams long-term, meaning they help develop systems for prioritization and work allocation. OWLs can accept new assignments on behalf of their team, or suggest alternatives if their team is unable to take on an assignment. OWLs meet on a regular basis to make sure every team leader has an idea of what every other team is doing; this keeps reliable lines of communication open and provides support for idea sharing and creative thinking.
As any organization moves forward with change, they need ways to effectively communicate and report back on how things are going. In our school, teams develop “team guiding principles”; these are official documents that are created by the team for the team and are accessible to everyone. Collaboratively established expectations for member roles, meetings and communication, and accountability can help develop security and trust across the organizations and free up mental real estate for innovative thinking.
Your Moving and Shaking Playbook:
- Identify the decision-makers in your organization, and create an organized team of leaders who can represent and advocate for their teams.
- Develop prioritization tools for your organization as a whole, and ask each team within your organization to do the same.
- Establish expectations for accountability and communication as the organization moves forward. Include how often teams will meet and how they should report out on their work.
In the next two installments of this series, Organizational Design: Clearing the Runway for Collaboration and Breakthrough Thinking and How Leaders Can Develop a Culture of Sharing, Support, and Innovation, we will connect product and team management to allowing movers and shakers to thrive, innovate, and lead from where they are.
This article is written in collaboration with the Boise State University School of Nursing, and the incoming Divisional Dean Dr. Shelle Poole, Ph.D, PMP, MBB.
Rachaelle Lynn. (2020). What Is Product Portfolio Management? Planview. Retrieved from https://www.planview.com/resources/articles/what-is-product-portfolio-management/
Kotter, J. (n.d.). The 8-Step Process for Leading Change: Dr. John Kotter. Retrieved from https://www.kotterinc.com/8-steps-process-for-leading-change/