Who runs the product? A few words about Product Owner's and Team Leader's roles at AppUnite
by Karol Wojtaszek

At AppUnite, bigger product teams typically have Team Leaders and Product Owners in leadership roles. With growing teams, I've been hearing a lot of confusion regarding the roles and responsibilities of Team Leaders. Though the titles are pretty clear, the overlap of their duties may lead to confusion. How well leaders define clear boundaries in ownership and contribution have a major role in product success and maximizing customer value. In the article, I will focus on “roles” and “job titles”.

When we're working on a product, we need to keep the balance between engineering and business. One of my colleagues compares it to a space shuttle that needs to fly between two stars.

If the shuttle goes too much to Engineering Star, we may over-engineer the product and not deliver enough business value - this star may absorb it, and the product will collapse. The same thing happens with Business Star - if we get too much on the right side, we generate tech debt and we may fail. Eventually, we may not be able to deliver new features, or get into a situation where we have too many bugs.

It's normal that we're getting to one or another side on different product development stages, but we should consider that it gets extra time to get back to the optimal track.

Product Galaxy

Product leadership

Product management plays an important role in each stage of the product lifecycle. It owns the story of what should be built. The primary part of the Product Owner is to maximize the value the product delivers. But how to do that? It's more than just ordering a backlog. Scrum Guide which usually covers Product Owner responsibilities in the team, doesn't cover techniques that may need to be employed to do so. Product Owner responsibilities might include:

  • Translating company goals into a roadmap,
  • Understanding stakeholders' needs, analyzing users behaviors and translating them into epics,
  • Gathering all requirements of stakeholders and ensuring they are addressed,
  • Ensuring the team communicates what is working on and keeping stakeholders (including the dev team) on the same page.

Engineering leadership

Engineering plays an equally important role in product success. A Team Leader has ownership of team decisions. Engineering owns the story of how to build. Team Leader's responsibilities may include:

  • Pairing and technical mentorship,
  • Recruiting and owning interview workflow,
  • Identifying technical risks,
  • Monitoring Team's health,
  • Coaching makers’ career paths and their personal growth,
  • Delivering evaluation.

Working it out together

The overlaps are really interesting here!

There are major decisions that should be made together to ensure that business goals are met and individual personal growth is reflected in Team needs. Team Leaders and Product Managers should constantly meet and collaborate on product direction and ongoing issues. The intersection and decisions made collectively should include:

  • Defining and improving team processes,
  • Communicating with stakeholders,
  • Delivering feedback to Team members,
  • Ensuring the team is hitting key results,
  • Restructuring the team as it sizes (e.g., dividing into smaller groups).

People usually tend to have more experience and knowledge in some topics mentioned above, while not having as much experience with other topics. That's ok! Leaders should try to actively think about what roles and decisions should be made, and how they and the team should be responsible for them. Each team is different and consists of team members with a skill set diversity, so there are no ideal setup and area of decision.

In some cases, a team doesn’t have a Team Leader. In others, a team misses somebody in a Product Management role. It's worth mentioning that it doesn't mean that the team members won't perform activities that were listed above.. People can use this article to identify individuals who might be overwhelmed with tasks and provide a clear opportunity for others to step in and help.

Each team should think that there are required responsibilities in the group, who should make decisions and how they are agreed among the team. It's about finding the balance when we understand what forces influence the team and product from different directions. Getting familiar with System Thinking may help to understand the system team operates it, its strong sides, drawbacks, and things that stop them from doing amazing things!

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