Ep. 10: How Do You Create Accountability for Product Teams?

Ep. 10: “How Do You Create Accountability for Product Teams?”

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Hope Gurion: Are you a product leader who believes in giving direction and focus to your teams through a meaningful goal setting process but haven’t figured out the best model of accountability to outcomes for your product teams?  You’re not alone and that’s why we’re tackling the question HOW DO YOU HOLD PRODUCT TEAMS ACCOUNTABLE? in this episode of Fearless Product Leadership.   

Welcome to the Fearless Product Leadership podcast. This is the show for new product leaders seeking to increase their confidence and competence.  In every episode I ask experienced and thoughtful product leaders to share their strategies and tactics that have helped them tackle a tough responsibility of the product leader role. I love helping emerging product leaders shorten their learning curves to expedite their professional success with great products, teams and stakeholder relationships. I’m your host and CEO of Fearless Product, Hope Gurion.  

I recently conducted a poll among my product leader followers on Linkedin and Twitter to take the pulse of what models of accountability they believe are most effective.  Overwhelmingly the responses favored the simple but powerful act of showing results vs goals. 

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But, in the discussions with 5 experienced product leaders and my own experiences, I really wanted to get into the ‘how to’ of accountability for product teams. What you’re going to learn is:

  • How Product leaders set goals and achieve accountability while still enabling teams to take risks

  • What rituals they rely on to provide the transparency of results vs goals

  • What actions they take when goals are missed

  • And the critical importance of not just holding teams accountable but helping them be accountable to their goals and commitments 

Fearlessly tackling the question “How do you hold your product teams accountable?” are: 

  • Rosie Atkins, VP of Product at Homebase

  • Troy Anderson, SVP of Product & Technology at SPINS

  • Preston Smalley, VP of Product Management, Comcast

  • Al Ming, VP of Product & Design, CNBC

  • Ezinne Udueze, VP of Product Management at Bazaarvoice 

First, Rosie Atkins VP of Product at Homebase tells us that the best ritual and accountability support system she has found is her Monday meeting.   

Rosie Atkins: What is our model for accountability?  We've recently implemented something that’s a very interesting model for accountability and again, I have to go  back to that we're operating with a very small team and so there is still a  collegiality and camaraderie, that's very  easy to maintain. We gather, as a team,  with our lead engineers, data engineers, company leaders, product managers, every Monday night at five  o'clock and we spend an hour to two hours looking at the data that has accumulated over what we have shipped over the past few weeks. We look  together at what's making a difference and we start to generate new ideas or plotting; are we measuring that correctly? It's great, the PM's can own it and they can take credit for mistakes, they can take credit for celebrations. But, it is everybody's got skin in the game once we've got something out there, once we're looking  at these dashboards, once we're looking  at test results and what we're finding now is that this Monday night at 5 o'clock meeting when everybody should  just be like, “Hey, I got to get out of  here” our design team is started to show up, our marketing team is starting to show up, more engineers are starting to  show up; because people are very  interested in the impact of the work they do and I think it collectively makes us better, but it also makes us  very very thoughtful about what we're  responsible for as product managers.  Because, everybody that we've asked to contribute to our products, is sitting in the room, looking at these numbers it’s kind of a naked moment for you.

Hope Gurion: I love it.  I haven't heard about those meetings but  it does speak to the cross-functional  nature and people feeling like there is  meaning and impact in the work that  they're doing and it seems like that's  sort of the moment where it all is  clarified for everybody. What do you call that meeting? 

Rosie Atkins: Monday night data meeting?  [laughing] We should have a snappier name for it! Data round-up?

Hope Gurion:  Do you serve drinks? Or is it just about the data?

Rosie Atkins:  We are pretty sober company, so no. [Crosstalk] Yeah, data and Red Bull really going to try to come up with like a snappy name for it.

Hope Gurion:  Okay, well it seems like it doesn't need any branding, it seems like it's doing just fine. 

Rosie Atkins: You know so far in my time at Homebase, that has been the most surprising thing that has happened to us; is people’s enthusiasm around really examining what does success mean. 

Hope Gurion: Great I love it. I mean, it's great to have a whole culture around success.

Rosie Atkins: And when you do, I think what  happens is you become less afraid of  failure and you become less averse and  as a start-up, you want to be  swinging for the fences, you want to be  able to take risks but you want to know  those risks are right-sized. And, when you are looking at the data every single Monday night with your colleagues and taking the wins and taking the losses and sort of getting it wrong and getting it right together, I think that it does create an environment where people have a much greater appetite for doing something big.


Hope Gurion: Next, Troy Anderson of SPINS describes how he increases accountability by setting goals range wider, for riskier bets and narrow for investments with higher degree of confidence on the results versus goals. 

Troy Anderson: On accountability, I think the major thing of setting goals only a quarter hour that they should be very accomplishable. In that regard the team should be held accountable if we didn't hit them, because we should have enough certainty building into a quarter you know for what we should actually accomplish. That said, a lot of things I'd used some various differences, something like OKRs,  where you maybe set an aggressive  goal and don't necessarily intend to hit  it, but directionally, it's  trying to get to about sixty or seventy percent of whatever you're in your metric goals. A lot of times there's a  lot of uncertainty when you're starting  to do something, so the key is to have  that uncertainty be wide and you want to achieve as much as you  can you can; but like my issue, you realize that for new things the uncertainty is going to be extremely broad  across the probability. Whereas, if you're trying to do something like knock down defects, you should know what your defect lot is, and you should have some good sense for that. So, it’s going to vary depending on what it is, if it's something new, it's a wide range if it is something well-known, it's an heirloom range. But, to keep the teams accountable, you do try and do that quarterly, so that you're always committing to what you're telling the rest of the organization. The important part is you don’t want to give the organization information that's ahead of where you’re going.

Hope Gurion: So, for your team is it just like a statement of results against  goals? Is it something that gets like reported out and an email? What is the way that accountability is sort of acknowledged or that the result versus goal is captured?

Troy Anderson: In the best a circumstance, you would have some sort of incentive tied to the role, so all of the things are working together. In a lot of different environments, sometimes that's not the case yet, but the key is, if you're transparent about it with your overwork then at least keeping it internally. Then you could put it against them in a merit increase or bonus, if there is one. The key though is measuring it on a regular basis and checking in with the teams. Another way that we do that on a weekly basis, is we do preference. So, no matter what it is, even if it's an API, we want to have a  part and we'll say, “What did we accomplish this week?” So, demos  are very short,  the time frame is very short and it's  only a week's worth of work ,but it shows if  you do the demo on a weekly basis, people get used to like, “Oh yeah, we have to show  something for this” Therefore, we can't be  doing these big projects that take  forever to do, we have to show  incremental value only regular basis. So, demos have definitely been one way to keep accountability up; but  likewise you're keeping track at a  global scale for either a longer-term  incentive plan or you know just just for the health of the team.


Hope Gurion: Preston Smalley of Comcast, shares his approach for accountability when product teams miss on their expected results.   

Preston Smalley: So, my preferred  model of accountability really starts  with the team; in terms of what is  the team trying to accomplish? Because, in most software and technology companies, no one individual can really do all that much. You're going to have to collaborate and work with others and so what’s important is what objectives you set for that team and how you're going to measure success; and then if you’re successful, the team should really benefit in that success. So, typically in companies, that's that they  benefit in terms of, they're going to get  a better review at the end of the year, they're going to get a higher salary, they're going to get promoted, they're  going to be given larger challenges to  take on or more important challenges to  take on. I think that makes sense, that in the companies that we work on, really reward is the work that you are able to take on bigger and better problems and I  think that's what many of us are  motivated by; is that you're able to get  that, and if some money comes along the way, then that's great. But, it's less about that, it's more about the team accomplishment of what you're able to do.

What I think it's important to think about accountability, is what happens when it doesn't work so well; and that's where you start to unpack the reasons why and the outcomes may be different. So, for example, what I really  think is important is getting the role  right; so for people on my team definitely define what their particular role is, as a  product leader, a product manager and did I put the right person in the role for the moment in time that we're in. So, what I find is if I don't get that setup right, then the hell for me is that I start micromanaging. Now, I'm  involved, and now I’m overturning decisions, I'm  trying to understand why they made this  decision, it just doesn't make sense to me;  and so I use that as  a clue I say, “Okay Preston, why are you  micromanaging the situation? Did you not define the role well enough? Do you have the wrong person in the role? Do you need to  coach them to be better? Is that not possible and they really need to play a role somewhere else?” and so I think it's really trying to unpack with what's going on and that's where you start looking at an individual level.  You say, “Is this the reason it's not succeeding, because we have the wrong product strategy? Or we're making the wrong decisions around product?” In which case, then you shine the light on that product manager. Is it that they've got the right  approach but the engineering team isn't meeting the challenge? And so, then you  need to start unpacking like, “Do they  have enough resources? Do they have the  right leadership? What’s blocking them, are there are their dependencies that they may have that you need to then go shine a light on?”

So, the whole thing when it's not going well, is really this investigation of trying to figure out where are we going wrong and it may be multiple things; but it starts with getting the role right and getting the right person in that role. Because, I think in order for us to be good leaders, we need to have people working for us that are owners, not renters. That they shouldn't be just doing what they've been told. they should really be thinking about, “Look, this is my product. We're working on this together. We have our customers, how are we going to  better serve those customers?” So, that's what they're living in breathing every day and so ultimately, they should feel accountable to those customers and those outcomes they’re trying to create with their customers and if it's not happening then you get a start to unpack why.


Hope Gurion: Next, Al Ming of CNBC shares how he helps his product teams make and meet commitments, by acknowledging that failure is a part of future success. 

Al Ming: I think, when I think about how teams can truly be accountable to those goals that they have, there's a couple of pieces to that. I think one piece of it is about the reflection of yourself in others, essentially. That part of what makes you accountable is you have to get up and talk about it with everybody else; it becomes public, it becomes transparent, it is something that others are expecting to hear from you on a regular basis. Whether that's just in quarterly planning, whether that's in sprint demos, whether that's in sprint retrospectives, whether that's in monthly reviews with the c-suite about how our metrics are performing. That there is an expectation, we are setting that goal for our product development teams, we are making it a part of what the organization expects of you. So, one of the things I recently did, now that this is a new job, was defined product career ladders; where I'm saying, “This is the role of a product manager. These are the things you have to do at  this level and this level, of this level” and part of what I believe to help with achieving things like creating accountability of their goals is  saying it, saying, “This is a part of your  job. Part of your job is to be accountable, is to take ownership, is to  tell people how you did, is to plan your  strategy for your team and your backlog, so that you achieve your goals and to  have to speak to it when you don't”

One of the of course, tensions that that is dealt with here is there's often an anxiety about that from product  development teams, who aren't necessarily  that far along on that path; where they're worried about bad news, they're worried about telling someone they failed, they don't want red dots on a chart. It's a hard change to make in an organization that doesn't understand that failure is a part of success. They might absorb it for a  quarter and then they're like, “There's  still too much red on here, what are  we talking about?” and I think balancing that for teams is part of my job as a product leader; to ensure that they are accountable. But, maybe it's not necessarily accountable that the CEO sees, “Oh, that team is not delivering on the promises they made” but if they're accountable to me, I'm going to have those conversations with them. I'm going to speak to them and find out what are the things you need to spend more time on? It's not anyone's fault when team is not performing to the goals that they're doing, it might be, let me take that back a second. It's not a fault in of itself; if we're committing teams to take big swings, it's not bad to get the wrong things, but let's talk about it. It is a  conversation, it is a coaching moment, it  is a moment of growth for that team to  figure out why is this the case; are you  just taking on a really big challenge  and as a result it's hard to accomplish? Is it something mechanical like velocity or performance or code quality? Is there too much stuff?

The same principles we apply to understanding customer problems, we apply to ourselves as product managers and product leaders. We analyze what the  problem actually is, we look at what the  impact of it might be, we math out on a  customer journey where the pain points are, where the time is wasted and we take that opportunity to then look back and say, “Hey let's fix this so you are  accomplishing your goals or let's adjust those goals for the future. Everything is  about tuning and adjustment and finding the right spot for a team or a product  manager or a park leader to perform, so  let's do that together, let us find out  how we connect your goals back to what you're actually  doing, so that you can succeed so you can  be set up for success.”  So, for me, it is  about providing that framework around the team to create accountability, to create visibility into what they're  doing, to hold - there's the  holding them accountable and then  there's the helping them be accountable and making sure that they are able through coaching and working with them  to set goals and helping them develop as  product managers, to get that sweet spot a little closer and more aligned. 


Hope Gurion: Finally, Ezinne Udueze shares that who makes up the product team with shared ownership for the goal, is often a critical part of finding the right model of accountability for a product team. 

Ezinne Udueze: So, we actually have a rating structure as well as bonus and they often tie but not always we are actually playing around with having you  a 50/50 split. I do want to have a  shared ownership with some of the  goals; they're just something that we as  a team are working on and it's usually  the hard ones the ones where the  platform team for example, they  can't just own that people will adopt their stuff, we need the applications  team to actually also, share the goal of  adoption of platform features. So, there will be a few, but then 50% of what we’re thinking, what we will do, will be  as you say, driven by the product manager  themselves. In some cases, where it is share product ownership and driving it, it may be a party; it may simply just be a party, because we know that you were an ambassador for this and drove it. But, where it truly can be measured, for example, one of my product managers, the whole of this coming year, I'm not worried about any new feature he's going to deliver, because we need to get features adopted, that's it. So, him and the product marketing person, as well as the most of client success directors who own these accounts, are completely responsible for feature adoption. So, we need to go from 23 percent to 62 and that's what they're focused on. You can build new from new things, but what’s the point of nobody's using it? So, that's what we're working on.

Hope Gurion: That's great and I  love that it's not just the product team that is responsible, because it's a team sport, right? So, the fact that you've got product marketing and customer success, do your engineers also have accountability in these goals or how does that work?

Ezinne Udueze: Not in this feature adoption one, for example; no, they don't. but, that's a great question, I haven't thought about that. If I were to do, I would actually have more on the other side which is around CSAT for the product, because I think  where we struggle the most is in quality,  not necessarily quality in bat-code but the architecture doesn't take into account certain things. And, really tying the engineer to the end result in the dissatisfaction, I think yields better product, just better thinking. So, I actually haven't thought about how to incent our engineer side. I just want to get them predictable and their work to be more predictable right now and high quality and faster. Faster, more high-quality and predictable. Give me that first and then we'll do the other stuff.



 Hope Gurion: Look, setting goals is a critical part of the success equation, but it’s not enough.  Otherwise we’d all have no problem sticking to our new year’s resolutions, right?  A study by the American Society of Training and Development found that people who commit their goal to someone have a 65% probability of achieving it.  Even better is when those people have an accountability appointment, that success rate increases to 95%.  So, here’s my recommended checklist for you seeking to create cultures of accountability within your product teams:

1)    Set meaningful, measurable goals

2)    Ensure those goals align with the purpose and missions of your teams and your customers.

3)    Transparency: Ensure the goals are visible—are they posted on monitors, walls, collaboration spaces, slack?

4)    Create frequent accountability appointments with your rituals—discovery demos, sprint demos, product reviews, OKR reviews

5)    Create an accountability support system—anticipate roadblocks, encourage collaboration to resolve roadblocks when they arise because the numbers won’t always be a straight line up and to the right—teams will make mistakes and learn along the way and we need to encourage and celebrate those learnings and successes to keep them motivated to achieve their goals.

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