The Product Team Ladder and helping teams move through it would serve as the bedrock of a typical Product Management consultancy (we’ve been encouraged to do so). However, instead, we’ve made The Product Team Ladder available through Creative Commons License.

Visualization of The Product Team Ladder

Level 1: The Spaghetti Western

Spaghetti Western teams throw spaghetti at the wall, and when nothing sticks, they throw more spaghetti. Always in search of the next big deal, the new big idea, and the next significant initiative. The team may have once had a competitive product, but signs of a vision have long faded and now in search of the deal that will get everything back on track.

Symptoms: Product vision changes depending on the pitch, ideas surface are discarded and resurface based on partner interest. No documented vision. Project teams, not product teams. Projects are perpetually half-completed.

Recommended Reading: Radical Focus

Level 2: The IT Shop

IT shops operate as a cost center. Projects are discussed in terms of their financial cost, not their team size. Extensive ROI calculation and business planning go into selecting projects, yet few of the “funded” initiatives are completed. Projects are managed to cost and schedule. “The business” buys technology capabilities often based on competitor capabilities and looks to IT to integrate.

Symptoms: Developers are referred to as “resources” and project teams as “IT.” Projects are extensively tracked yet rarely delivered on time and never as expected. Plans reset at each budgeting cycle.

Recommended Reading: The Unicorn Project

Level 3: The Feature Factory

At the Feature Factory level, teams begin to demonstrate some level of product planning. Many groups have an out of date product vision; however, it isn’t used in day to day prioritization. On a quarterly or semi-quarterly basis, features are evaluated against each other chosen based on their strategic importance or business ROI. Organization struggles to fund “new” or “bold” investments until after a competitor has proven it in the market.

Symptoms: Features are developed with much overhead, launched with much fanfare—and scrutinized immediately following launch. Three months later, the sales or customer outcomes everyone expected are do not materialize, and the organization moves on to the next backlog item.

Recommended Reading: The Build Trap

Level 4: The Optimization Team

As an Optimization Team, you settle debates and decide priorities based on experiments as opposed to consistency with your value proposition and product vision. You have an idea, but it most closely resembles an objective and critical result. As a culture, you celebrate wins—and you measure winning by internal metrics such as improving conversation rate, customer onboarding success, and queries.

Higher performing optimization teams have strong collaboration within the product team. Still, they have a hard time communicating “why” a feature or product experience is right beyond it’s adherence to a single metric.

Symptoms: While you celebrate internal wins, your competitive position remains unchanged. Every few years, all of your experimentation learning are thrown away in favor of a transformative redesign. As an organization, only the most senior leaders build consensus to take action on its merits—unless it is translatable into how it impacts the critical target metrics.

Recommended Reading: The Build Trap

Level 5: The Product Team

As a Product Team, You make decisions based on data, insights, and first principles. Teams are guided by a product vision/hypothesis about the value the product can bring to customers’ lives. They explore hypotheses through an embodied product research and development process, which actively scrutinizes external signals to assess whether the product hypothesis and product execution are highly valued by their customer based.

Teams keep a healthy pulse of timelines but are supported and encouraged in delaying the timing of product launches when they aren’t ready. They prioritize psychological safety and have candid conversations about what is and isn’t working.

Symptoms: Revenue is an outcome of the product development process, not the goal. The team can empathetically decline roadmap line items from key stakeholders without escalations. The product leaders who directly manage the roadmap are responsible for keeping a compelling vision. Most new product lines were identified through team generated initiatives.—no regarding product roadmaps to an influential stakeholder without resulting in an escalation.

Recommended Reading: The Team That Blossomed, 2020