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How to Stay Focused for Product Teams

Introduction

Anton Cherkasov

Anton Cherkasov

Anton is a founder of Focus, which is a team management platform. He is also a writer in HackerNoon, The Startup, Good Audience, and other media. Previously Anton has worked in Wildberries (#1 eCommerce store in Russia). He is falling in love with growth hacking, product management, and football.


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How to Stay Focused for Product Teams

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Teams often lose focus on top priorities for a multitude of reasons. At Focus, we believe that staying concentrated on what “matters” is one of the most important skills for product teams.

Here are some sources of distraction your team may face:

  1. The team works on a hard project for too long. Instead of validating the main idea in a month, the team had developed the project for half of the year, which is quite a long interval of time.
  2. The team created a new project, but it doesn’t fit the company’s vision and strategy. However, the project is so cool and motivating that the team finds themselves enjoying it.
  3. Stakeholders from different teams can’t agree on strategic questions or concepts, resulting in a lack of progress for the project.
  4. The team makes a product that’s designated for a non-target customer or the product’s value proposition doesn’t fit the company’s vision.  

How can a product team stay focused?

I talked with many companies and found that there were two main problems when the team struggle to stay focused. Either they don’t know the company’s vision or teams set the big objectives but forget about them in daily routines. We, admittedly, struggled with this issue too and that’s why we decided to build Focus.

We also discussed the reasons why it happens and how a company can fix it. Based on these conversations, we found 3 main pillars that a company should have for staying on what matters the most:

  • Clear vision. CEO and CPO should describe a clear vision for everyone. What’s most important for the company? Why does it matter? ‘Why’ is the core question for any company. Learn more about why it matters with Simon Sinek, who explains why you should start with why. Without establishing and communicating your vision, it’s hard to identify if a new project or initiative is a good fit or not for the company on the medium to long-term.
  • Right OKRs. Setting right OKRs that fit the company’s vision is the next step to marry strategy with tactics. 
  • Constant processes. The challenge is staying focused on OKRs in daily operations. We see that a lot of companies forget about them because of routines and different unimportant but urgent tasks. You know this, it’s called fighting fires. The only way to stay on top of your priorities day-to-day is to create a workflow that enables your team to be more focused. Daily and weekly check-ins where you discuss your OKRs should be a fundamental processes in your company. 

How to stay focused?

Lead by vision

Vision is an inspirational story about a new future when your company achieves new goals. And how your customers and the team will live better when it happens. 

Why should you talk about vision?

Because people love a good story.

Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his books ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’ that humanity evolved because of the ability of humans to come up with memes – stories that make people change their behavior and distribute them to others.

During product development, all systems (product, code, architecture, client segments, contexts, etc.) are becoming ever more complex exponentially. However, teams’ competencies increase linearly. It explains why a company changes teams three times on average during this journey:

  • First there’s the team that launches product
  • Then the team that scales it
  • And the team that builds processes for the main market

This has less of an impact on founders because they work mostly with the company’s vision, which is not restricted by complex systems and product architecture.

According to research on presentation methods, messages delivered as the stories can be up 22 times more memorable than just facts.

Great vision, which inspires the team and fits the company’s purpose increases motivation and helps to stay focused on the most important things. It works even for making a small decision because the team will remember the vision and think about how the new decision impacts on the ideal future the company is building towards.

Vision leadership works not only for founders. In this Product Leadership book, authors advocate for each Product Manager to work on creating and delivering the vision for product hypotheses.

In Amazon, all employees learn to talk the vision language. After you have written a document, you read the press release one more time and ask yourself: is it an ambitious idea to work on it? Should we do it or it doesn’t matter so much? It allows us to work and make decisions guided by the vision.

Principles to create a vision for product teams:

  1. It is necessary to know your market segment and do customer validation with MVP. The vision should describe the future of target markets with the solution to their current and future needs.
  2. The product teams’ vision should be aligned with the company’s vision. Stakeholders should be involved in crafting it.
  3. You should find the best vision for your team after several iterations talking with stakeholders and coworkers. By the way, Working Backwards by Amazon embodies this approach.

Set the right OKRs 

If the CEO or CPO doesn’t have the right goals, then nothing will work. Of course you don’t want that. But how to set goals in the right way?

OKR is the most proven tool for setting goals. 

OKR in Focus
An OKR in Focus

Different teams depending on their sizes might have different OKR cycles. Small startups and companies with few stakeholders often use 2-month intervals. Large companies prefer quarterly OKR cycles. 

Companies usually don’t set OKRs correctly in the first cycles. Using OKRs is a continuous process of improvement. The team runs retrospectives and analyzes what works and what doesn’t. It’s an ongoing learning process. Implementing the framework is hard, however, OKR is the best tool to stay focused.

If you had tried OKRs and it didn’t work, it doesn’t mean that OKR doesn’t work. It means that you haven’t found the right way how OKRs could work for your team.

You can read more about how to use OKRs in this article.

Processes that help to stay focused

  1. One on one meetings are a great way to reiterate the vision and tie the employee’s personal development to the goals of the company. It’s the one on one meeting where you can elaborate on what the company is building towards and how each individual team member can contribute to it in their area of responsibility. It’s also a great place to get feedback on any activities that you thought would tie into the vision and the goals set but the rest of the company either doesn’t understand or just thinks it’s not aligned.
  2. Automatic daily and weekly reminders of what the team has accomplished. It’s short messages with new updates for a specific channel or chat, which is visible for founders or executives. It helps founders to realize current status and ask the team if something went wrong. 
  3. Public channel for check-ins where everyone publishes daily achievements. It’s like daily standups but in written type with outcomes that the person achieved the day before and what they plan on doing next.
  4. Ruthlessly say no to ideas that don’t fit the company’s vision and goals.
  5. The CEO and CPO should strictly follow their goals and stay focused on it every day. If they run some side projects, everyone would see it. People might start to do side projects too. Leading by example is the best way to show the team that focus on top priorities is crucial for the company. 
  6. There is a Weekly Business Review (WBR) at Amazon. Every Product Manager updates key metrics of the team and marks objectives with the colors green, yellow, and red (like OKRs). It explains where they did well and where they fell short. In your company, you can gather all WBRs in Focus or any other software where managers will analyze it and give feedback.
  7. Monthly Business Review (MBR) and Quarterly Business Review (QBR) are the same as for other timeframes. It’s analyzed one time per month and per quarter.
Daily Check-ins in Focus
Daily Check-ins in Focus

What is the focus?

Focus

Imagine you changed your vision twice and you are working with the last vision now.

It’s Q2 2020 now, and you set the company’s OKRs and teams’ OKRs to achieve your vision.

Focus

You move forward but you see that some teams are doing something that doesn’t fit the company’s vision. You are beginning to close these projects.

Focus

In the daily check-ins, CPO should: 

  • Correlate team’s route if it moves in a different direction
  • Stretch the team for achieving larger goals
Focus

Some tips to stay focused for product teams

  1. If everything is top priority it means nothing is priority. Limit the number of items you work on at the same time. It depends on the team, but 2-3 maximum is a good golden rule.
  2. Having a good manager/mentor in the company who has an incredible way of splitting the product vision into a set of core values.
  3. Transparency and clarity of what’s important to achieving the mission are an absolute necessity.
  4. Start your day with the most important item that day, finish it. Don’t stop or get distracted by anything.
  5. Next move to routine items that should be done daily. This is a boring list that you deal with which contains daily/weekly/monthly tasks. Take them on one at a time and complete as many as your psyche will allow.
  6. Lastly, intermittently switch from routine to your ‘bonus list’. The items that are fun but lightly affect the trajectory. This will make your day more fun.
  7. At the end of each day ask yourself “What were the 1 or 2 important items completed today that I’d be proud of at the end of the year?”
  8. When you get overwhelmed and struggle to focus, you might ask yourself what you should do if you could only do one thing that day.

Summary

Staying focused is the permanent process that starts with the CEO and CPO. Here are 3 main pillars that any company should have to stay on what matters the most:

  • Clear vision
  • Right OKRs
  • Continuous processes

It’s a continuous process that takes full attention of all people in the team, especially C-level managers. There is no silver bullet here. However, to stay focused on what matters is a crucial skill for any company. 

We built a focus management platform to help companies be more effective and stay focused on top priorities in daily operations. You can try Focus for free to automate check-ins, one on one meetings, and OKRs. Start working smarter with Focus today.

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Anton Cherkasov

Anton Cherkasov

https://usefocus.co/

Anton is a founder of Focus, which is a team management platform. He is also a writer in HackerNoon, The Startup, Good Audience, and other media. Previously Anton has worked in Wildberries (#1 eCommerce store in Russia). He is falling in love with growth hacking, product management, and football.

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