How to Build and Mature a High-Performing Product Operations Team

Published Sep 30, 2021

Some teams clearly perform better than others. In general, high-performing teams are made up of individuals with various specialties and skills that complement one another. Together, they are goal-oriented and hyper-focused on achieving incredible results. 

But building and maturing a high-performing team doesn’t just happen overnight. Unfortunately, you can’t just “switch on” great teamwork. It takes commitment in order for teams to continuously grow, develop, and mature. And this couldn’t be more true for one of the newest sub-teams in product: product operations.

The path to high performance

Developing and maturing teams is a process of learning to work together. In 1965, psychologist Bruce Tuckman introduced the memorable phrase “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing,” which describes the path a team follows on their way to high performance. (A fifth stage, “Adjourning,” was added a few years later and describes the deconstruction of the team as well as the beginning.) If properly nurtured, teams are able to mature from early formation through various stages and eventually into a developed business. 

This widely-referenced work continues to provide a useful model for understanding the evolution of teams and how leadership styles evolve over time, too. As a product operations leader, recognizing the characteristics and needs of your team at each of these stages will help you achieve higher performance. 

Stage 1: Forming

During the first stage of maturity–Forming–team members will “test the waters” to determine what behavior is acceptable to the group. They will likely express the need to agree on their purpose as a team, set initial goals, and establish some ground rules. A good place to start is encouraging discussions around team members’ skills, backgrounds, and interests, and spending time understanding each individual’s driving motivation. A great tool that I have used in the past to help with this is Gallup’s CliftonStrengths Assessment, which helps teams and managers create and sustain exceptional team performance by measuring talent and identifying strengths.

As a product operations leader during this first stage, try assuming more of a directing style with your team–spend time talking about each team member’s role, making sure they understand what is expected of them. It might also be useful to create a team charter to help establish clear objectives and help team members set personal goals so that they can see how their work fits into the bigger picture. 

Stage 2: Storming

Once your team members get to know each other better, they will move onto the second stage of maturity–Storming. This is the most difficult stage, as the team will need to learn to collaborate and figure out how best to work together, despite their individual differences. You might find a lack of agreement when it comes to making group decisions, with team members attempting to establish themselves and their position in relation to other team members and you as their leader. A little conflict can be a good thing, though, since it forces people to work together to deal with differences and innovate. 

Product operations leaders should try to assume more of a coaching role at this stage. Make sure to let everyone have their say by listening to all sides of each conflict and facilitating a middle ground that allows the team to move forwards collectively. To help the shift from Storming to Norming, focus conversations on what the team can do to make life easier for one another and become a more effective collective group. For example, what processes could you establish to track the progress and success of the work being done?

Stage 3: Norming

At this point, your product ops team will start to form a sense of unity and focus around a common goal. This suggests they are now transitioning into the Norming stage of maturity. In addition to standardizing processes and defining responsibilities, bigger decisions are likely to be made by group agreement, whereas smaller decisions are delegated to individuals or small teams within the group. This all means work efficiency will start to increase and reach its highest since the beginning of the team development cycle. The danger, however, is that team members may be so focused on preventing conflict that they are reluctant to share creative ideas, which could lead to groupthink

During the Norming stage, you will want to assume more of a facilitator and enabler style of leadership. Agree upon some ground rules as a team by discussing what you want to be known for as a team. Once you’ve come up with a few ideas, determine what you need to do in order to make this happen and put some guidelines in place around how you intend to do it. Be sure to write these guidelines down so that your team can revisit them regularly and if someone new joins, they’re able to access the guidelines to better understand what the team stands for.

Stage 4: Performing

Finally, as your product operations team continues to work efficiently, they will enter the Performing stage of maturity. Whether it’s a team of two or a team of 20, this is where all of your hard work starts to pay off. All team members should be clear on the role they play, who to go to for more information, what the team stands for, and what they are trying to create. Product ops pros will be fully focused on producing results and identifying new areas of improvement to benefit the business. And internally, they will deal with conflicts as they arise, challenging ideas from different team members without getting personal, and take collective pride in the team’s successes.

Product operations leaders should try to assume more of a delegating and overseeing leadership style at this stage of maturity. To do this, free up more time for yourself and empower the team to perform by delegating tasks and projects. Make time for the group’s personal development and discuss what opportunities and resources are available to them. In mature teams, thanking each other for a job well done should be standard practice and this should be reflected by you as a leader.

The 3 Cs of successful teams

To help you start driving action in product operations teams at any stage of maturity (and to have the best chance at building a successful team in the long term), here are three simple, foundational themes to focus on:

  • Consistency – establish consistency in your meetings, templates, processes, deliverables, and resources. Teams across the product function (and beyond) will need to know that certain things are going to happen a certain way at a certain time, helping everyone stick to deadlines and expectations.
  • Collaboration – clear, streamlined communication is essential for high performing teams so that they can be nimble and focused. Try introducing a tool that acts as your “central source of truth” where multiple teams and functions can capture and share information within a single space (e.g. Aha!, Jira, or Confluence).
  • Communication – make sure communication is as transparent and multi-directional as possible to keep people informed and engaged. It’s also helpful to implement a single communication tool across the product team (e.g. Microsoft Teams or Slack).

Although product operations is still unfolding and finding its feet as a function, setting your sights on becoming a high-performing team is critical for success. There are few things more energizing at work than being part of an incredible team–one that works seamlessly together, challenges each other to think in new and creative ways, and delivers fantastic results. 

The American baseball player Casey Stengel once said: “The trick is growing up without growing old.” Building and maturing a high-performing product operations team is a marathon, not a sprint. But when you bring together the right mix of skills and experience and nurture the fundamental characteristics, behaviors, and best practices of a high-performing team, the payoff will be worth it.