Everyone wants to give their product that special something that sets their company apart. The innovation that makes that possible comes from the people working on your product team, and it’s up to product leaders to create an environment where innovation can thrive.
“A good product leader delivers the product as expected, says Adil Ajmal, CPO & CTO at Fandom. “A great product leader can bring out the spark of unexpected greatness from their team that makes the product special.”
Getting that unexpected spark isn’t easy, though. It can’t be manufactured. After all, if it were simple to obtain, it wouldn’t be unexpected.
But while the innovation itself is hard to force, product leaders can absolutely create an environment that makes innovation more likely to happen.
We sat down with Terminal’s Executives-in-Residence Adil Ajmal and Chung-Man Tam, SVP Product Dev at Affirm, to get their top four tips for fostering innovation on product teams.
Tam and Ajmal both agree that a great product leader needs to be able to work cross-functionally. “As a product leader, you’re going to work closely with a lot of different teams. Engineering is probably going to be your closest partner, followed by design, and then sales and marketing,” says Tam.
“Ultimately all of those folks are playing immense functional roles, and the product leader has a separate role from all of those things: their job is to synthesize all the constraints and possibilities that come from across the company and keep focus on the overall objective,” says Tam. “It’s the product leader’s job to ultimately make something happen from all those different components.”
But those components are nothing without an overarching plan. The product leader’s vision needs to tie those functions together and create something bigger than the sum of its parts. “A great product leader is someone who can create a vision that will take a company forward.”
According to Ajmal, that vision is what turns a product leader into a CEO later in their career. “If you look at a lot of strong product companies, you can see that the path for someone to go from a PM to a General Manager or CEO is the ability to broadcast their vision for a great product, bring all those different company-wide functions together, and add value for both the users and the business.”
Another key part of being a product leader is getting out the way when your team manages to create the unexpected. Leaders should focus on getting rid of obstacles and allowing their team to innovate unfettered.
Ajmal uses an example from his previous company to illustrate his point. “Back at Tenmarks, one of the engineers on our team actually came up with a product idea and implemented it as one of his personal projects. I had nothing to do with it. He had the ability to go build that while partnering with somebody in design. It started as an experiment and took on a life of its own and eventually became its own product.”
“That’s just one example, but that sort of thing happens all the time at good companies. Our jobs are to remove as many roadblocks as possible so that people can run with their ideas and do great things.”
Assembling a diverse team is an important part of fostering an environment where spur-of-the-moment innovation can happen. In a recent survey of over 1700 companies, organizations with above-average diversity produced a greater proportion of revenue from innovation (45% of total) than from companies with below average diversity (26%).
Tech corridors have been popping up all over the world, and with them come a great deal of fresh perspectives that can get leaders out of their Silicon Valley bubbles. “The ability to bend outside of the box is incredibly important and sometimes when you’re in the Valley itself, you don’t get that exposure to new concepts and ideas as much as you should,” says Ajmal.
Ajmal encourages leaders to see COVID as an opportunity to hire engineers in new markets. “COVID has really transformed things over the last year and has opened this huge opportunity for leaders to get team members from all over the world. Companies like Terminal will actually help you hire people in countries and jurisdictions where you’re not actually registered. The paradigm has completely changed.”
The challenges now, Ajmal adds, aren’t how to find talent. “The challenges at this point are time zones and tools,” he says.
The change to remote is happening even faster than anticipated, as Tam attests from his own experience joining a new company amidst the pandemic. “I was onboarded at Affirm after the pandemic had already started,” he says. “Everything has been over Zoom and I’ve never been in the room with most of my colleagues.”
And as Affirm grows rapidly, that experience is becoming more and more commonplace for his colleagues, too. “We had just under 800 employees when I joined, and now we have over 1200 people. We decided to be remote first from now on, and that transformation happened fast,” says Tam. “People dispersed away from the San Francisco headquarters and out into the world really quickly, which was fascinating.”
Tam’s advice for remote teams? Don’t neglect social connections. “Remote work requires you to be much more intentional in how you spend your time. You don’t have the casual encounters that you would have otherwise,” he says. “It might feel awkward to set up time for a coffee chat, but you have to do it. You have to find a way to help your team bond and understand how to work together outside of work.”
A product leader’s job is ultimately to empower everyone at their company to contribute to the product. It’s within their power to get teams to think creatively about solving problems and bring out the unexpected. After all, a product leader is, at their core, a facilitator. “The role of a PM is to frame the industry, the product, and the company in the right lens so that the team can build the best product that can go to market and be successful,” says Tam. “It’s a very exciting role to be in.”