The Discomfort of a Great Product Team
Why teams without conflicts don’t tend to produce great products
One of the most counterintuitive aspects about great product teams is that being a part of them isn’t always comfortable. It’s not all smooth sailing: there are frictions and disagreements between team members, differences in working styles, and clashes of perspectives.
Some teams think that this discomfort is something to be rooted out: they hire for “culture fit” which they define as how easily the prospective team member would get along and collaborate with the rest of the team. This approach is flawed, though. Great outcomes require discomfort. Great product teams will therefore always have some level of discomfort.
Of course, not all discomfort is good. If the climate in the team is toxic, if people are openly hostile towards one another, or if there is no psychological safety, it will negatively impact the well-being and performance of the team. The question, then, is how to achieve the right level and kind of discomfort.
The first thing to note is that growth requires discomfort. In order for the team and the team members to grow, they need to continuously attempt to achieve things that are just beyond their capabilities — out of their comfort zone, as it were. Great product leadership ensures that every team and every team member has the opportunity to grow and then provides the support required to do so. Even with that support, that growth will still at times feel uncomfortable.
The second kind of discomfort that is positive for the development of a great product stems from disagreement caused by people caring deeply about the product. If all team members truly, deeply care about the product and user experience, they are likely to have strong opinions. These strong opinions will inevitably clash, leading to disagreements and discomfort. The absence of this discomfort often means that most team members don’t care and have resigned to just doing what they’re told, as highlighted in this tweet:
Obviously, a team in which most team members have given up, don’t care about the product and just follow orders will not develop as great a product as a team in which all team members pour their heart and soul into the product, even though the latter will invariably lead to discomfort at times.
A similar but different point is team diversity. The more diverse a team is, the more different perspectives the team members bring to the table, the less comfortable the collaboration will feel, but the better results they will produce. This goes against our intuition, but can be explained by psychology: We not only prefer information that is more familiar and processed more easily, we actually believe such information to be “truer” (fluency bias). More diversity will lead to more perspectives being taken into account and better outcomes — but more discomfort.
Google’s famous study on what makes teams effective found that one of the determining factors for team effectiveness is psychological safety. It is important to understand that psychological safety and diversity (of opinions and perspectives) go hand in hand. Psychological safety does not mean a lack of conflict. To the contrary: psychological safety means that everyone feels free to express opinions that might be in conflict with what the rest of the group thinks.
The opposite of a team with diverse viewpoints that they feel free to express is groupthink — when a group develops such a singular perspective (and often such a “well-oiled” way of collaborating) that they think as one, and deviation from the common way no longer occurs. It feels very efficient, but it is not very effective. Groupthink hardly leads to the most creative or most promising ideas.
Increasing diversity in a company needs a broad and multi-faceted approach to address challenges at every stage from talent availability over sourcing, hiring, development to retention and promotion. While not addressing all of these challenges, one mindset that can be helpful to increase diversity when hiring or staffing product team members is asking yourself this question when evaluating potential team members: would this person add a perspective to the team that we don’t yet have? This unique perspective could be due to that person’s background, education, past experience, skills, or other factors. The more different their perspective is, the more “uncomfortable” it will feel — but, as discussed, the better will the work results of the team turn out.
In summary, great product teams continuously grow by operating just outside of their “comfort zone”, are composed of tram members who deeply care about the product and the problem it’s solving, and they take into account different and diverse perspectives to identify the most important problems and come up with the best solutions. This leads to discomfort, but never to lack of psychological safety — team members will always feel that they can share their opinion without fear of negative consequences.
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