Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
March 09, 2021 · 16 min read

How to Stay Lean While you Scale Your Product Team From Product/Market Fit to Growth

How to Stay Lean While you Scale Your Product Team From Product/Market Fit to Growth

For every growing company, there comes a time when you need to add new blood to your product team. Unfortunately, scaling a product team from product/market fit to the demands of hyper-growth isn’t easy. Get it wrong, and it can be an expensive mistake.

Hiring is a delicate balance. Add too many new team members too quickly and you’ll burn through resources, get stuck in a never-ending cycle of onboarding, burn out your project managers, and risk injecting a ton of complication into your process.

But hire too slowly and you might overload your team with too much work and miss important opportunities for growth.

A lean product team strikes the perfect balance. With the right structure, your team stays nimble and efficient without feeling overloaded or stressed with their workload. Hitting that mark, though, takes experience and vision.

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Whether you’re a founder who’s ready to pass the torch to a dedicated product team or a PM fighting for more resources, this guide will help you through the process of scaling your product team, staying lean, and growing sustainably.

We’ve also included a ton of extra resources to help you, from key tools that will keep your growing team connected and productive to workflows and processes to help onboard new teammates and manage expectations.

The 5 signs that it’s time to scale up your product team

At Planio, we’re big believers in the power of sustainable growth.

This means not blindly throwing resources or VC dollars at problems but finding innovative, sustainable, and creative solutions to them. This philosophy applies not only to how we build products but also how we grow our team.

One of the key elements of sustainable growth is knowing when a problem needs to be solved. Think of this as building your own early warning system for some of the most major issues that will impact your company.

So what are the telltale signs that it’s time to scale your product team? Let’s look at a few so you can see where you stand.

1. You’ve hit product/market fit

For many startups, finding product/market fit is their first priority. You may have a rough idea of what your product will look like and what kind of market it will serve. But finding that perfect fit between the two is a big moment for any business.

However, reaching product/market fit opens up new challenges.

While your product may have initially been designed to solve a problem you personally faced and were very familiar with, a larger market with more customers means expanding to meet their requirements. You’ll have all sorts of insights on new problems to solve as well as how to adapt your product to better serve this bigger audience.

Product/market fit is also one of the few moments where it’s a good idea to throw a bit of gasoline on the fire. Knowing you’ve validated your idea and have some revenue coming in can mitigate the risk of scaling your product team up!

2. You’re launching a new product/moving into a new market

Even if your product team is doing a great job with your original product, that doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to handle new products/markets.

Launching into a new market is a big step that takes significant time and effort. It also usually means tapping into fresh expertise to navigate those changes.

Rather than placing all the extra burden onto your existing team, it makes more sense to scale up. Not only will adding to your product team at this stage help lighten the load for your current team, but it also allows you to bring in specialized players who might understand the market or product you’re moving into better than you do.

3. You’ve hit a major business milestone

As exciting as reaching a new milestone might be, it can turn out to be a curse if you don’t have a big enough team to handle the next phase. More customers ultimately mean more support tickets, more bugs, and more pressure to perform.

If you’re struggling to effectively manage the product, changing your product delivery model, or you’re simply entering a period of massive growth, make sure your team is big enough and has the necessary resources to handle the increased workload.

4. Your team is hitting burnout

As more teams were forced to switch to remote work, we’ve seen more cases of stress and burnout. People in all sorts of businesses and roles have struggled with working from home, with many working longer hours and finding it difficult to create boundaries between work and home life.

But even at the best of times, managing a product is stressful. Preparing for a big launch or dealing with growth is like taking out a personal loan on your team’s future productivity. And the last thing you want is for your team to become stressed, jaded, and burnt out.

If there’s too much pressure for your existing team to handle, it’s important to act quickly to prevent the serious issues that can result from burnout. Scaling up your team can prevent too much of that pressure from piling up on too few people.

5. What worked in the past isn’t working anymore

If you want to reach new heights in your business, you can’t always stick to the status quo.

You may have been able to cobble together an MVP on your own, but a full launch will likely require more people with expertise. Developing a second product may require even more people in different roles.

Whether you’re entering a new phase, have new goals, or facing any other kind of challenge, you’ll reach a stage where what worked before won’t get you there.

It can be tempting to keep tackling your product problems the same way you always have when results start to suffer, but, sooner or later, something will have to change. If your old approach isn’t working anymore, it might make more sense to scale up your product team with experienced people who can get you to that next stage.

Of course, recognizing that you need to scale your team is just the first step. Once you’ve identified the need, you’ll then have to work out how to actually do it.

Whether you’re entering a new phase, have new goals, or facing any other kind of challenge, you’ll reach a stage where what worked before won’t get you there.

The biggest challenges of scaling your product team (and how to solve them)

No matter what stage of growth your company is facing, scaling your product team will come with its own challenges. There are five obstacles in particular that, if you’re not ready for them, could easily derail your efforts.
Let’s dig into the biggest challenges of scaling your product team and how to avoid them.

1. Founders handing over control of product decisions

There’s a popular saying that if you’re the founder of a growing company, your job is to get yourself fired.

Founders handing over control of product decisions

As your company grows, you should be aiming to be less involved in the day-to-day running of your business and more focused on vision and leadership.

From a product team perspective, getting buy-in on every decision simply doesn’t scale. Accepting this can be a hard pill to swallow. However, holding on too tightly for too long can end up causing resentment.


2. Finding and hiring the right project and product managers

Great project managers and leaders are priceless. They balance technical skills with people skills to get the most out of your team. This is no small task, which is why finding and hiring great project managers is never easy.

The right managers will transform your business for the better. The wrong one can destroy your team and guarantee failure.

Solution: Build out a robust hiring process for your PMs that identifies the key qualities/experience you need and how you’ll identify those in prospective hires. Then, start looking early on. Don’t wait until it’s an urgent decision, or you might be forced to take on someone who doesn’t match your criteria.

3. Structuring a growing product team

Early on, when you’re a small team, product team structure doesn’t matter. But as you grow, the way your team is structured becomes increasingly important.

You might dream of a flat hierarchy, but in larger teams, people rely on clearly defined roles and responsibilities to stay effective.

Structuring your product team isn’t about creating a dictatorship. It’s about helping give everyone clarity about expectations, responsibilities, and the chain of command.

Solution: Match your product team’s structure to the phase your company is in. We’ll cover this more in-depth below, but the key is to match your product’s needs to your team’s abilities and resources. Get this wrong and the whole thing can fall apart.

Structuring your product team isn’t about creating a dictatorship. It’s about helping give everyone clarity about expectations, responsibilities, and the chain of command.

4. Scaling too quickly (or not quickly enough!)

Scaling your product team is a “Goldilocks” problem. Scaling before you’ve built a strong (and profitable) foundation of best practices brings additional expenses (such as paying payroll taxes) and confusion that could cripple your lean product team. Scale your team too slowly though and you run the risk of reduced quality of work that could irreversibly damage your brand.

Here’s an example:

At Buffer–the social media management tool–their product team had to go through several different versions as the company grew.

Initially, they had one team handling everything, which meant they had to move fast and spend a lot of time putting out fires. But soon, they realized that in order to balance growth and support, they needed a more sustainable way of working. So they switched their team structure to a variety of small goal-focused squads that allowed them to still move quickly without the previous issues.

Solution: Knowing when to scale your team is pretty much the most important thing you can do. While some of this will come down to your expertise as a leader, you can also test your current team’s status by asking a few key questions at regular intervals:

5. Balancing innovation with execution and expectations

As your team grows it gets harder and harder to maintain your values, vision, and culture. What naturally flowed through your tight-knit team suddenly needs to be standardized so that everyone can work from the same page.

We’re not talking about throwing inspirational quotes up on the wall or going on and on about vague ‘company values,’ but defining and sharing the ‘secret sauce’ that got you here.

Solution: Bake your company vision into all aspects of your team, from OKRs to Sprint Planning. New and old hires alike should always be able to connect what they’re working on to why it matters.

If you want to reach new heights in your business, you can’t stick to the status quo.

The ideal lean product team structure at every stage (according to teams that scaled quickly)

Now that you understand the opportunities and challenges you’ll face as you scale your product team, it’s time to focus on what this looks like in practice.

The ideal lean product team structure at every stage

Every product team goes through specific phases that require a different structure. Before you go off and start hiring or changing your team dynamics, understand where you are and what questions you should be asking.

Stage 1: Early days

This is what Credit Karma’s Chief Product Officer calls “The Drunken Walk.”

Experimentation is the name of the game, where you throw different ideas against the wall and see what sticks. Most of the time, this will mean working from the founder’s vision with the objective of finding product/market fit.

What are the main problems your product team will face during the early days?

Lots of experimentation means lots of failures, and your team needs to be comfortable with that. A lack of resources and data is another challenge and can paralyze product teams if they’re used to only working with sure bets.

How should you structure your product team during the early days?

In the early days of your product, the bulk of your team will most likely be working on the product. If you’re the founder, you’ll most likely be acting as a product manager as well–pushing your vision along with managing the bulk of the product decisions.

Structure is easy at this point because everyone knows who answers to who. You don’t have multiple teams to deal with and instead can focus on balancing the resources and skills of your current team.

For now, product management will look more like project management.

Stage 2: Product/market fit

Congratulations! You’ve gone beyond solving your problem and have more than a handful of enthusiastic fans. At this point, your product has proven its value and is capable of supporting itself with your customer value exceeding the cost of acquisition.

In other words, you now have concrete proof that your product is profitable and has room to grow.

What are the main problems your product team will face during product/market fit?

Letting go is never easy, especially for founders. However, you’ll soon find yourself dealing with an increased workload including customer profiles that need to be defined, product roadmaps that need to be created, and someone to keep up with the sales and marketing teams.

This requires careful planning and open communication, at what can easily be an emotional time.

How should you structure your product team during product/market fit?

It’s time for founders to take a step back and pass the baton on to a dedicated product manager (or more than one depending on the size of your company).

Your product manager will own responsibility for the decisions and strategic vision of your product. This might include things like market research, feature prioritization, budgeting resources, and working with marketing and sales.

However, once you start working with dedicated product managers, you’ll still have a few additional questions to answer:

At this stage, the product team will have to almost fully leave behind the experimentation and free-form approach that defined the initial stage and focus more on a clearly defined software development process.

When hiring for the role, look for product managers that are comfortable in a structured environment and can keep the communication flowing.

Stage 3: Scale

Building on your success, the next step your product team will find themselves in is scale. This is where you continue to build out your core product while also exploring new opportunities, markets, and features that will take you even further.

What are the main problems your product team will face while scaling?

Hitting product scale sounds like one of those ‘good’ problems to have, but don’t underestimate the pressure it’ll put on your product team.

If you’re not ready for it, the scaling stage could easily be the end of your journey. The processes that got you here won’t be as effective and your team will need to use all of their available resources to ensure they’re pursuing the right opportunities.

At the same time, you’ll need to maintain the core product that got you to this stage, balancing innovation and stability.

How should you structure your product team during the scale stage?

This is where product team structure gets complicated. At scale, you’ll have multiple teams working on sometimes very different products and features. However, they all still need to be able to work and communicate with each other properly.

At this point, you have a few options of how to structure your product team:

1. One product manager per product (or feature)

Think of this as extrapolating your previous structure by adding more product managers and giving them each dedicated teams to work with and products/features to own. The questions above apply now more than ever (How big should teams be? How much autonomy? Who do they report to?)

2. Multiple, specialized product managers working across teams

Alternatively, you can have multiple, specialized product managers who work across all of your teams. In practice, this could mean building out a balanced group of product managers such as:

The advantage here is that you get the best of each product manager spread across your entire company, instead of siloed on specific teams. The downside is that communication can get much more difficult and convoluted and if one product manager leaves, your entire company loses their domain expertise.

3. Product ‘Squads’ with specialized expertise.

Finally, you might choose instead to structure your product teams around their own domain expertise. This means building out a number of ‘product squads’–small, cross-functional teams that consist of a small group of developers and a product owner.

The ‘squad’ model was popularized by Spotify where each team has full autonomy over what to build, how to build it, and how to work together.

Squads build out specific features and release software without needing approval from stakeholders. This way, they build out domain expertise around specific features that can be applied all across the company.

If you need another example of a major company built on small teams with autonomy, look to Amazon. At Amazon, they follow a ‘two pizza’ rule for product team structure where no team should be so big that two pizzas couldn’t feed everyone if they gathered together for a work session.

Lastly, accept that your first product team structure might not work. This is often a process of trial and error. And what worked for other companies might not work for your specific needs. To start, take the time to talk to your team and see how they like to work. If they’re not bought in, it will make the whole process that much harder.

As you scale your product team, change is inevitable.

Keeping your growing product team on track: The best tools, processes, and workflows

No matter what level of growth your product team is at, you’ll need to be able to effectively communicate, collaborate, and get things done. And while a lot of this comes down to your team structure, the right tools, process, and workflows will make everything that much easier.

Here’s our list of the top resources and tools to keep your growing product team connected and moving forward.

The right project management tool

It’s hard to understate the importance of a project management tool when your team is growing.

The right project management tool ensures everyone knows what to work on, projects stay on track, and big ideas don’t get lost in the mix of bugs, issues, and day-to-day tasks that come flooding in.

There are quite literally hundreds (if not thousands) of options when it comes to project management tools. So how do you know which one is right for your growing product team?

While the right project management tool is the one that works best for your team, there are a few core features you’ll need to be met.

First off, look for a project management tool that is powerful and flexible enough to scale with your team.

This most likely means something more powerful than Trello (but not overwhelming like Jira!)

Planio offers a ton of features that work for teams of all sizes, such as:

  1. Scalable task management that works whether you’re building an app, website, or product
  2. Flexible project planning options for both Agile and Traditional project management
  3. Long-term planning with milestones and product roadmaps
  4. Collaboration tools like team chat, wikis, and knowledge management
  5. File storage with easy access to all relevant docs, files, code repositories (and everything else your team needs to do their best work)
  6. Developer-friendly integrations with other tools (as well as integrated Subversion and Git repos)
  7. Time tracking, reporting, and other tools for managing the project

Agile Board

Next, make sure it hits the ‘3 Cs of project management: Collaboration, communication, and clarity. Product teams need to work together to get things done (this is especially true in the time of remote work).

The 3 C's

Make sure your tool provides enough opportunities for communicating and sharing knowledge and presents information in a clear and concise way.

In Planio, for example, you can choose from real-time chat for day-to-day collaboration to Wikis, blogs, and knowledge bases to manage knowledge long-term.

Wiki Structure

Finally, ensure it’s secure, future-proof, and fun to use.

The last thing you want to have to do is change your project management tool while you’re also changing your product team’s structure. While not every tool will grow with you, it’s worth it to do your due diligence.

That’s why we’ve built Planio on the Redmine open-source platform. Redmine has been the most popular open-source project management tool for over a decade, which means it will grow and be supported for years to come.

We’ve also taken your data and security to heart by following all of the latest data protection requirements (like GDPR) and maintaining some of the most secure data facilities in the world.

If you want to try out Planio yourself for your growing team, we offer a free 30-day trial and data migration help. Check it out!

A clear hiring process

Tools will only get your growing product team so far.

When you’re growing, you also need to be able to hire the right person at the right time. Rather than waiting until you absolutely need to hire, make sure you have a robust hiring process in place from the very beginning. This will save time down the road and help you make more confident hiring decisions—vital if you’re hiring for remote positions.

Work out where you’ll look for new hires, what essential skills the role needs, and how you’ll evaluate potential hires, whether that’s product managers or remote developers.

Onboarding for new team members

Even the best hire in the world will struggle without a proper onboarding process, especially if they’re brought on during a stage of rapid growth.

If you don’t have a clear onboarding process already in place, you may waste too much time repeating the same details or, even worse, forget to pass on vital information.

Document your workflows and make sure new employees have everything they need to do their job effectively. Along with your daily processes and procedures, make sure they know what tools they should be using and how they’re to be used.

Get everything written down. Many companies now use an internal wiki as a knowledge-base for new hires, who can then look up any common questions and remind themselves of any procedures whenever they want.

Even with all the documentation, make sure there’s someone there to guide and mentor new hires, so they not only have the knowledge they need but also the confidence to do their job.

A change management process

As you scale your product team, change is inevitable. Organizational changes will have to be implemented, as teams expand and roles are changed. Get ahead of potential problems by having a clearly defined change management process in place, so that any necessary changes can be implemented with minimal disruption.

If you’re not sure where to start, check out Dr. Kotter’s eight-step process for leading change:

  1. Create a sense of urgency. This will help people understand why change is necessary
  2. Build a guiding coalition. Have a group of people who’ll be responsible for coordinating the changes.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives. Your product team should be able to clearly understand what the future will look like after the change.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army. These are the people who’ll champion and spearhead the change in your team.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers. Ensure you’re not unintentionally sabotaging your proposed changes by forcing your teams to work with cross-purpose processes.
  6. Generate short-term wins. Seeing the tangible benefits of your changes early on can reassure any hesitant team members and encourage everyone that the changes are positive.
  7. Sustain acceleration. Don’t settle for the short-term wins, but use the credibility from those wins to keep pushing forward.
  8. Institute change. Finally, make the change a permanent part of your processes and make sure it’s fully implemented as the default action, becoming the new normal.

Documents that connect to your “Why”

As your product team grows and changes, it’s important to always keep your fundamental purpose in mind. In particular, there are four key documents you should always have on hand for your team to refer to:

As much as these documents are there to guide your growth, don’t treat them as static.

As we’ve already discussed, aspects of your culture will have to change as you grow. A spirit of experimentation will have to give way to undivided focus as you scale. By regularly revisiting these documents and ensuring they represent the company you need to be right now, you can help your team get to the next stage of growth.

Growth is an exciting time for any business, but it also comes with challenges.

Be ready to go when it’s time to grow

Growth is an exciting time for any business, but it also comes with challenges.

By recognizing the signs that you need to scale up your product team and being aware of the associated challenges, you can prepare yourself for each stage of growth. Then, by ensuring you have the right tools and workflows in place, you can make that growth a success.