The Five Things Every Product Team Member Should Know

Creating Context For Work

Karl Sluis
7 min readJul 10, 2018

Working together is difficult. Helping a team to work together on a project is even more difficult. As a product leader, I’ve seen the worst—directionless teams at odds with one another, low motivation, endless swirl—and I’ve seen the best—true teamwork, a symphony of productivity, a group accomplishing more together than they ever could individually.

What makes the difference? Context for the team’s work.

Context wraps each individual’s work in a warm blanket of coordinated knowledge that provides direction and meaning to everything the team does.

You can’t be everywhere at once. Micromanagement is a non-starter. Each individual member of the team has the best, most up-to-date information about the domain of their work. Context helps your team achieve nirvana: everyone knows what they’re working on and why they’re working on it.

When everyone knows what they’re working on and why they’re working on it, everyone can prioritize their work for themselves. Everyone understands the purpose of their work, how it helps others, and what it means for the whole team, today, tomorrow, months and even years in the future. It’s the product leader’s responsibility to make sure that this context is there for the team, readily at hand and on everyone’s mind.

The Five Elements of Product Team Context

Here’s how I create context for a team with five key elements:

🌅 Mission → 🗺️ Strategy → 🏋️‍ Goals → ☑️ Projects → 📈 Metrics

Mission sits at the top of the context hierarchy — everything serves the mission of a team. The mission is the overarching, never-changing reason that a team exists. Why are we here? Why do we come in to work every day? What are we changing, creating, improving in our world?

At Next Big Sound, our mission was Making Data Useful. Our mission was beautifully concise: clear about the thing we were using (data), what we were doing with it (making something with it), and user-oriented (it’s not useful unless a user can use it).

Once your team has a mission, you’ll need a strategy. Strategy describes how you’ll accomplish your mission as a team. If the mission is the destination on the horizon, the strategy is the path towards that destination. Like the mission, it should be meaningful and adaptable, something that can guide your team for years.

At Next Big Sound, our strategy was climbing the Data Pyramid.

The Data Pyramid gave us a critically important mental model of how we were building our business and our team. Next Big Sound took data — typically, simple numbers like “Ariana Grande gained 10,000 new followers on Twitter yesterday” — which it then processed to create information, like “Ariana Grande increased her Twitter Followers by 10% yesterday” — and then finally it brought all the information together to create an insight, like “Ariana Grande’s concert in Central Park made a big impact on her social following.”

The Data Pyramid helped the team understand where work fit in the greater scheme for success for our business, whether a systems engineer was working to make our data service more reliable or whether a designer was working to make our insights easier to understand. It also helped us understand how to prioritize future work; if it didn’t fit into the Data Pyramid, it probably wasn’t worth doing.

Mission and strategy inform goals. Goals provide a year-long thematic focus for the team’s work. Any work that the team is doing should serve the goals for the year: anything that doesn’t serve those goals should be looked at critically and probably shouldn’t be worked on. Goals should unite the day-to-day and week-to-week work of the team.

One year, our goals at Next Big Sound were Fortify, Simplify, and Grow — to fortify the data layer, simplify the information layer, and grow the insights layer of the Data Pyramid. It’s no accident that our goals had a direct connection with the Data Pyramid; in fact, that tight linkage helped reinforce the mental model for the team, making the context for our work even clearer.

Yearly goals help frame cycle-to-cycle projects. Projects represent a chunk of work with a well-defined beginning and end — ideally, they don’t last much longer than a month, but some end up stretching over quarters.

Projects should directly serve yearly goals; in 2017, Next Big Sound tackled two major projects, migrating the data center and growing Alerts. It’s probably plain to see how the data center project addressed the Fortify the data later goal — when you have projects that tie directly into goals, which tie directly into your strategy, well, now you’ve got a very clear articulation of what everyone’s working on and why they’re working on it.

Finally, let’s tie everything together with one metric. Why a metric? Say it with me: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, so to know if your team is making progress on projects and goals, it’s vital to have some kind of metric to measure that progress.

Insights Consumed is Next Big Sound’s holistic measurement of engagement across all the different products that Next Big Sound offers: API, web application, syndicated Charts, and others. The logic is simple: if we’re making data more useful, we’ll see more engagement.

When to Use Context

It’s one thing to have your mission, strategy, projects, goals and metrics. It’s a whole other thing to apply them at the right time for your team.

  • Daily stand-ups are a great time to discuss day-to-day progress on projects — given that stand-ups should be short and focused on in-progress work and blockers, nothing more needs to be said.
  • A weekly full team meeting is a great place for reiterating the team’s mission and goals for the year. In fact, our CEO Alex kicked off every team meeting with the phrase “Another week in making data useful…”
  • Bi-weekly sprint kick-offs are an environment to update the whole team on project progress, ideally through the lens of metrics and steps taken toward the yearly goals.
  • Quarterly project planning provides an opportunity to take another look at metrics and projects and to make adjustments as needed on the way to reaching goals.
  • Finally, goal setting is the right time for the whole team to look at all the elements of context as another cycle of work kicks off. Established organizations should set goals annually — early-stage startups should consider new goals quarterly to stay nimble and responsive.

You may notice a theme here — there’s a lot of repetition. When I first started serving as a product manager, I would communicate things once and expect the team to hear me. My feelings were hurt when I discovered that this was an outsized expectation, to say the least. Now I know that I’m doing my team a favor when I repeat things like our mission, or the outlines of our projects, over and over again. Repetition is the key to communication.

🌅 Mission → 🗺️ Strategy → 🏋️‍ Goals → ☑️ Projects → 📈 Metrics

Start with these five key elements to make sure that everyone on your team knows what they’re working on and why they’re working on it.

Thanks for reading — let me know what you think!

Shout out to David Hoffman, one-time Head of Product at Next Big Sound. David put this framework together; I’m just dressing it up 😎 We’re both active on Twitter, we both have mailing lists, and we both love to talk about anything related to leadership. Invite us to a party, I swear we’re entertaining! 🎉



Karl Sluis

Cities, mobility, and product leadership in New York City