Must-haves when starting or joining a product team

Steve Messer
3 min readAug 14, 2020

Over the years I’ve managed several product teams, always from first principles, and as I’ve matured as a product manager I’ve written a few memos to myself. Things that got us over a hump or feedback I received from colleagues. Every so often I’ll glance back at these memos to remind myself how to do things well. These are the must-haves and key things to remember which help me start or join a product team and hit the ground running.

This is a living list, so it might change. Check back every now and then.

The foundational principle

As product manager, you look after the environment that the team needs to succeed, making sure we all have a clear view of what success looks like and how we’ll get there. Give them space to collaborate and facilitate them in making decisions.

Start with the basics

  • What is the product or service?
  • What problem does it solve? Write that down in plain language.
  • What is the outcome we want users to reach? What is the outcome we want users to avoid?
  • What are the pain points preventing users reaching their outcome?
  • Which of those points is most painful and needs removing first? Which one next?
  • What are the unknowns (discovery)? What are the knowns (delivery)?
  • Where’s the documentation? You’ll need to update it each week, if someone else doesn’t do that already.

Working in a team

  • Set up a regular check-in with your delivery manager, twice a week if possible.
  • Make sure pre-planning is 2 days before planning, giving ample time to refine cards and user stories.
  • Pre-planning should involve tech lead, design lead, and delivery manager (at least).
  • Don’t risk doing the classic retro mistake of trying to change everything after one sprint.
  • Figure out your team’s skillset, particularly what they’re not good at, and their development objectives. Try to base the work on that as much as possible.
  • Create psychological safety and build trust by being open…
Steve Messer

Product manager, GOV.UK Design System, Government Digital Service