“The Team that Managed Itself” (Book Review)

MAA1
5 min readFeb 16, 2024

Reading the back cover of “The Team that Managed Itself: A Story of Leadership” by Christina Wodtke there’s an interesting quote from Marty Cagan, internationally renown product management thinker and author:

“In this new book, Christina has tackled what I consider the most important problem in the tech industry. Only a small fraction of product teams are working at their potential, and while there are many reasons, this is the responsibility of management, or the lack thereof. People that care enough to provide the level of coaching to help their people become first competent, and then exceptional at their craft.

I don’t typically start a book review with an endorsement quote but, Cagan himself has written a book about the same topic as the one that Wodtke writes about: how to build and lead high performing teams. In his quote, Cagan hits the nail on the head of what “The Team that Managed Itself” is all about: coaching people. In the book, Wodtke offers great insights into ways in which teams of people can be coached to reach their full potential whilst achieving business critical outcomes.

Image Credit: weekdone

Similar to Wodtke’s previous book “Radical Focus”, she uses the format of a fable to write about high performing teams. Through the story of Allie and her colleagues at games company “SOS”, Wodtke describes the foundations of high performing teams: goal-setting and coaching.

Goal-setting

In the book, Wodtke shares some of her previous writing about goal-setting and builds on it. She explains what good objectives and key results (OKRs) look like, and reiterates that “OKRs aren’t about hitting targets, but about learning about what you’re really capable of”. In addition, Wodtke offers a lot of practical tools and rituals to help teams setting and tracking their OKRs.

Image Credit: Christina Wodtke

You can set goals in a quarterly cadence, and align with roles, responsibilities and norms at the start of each quarter. Tracking progress against your goals happens weekly, as the team ‘performs’. Wodtke shares a helpful weekly OKR cadence, starting with ‘Monday commitments’ and ending with ‘Friday wins’:

  • Monday commitments → Intentions for the week: what are the three or four most important things you must get done this week toward the Objective? Discuss if these priorities will get you closer to the OKRs. People report whether their confidence levels have changed.
  • Forecast for the month → What should your team know is coming up that they can help with or prepare for?
  • Status towards OKRs → If you set a confidence of five out of ten, has that moved up or down? Have a discussion about why
  • Health metrics → Pick two things you want to protect as you strive toward greatness. What can you not afford to mess up? Key relationships with customers? Code stability?
  • Friday wins → In the Friday wins session, all teams demo whatever they can. Engineers show bits of code they’ve got working and designers show mock-ups and maps. The idea is that every team (e.g. Sales, Customer Support) shares something, all to encourage people to continuously seek for (small) wins to share.

I particularly like Wodtke’s weekly OKR document that you can use as a conversation starter.

Image Credit: Christina Wodtke

You can use this document to talk with your team about issues like:

  • Do the priorities lead to hitting our OKRs?
  • Why is confidence dropping in our ability to achieve our OKRs?
  • Are we prepared for major new efforts? Does marketing know what product is up to?
  • Are we burning out our people or letting hacks become part of the code bases?

Hiring precedes coaching and “The Team that Managed Itself” touches on the challenges inherent in hiring the right people to join a team. Wodtke introduces a hiring canvas which you can use to figure out the specific problems that a role needs to solve for as well as the specific knowledge and skills required:

Goal — What does the role need to accomplish? Example goals: build out an internal design team, transform engineering to Agile process or create a new product category for our profile).

Responsibilities — What is expected of the role? Example responsibilities: hiring, coaching, and firing direct reports, tracking and improving metrics, maintaining code base health.

Skills & Knowledge — Specific skills and domain knowledge. Example knowledge: familiar with best practice for ecommerce flows, understands social network dynamics, 5+ years experience in online banking. Example skills: Photoshop, Excel or usability practices.

Image Credit: Christina Wodtke

To create empowered teams, coaching of team members is critical. As a manager, your role is to create the right amount of guardrails and conditions for the team to perform. The people in Wodtke’s fable use Sir John Whitmore’s GROW coaching model to coach the team:

Goal — What do you want?

Reality — Where are you now?

Options — What could you do?

Will — What will you do?

The GROW model offers an effective structure for coaching conversations, covering goals and aspirations (G), current situation, internal / external obstacles (R), possibilities, strengths and resources (O), actions and accountability (W).

On the topic of feedback Wodtke shares a useful format that we can use to give feedback in a constructive manner:

Information — What’s the behaviour I observed that isn’t working for me?

Importance — why is it problematic?

Invitation to change — A a nice way to say, “I’d like you to cut that out.”

Implications — If you don’t, these are the results I expect will happen, from not being able to work together to firing.

As part of ongoing coaching, Wodtke encourages quarterly feedback. Don’t wait until the end of year reviews, and instead share one behaviour you want to keep the other person doing next quarter as well as one behaviour you want them to stop doing next quarter. Wodtke reminds us that “work is work”; disagreements and critiques aren’t personal. Don’t make or take the feedback so.

Main learning point: Empowered team don’t just happen. Guardrails in the form of goals and coaching are key to creating high performing teams. “The Team That Managed Itself” offers a powerful story on the topic of empowering teams to achieve their goals.

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MAA1

Product at Intercom, author of "My Product Management Toolkit" and “Managing Product = Managing Tension” — see https://bit.ly/3gH2dOD.