How Do You Define Team Focus Without Micromanaging?

Balancing optimization and innovation while giving your team freedom to do great work.

Another question I’ve gotten a lot is: Who in the organization defines the balance between innovation and optimization? How do you define the balance without micromanaging your teams?

In the case of Showmax, I was the Chief Product Officer, so it was possible to build it into the organization, working with the CTO. It was structured such that there was an overarching set of KPIs agreed upon at the leadership level. In the case of Showmax, since it was a streaming video company, we were largely focused on our total number of paying subscribers. But we also had important sub-metrics:

  • Conversion rate in the initial funnel to start a trial period

  • The conversion from trial to paid after the 14 day free trial

  • Month one retention rate

We also knew that if a customer adopted our product across more than a single platform, they would be much more likely to be a retained subscriber. Netflix has published some great information that’s quite similar:

Essentially, for them, they knew you were most likely to signup on the web or mobile web. But once you signed up, the key to retaining the user was getting them hooked watching on mobile and eventually on the television, which is where the majority of the viewing occurs after 6 months. Similarly for Showmax, the more platforms you were actively using, especially on the television, the more likely you were going to retain from month to month.

Once we established the overarching goals for the company, then I worked with each product team lead to establish their goal for the particular metric or focus area. The goal was always that the lead worked with their team to establish a reasonable goal they all felt was accomplishable and that aligned with the objectives for the organization. My goal was to provide the overall structure and vision for the team, but I wanted the team to take that and then define the path they were going to take to achieve the outcome. My intent was, along with the team lead, to define the outcome either for the business or the customer that we wanted the team to achieve.

How each team got to that outcome, though, was up to the team. I did not want to micromanage my product teams and set specific day to day or week to week strategy. For a strong product manager or product director, it’s de-motivating to have both strategy and tactics dictated to you. Therefore, the key is specifying outcomes as a leader, but then empowering your people and team to come up with an approach for how to solve the problem.

When defining the metrics or the goals that each team would focus on, some teams would inherently have more focus on innovation or optimization. A team that was focusing on redesigning our key platforms or expanding to a platform where we didn’t currently work would by necessity be more innovation focused. Our teams that were focused on funnel conversion were much more growth/optimization focused. Other teams, like those that were trying to help you find the right content to watch were balanced and doing a combination of both.

At Booking, I took a similar approach in running the ski and beach organization, working closely with tech and design teams. I tried to give a lot of autonomy to the product, tech, and design teams. We aligned on the key milestones we wanted to accomplish every quarter/semester/year. Those milestones were defined in terms of why they mattered to the company and also in terms of the key timeframe for execution. In the case of something like modifying our ski product, it’s imperative to launch new features in time to capture all the people booking their ski trips in the fall, for example. 

In a good organization, the prioritization of a particular area or focus area will likely come from above, with leadership deciding to make the investment in an area. When it’s done well, that focus will come with an expected or hoped for outcome, but not with a specification for how to do the work. That enables your best people to be creative and solve the problem without feeling like they need to follow an exact script. It encourages creative thinking and often results in better solutions than could have been imagined by the leadership team at the outset.

What I’m trying to do at my level is define strategy for what each of the teams should focus on and what goals and metrics they should have. Once that’s complete, I’m trying to let each of the teams own that and drive it forward. I’m also trying to make sure my teams and I are having regular check-ins with senior leadership to keep them aligned with our goal and approach. That’s the ideal structure I’ve used. I know that that’s not always possible, but when I’ve found that structure is possible, I try to leverage it. 

It’s a lot harder if there’s more micromanagement involved, especially from above. In that scenario it’s often the role of the product lead to find ways to shield the team from undue influence and to keep pushing back and maintaining the focus of the team. I’ve often done this with a creating pain around tradeoffs as I outlined in this post. The key to managing a micromanager is finding ways to build trust with them over time to give them confidence that their micromanagement is not required. And it’s also key to give them direct feedback about the impact they are having on the team and you through their actions.