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Building an effective product team from the ground up with Matt Tharp

Building an effective product team from the ground up with Matt Tharp

Editor’s note: In our Steering the Ship series, we chat with product leaders in various industries. Today, we’re sharing a conversation between Alex Fedorov, VP of Design at ADK Group, and Matt Tharp, Chief Product Officer at Gamalon.

Since the early 2000’s, Matt Tharp has cofounded two startups, been featured in MIT Technology Review, Forbes, eMarketer, and CIO, and created and taught classes on Behavior Design at General Assembly.

In this post, you’ll get an insider’s look at product leadership and what it’s like to run product at an AI-driven company from Tharp, who is currently CPO at Gamalon. Some of the questions he’ll address include:

  • How to build an effective product team
  • The role of the product leader
  • Conflict as a route to better customer solutions

Product’s Role in the Organization

Determining where the product team fits into the overall organization’s structure is a point of contention. On the one hand, it depends on things like your industry, audience, and product. On the other hand, there are certainly tried and true ways of organizing the company that result in more successful outcomes. 

Tharp brings up the large number of SaaS startups where the name of the company and the name of the product are synonymous. In the instances where the product is so essential to the brand, there is a greater need for a powerful internal player. “They are the same thing because the company is the product. So I think in that regard, you need a chief of product. You’ve got to have somebody whose job is to own product and they have to be a senior exec.”  In some businesses, especially in early-stage startups, a separate CPO isn’t necessary because the CEO, or the founder, has a technical background. 

In the case where founders are less familiar with product strategy, Tharp recommends making the product leader either a senior VP or C level product leader in order to counter the technical point of view. But in general, if the CPO is not also the CEO or founder, the CPO must have a direct line of communication to them. Technology, design, and strategy must have equal say in most decisions. If you’re the product owner for a large brand where there’s many different product lines, there may be a different structure of how feedback reaches the CEO simply because there are multiple moving parts. But even still, “the buck stops with you, and you ultimately own product in your organization,” Tharp asserts. Product decisions should ultimately lie with the product experts. 

Building an effective product team

If you’re a new product organization, perhaps even a startup, it’s crucial to build the right team that can balance great engineering, marketing and product work. 

First, of course, is the engineering team. But let’s assume the engineering arm is taken care of – you have someone who is strong and can run that portion of the organization. But even with a good engineering team, user experience may not be intuitive to most of the engineers. Plus, it’s not their job to think about it! “You want them really focused on the best possible technical solution to the problem and how to make it work, robust, and scalable,” Tharp explains.

For this reason, the very next person Tharp would hire is a designer. “Engineering teams can be a lot more effective if they really can see what it is you’re talking about,” Tharp explains. And the designer allows this to happen. Of course, it also depends on the level of skill of the designer. It’s often hard to find a full stack designer, so multiple with different specializations may be necessary.

First, you need “a visual expert who can whip out interfaces in their sleep and make them look awesome.” According to Tharp, this is a crucial skill in order to make high quality prototypes that can elicit useful feedback from users. Second, you need a designer that really understands the psychology of the user and how to design for it. By working together, the design team can create a prototype for user testing that addresses key concerns – what is it that you want to get feedback on from the users? What is the best way to present and elicit this feedback? These questions guide the design team during the iterative prototyping process to ensure they are collecting relevant and actionable data. 

Ten years ago, user experience was an optional and rather uncommon consideration. But now, it’s a requirement. According to Tharp, “you can’t be successful if your product experience is bad or clunky. You can’t succeed now that way. The user has to feel like you’re doing what they want you to do as a product.” To make this happen, the user needs to be able to login and feel as if the technology they’re using knows exactly what they want it to know, and exactly what the user wants it to do. And the only way to know, or better yet, anticipate, what your users want, is through user research.

Need help revealing reality? We’ve got you covered.

Every piece of the experience should be intuitive. Without thinking, the user should already be able to find what they’re looking for, even if they’ve never used the product before. Of course, this is not something that happens naturally. It is up to the entire product team to deliver this experience.

The Role of the Product Leader

Once the engineering and design teams are taken care of, there needs to be someone that pulls them together. According to Tharp, this is the role of the product leader. “My job is to help the team see the future, to help visualize what we want to do.” However, the role of product is not prescribing the solution. Instead, the product team states the problem to be solved, what this would look like, what users should be able to do, and the necessary workflow to satisfy this need. But how this is done is up to the design and engineering teams. 

There is no simple way to express all a CPO is responsible for, but Tharp breaks it down into a few key ideas: “My job is to figure out how to connect the dots between what the market needs, what the customer needs, and what we need as a business to grow. To not just satisfy customers, but to figure out how to execute a strategy, what our technology can do, and how we can differentiate. To build a vision that allows us to iterate our way to a successful future and tell the story about why we exist, not only to ourselves, but to our customers.”

A large part of the CPO role is to position and support the engineering team to be effective at executing on their own. If they know why they’re building the product, it allows them the freedom and flexibility to think about the bigger picture and make smarter decisions. “These are great, amazing, creative, super smart people,” Tharp reiterates. Which is why “you shouldn’t be telling them what to do. You should tell them what you’re trying to solve and let them solve it.”

This sentiment gets at the core of the CPO role. The job of the Chief Product Officer is to always hold the vision in mind, and to communicate that vision in a way that allows people to execute effectively. The CPO must spend enough time learning a product so that they come to know the aggregate of it better than everyone around them. “I’ve always found it empowering to have to constantly be learning from the people around me to do my job better.” 

This well-rounded sense of the product and the people driving it forward helps the CPO unblock team members when obstacles inevitably occur. “You have to know where you’re going so you know what obstacles to remove. If your organization is at a size where the problem that you’re solving [as CPO] is acting as a translation from the team to the executives to the board, your job is to look at the vision that the team is painting and make sure that it aligns right.”

The CPO role is more about obstacle removal, team alignment and managing outcomes, not managing people or problem solving. And that’s a common misconception. Many smart people in the field believe that if they are good project managers and problem solvers, they can be an effective product leader. But the role of product leaders is not to tell others the solution, it’s to understand the problem, build alignment around it, and motivate your team to solve it. 

Conflict as a way to better customer solutions

“When you’re earlier in your career,” Tharp muses, “you’re looking for validation. And so you tend to avoid people who argue with you.” His advice? Don’t.

Conflict between two smart people is one of the best ways to produce a winning product. Oftentimes, both sides of the argument are worth listening to. When you stop avoiding conflict and seeking out like-minded folks, you’ll find that differing opinions can settle on a solution that satisfies both of you, resulting in a much better product than if you could only solve one half of the equation.

Part of the appeal – and part of the problem – with seeking out like-minded people is that it can lead to product design for yourself, not the user. If there is no pushback or alternative, it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating whatever you like. Finding someone who views the world differently and leaning into that can be leveraged as an accelerator of growth. “Frankly, most arguments have almost always inevitably ended up with the most universally viable solutions. They’re the most flexible, they’re used the most. They’re just more universal and more successful solutions.”

Finding those points of disagreement and turning them into an opportunity may or may not occur naturally. In some organizations, the co-founders may come at the same problem with different ideas, which naturally results in collaboration and discussion. But in the case of larger organizations, teams may get siloed into like-minded perspectives under the guise of efficiency. In this case, spurring constructive conflict will require effort. “You have to try to identify those people. You have to find ways to seek it out,” Tharp stressed.

Customer feedback can be useful in steering the conflict-based discussions. In many organizations, it may be difficult to speak out with a new opinion when those in positions of power think differently. By bringing it back to the customer, it makes the conflict less personal. 

Tharp continued, “I think at the end of the day, a lot of being a great product leader is always bringing it back to the customer and saying, ‘we’re not designing this for us. We’re designing for them.’ And too often that gets forgotten. To be a product leader is to always be the one ringing that bell and saying, ‘okay, who’s our audience here.’”

Staying close to the customer in leadership

A less obvious, or even unspoken, part of the CPO job is to push back on the CEO to remind them of the problem at hand – the customer’s problem. The CEO may have a great idea or vision, but at the end of the day the customer needs to solve a different problem. Tharp likens this to the “faster horse” example attributed to Henry Ford: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The role of the CPO is to identify the customer’s desire (in this case, to travel faster) and provide the best solution to the larger problem, that may not always be evident to the consumer (a car as opposed to a faster horse). 

You cannot, Tharp impresses, go to the CEO saying, “well, the customer asked for this.” If you do, “you’ve lost the argument right there.” CEOs don’t get to be where they are by just giving the customer exactly what they asked for. If they do, it’s probably not going to result in a successful product. Customers may not be able to articulate what they want, which is why the CPO must use customer data and figure out what the real problem is through a discovery phase, or what we call revealing reality. Leadership forms the hypothesis, but customer feedback proves the point. Which is why CPO’s must always stay close to the customer.

“I’m constantly looking for the pattern that’s below the surface, across all the conversations. There’s often a thread.” This thread may not seem obvious to someone who works on the product everyday, which is why it’s important to see the product through the customer’s eyes whenever possible. 

Tharp explains further, “No matter how obvious you make something [on the product], it’s amazing how few users will see it and do the thing. 20-25% of what you’ve built is what they use. And the rest of it is potentially right there in front of them and it doesn’t get utilized.’ The solution to this is sitting with the customers, literally or figuratively, and noting what features often get overlooked and how. 

How do you stay close to the customer while in leadership? Our own Product Strategist at ADK Group, Jill Starett, gave a few pieces of advice:

  • Check third-party sites for reviews and ratings (don’t just read the 5-star reviews!)
  • Spend time in spaces where your product is being used
  • Make sure you’re talking to customers on a regular basis (at least once a month) to stay up-to-date on their changing needs and expectations
  • Ask the questions you think are too simple to ask – you may be surprised by the answers!
  • Seek out a diverse set of users
  • Read up on emerging industries that touch on your solution to ward off the “faster horses” mindset

It is common for people in product roles, especially leadership roles, to assume something is someone else’s responsibility. If a client is struggling, product may assume it’s the responsibility of customer success to step in. But product is often poised to be the best one to help, as it’s their job to know the customer more than the customer knows himself. Product can identify where and how the customer is falling off the workflow, and then direct customer success on exactly what the problem is. Or, they can go back and make a better version of the product. Win-win.

We’re always on the lookout for the unsung heroes of product strategy. If you’re interested in sharing some hard-earned lessons, set up a conversation with Alex Fedorov, our VP of Design by reaching out here.

Matt Tharp is the Chief Product Officer at Gamalon. Gamalon is a conversational AI platform, funded by one of DARPA’s largest investments in next generation machine learning that reads the text of your customers messages, interprets and summarizes them, and makes predictions to help deliver the best customer experience. Tharp has a background in automated intelligence, behavior, and accessible conversation.