As most product managers know, building a great product comes down to understanding the needs of your customer base. After all, how can you solve problems if you don’t understand the challenges? 

To this end, building a product team that has first-hand experience with the industry can be critical to success—particularly in industries with highly technical workflows like health care, finance, or engineering. But on the other hand, product managers with expertise outside of your key industry are also a major asset, because they can see outside of the box and drive innovation. 

We’ll explore why and how to cultivate diverse skill sets and build a dynamic product management team, so you get the best of both worlds. 

Build a team with a broader viewpoint

Team members from different cultural and business backgrounds bring a wider range of solutions to the table. A broader viewpoint improves the group’s problem-solving and decision-making abilities. Focus on creating a mix of backgrounds that includes industry experts, people with product management knowledge, and some with customer service or success experience. Each member offers a unique perspective to the team—and as such, will inherently have different strengths. 

In my company, we’ve found that conducting DiSC assessments and other similar personality tests helps produce valuable insight into the dispositions and emotional prowess of our team. Some of these assessments allow you to identify areas ripe for improvement as well as gaps that could influence your strategy for future hires. For me, the goal is to achieve a balanced team and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

Hire for the future

So, how do you ensure the best mix of expertise in your product team? One place to start is to look for industry “insiders” who have detailed knowledge of the needs of your industry and audiences. For example, WebPT is an all-in-one software platform for rehab therapy, originally built for (and by) a physical therapist. Today, we are proud to have six rehab therapists on our product team of 30, and therefore are able to provide specialized insight to help us meet our customers’ needs. 

However, developing a product that goes beyond just meeting customers’ basic needs takes broader knowledge. The best product managers are those who are bold enough to travel in uncharted territory, humble enough to understand when they need a subject matter expert, and have a keen eye for problem-solving. They should also be curious enough to learn about the domain and gain expertise over time, which will enable them to strengthen their leadership and decision-making skills. 

Strike a balance between areas of expertise

In an ideal team, the members will all have different backgrounds. However, it’s important to strike a balance between domain expertise (e.g., people who understand medical billing in my case) and product management expertise such as writing a business case, launching a product, or diving adoption of a feature. That way, you truly get the best of both worlds. 

Many highly qualified people can translate their former experience to new roles. When you invite someone with experience working on a consumer-facing product to join your business-to-business company, for example, you’ll still need them to have essential knowledge of product management.  On the other hand, product managers with direct experience in the industry the product aims to serve can help provide critical insights. Product leaders must look at potential hires accordingly. 

Additionally, not everyone who can contribute to the team is already a product manager. Therefore it is important to create an onramp into the product team to allow you to build a team with diverse skill sets. In any case, a strong onboarding program can help bridge any gaps in expertise. 

Consider cross-training current team members

It’s not always possible to find top talent with the right experience who are looking to change jobs, so another way to achieve the diversity of skills, you need is to look at cross-training the people you already have. This could even include yourself. 

Over the course of my career, I’ve developed some level of subject matter expertise in the domain in which I was building products. This has included becoming a certified “Tiny Habits” coach to help me with care management workflows, completing marketing programs for patient engagement tools, and most recently becoming a Fellow of Applied Functional Science (a 40-week program about the science of movement). In each of these cases, I have been able to create new insights and tools to better serve the users of the products we were creating

Success comes from within

Remember, a product team can have all the credentials in the world, but you’ll find the most success by leveraging each team member’s unique strengths. Ultimately, innovative teams must be willing to branch out into uncharted territory with the knowledge that even though they may fail from time to time, they will eventually deepen their authority in that space. And that’s where true progress is really made.

About the Author

Russell Olsen joined Phoenix-based WebPT as Vice President of Innovation and Product Management in 2017. He leads category design, product management, user experience, and product discovery, and applies disruptive innovation approaches to accelerate growth while solving customer and market problems. Prior to WebPT, Russell led product teams at Phytel, Truven Health Analytics, and IBM Watson Health. Russell brings with him deep experience in healthcare and growth companies and has delivered innovations impacting millions of lives over the course of his 15-year career.