Ted Lasso's Guide to Product Leadership

What we can learn from this optimistic soccer coach

Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps product teams get aligned around a shared vision through facilitated workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.

Happy days folks, happy days! The new season of Ted Lasso kicks off later this week and Meredith and I couldn't be more excited. In anticipation of the premier, we're tearing through a rewatch of the first season to catch ourselves up. If you haven’t watched season 1, you should!

If you're rechecking the description of this newsletter, let me assure you — yes, this is still a newsletter for product leaders. And no, I'm not getting a kickback from Apple to promote one of their shows (though I'll happily take one if it can be arranged). There's a whole lot any leader can learn from Ted Lasso's style of coaching, but there are lessons that are particularly relevant to product leaders.

There is something that really struck me about Ted Lasso, the experienced American football coach who finds himself thrust into leading a run-of-the-mill team in a new country, for a sport he has no experience with — soccer. He's not phased by the fact he's never coached a soccer team before, let alone watched a game — but he has the confidence that he can turn the team around. Why's that? Let's look at what makes Ted Lasso a successful leader and draw some parallels to the product world.

You don't have to be an expert

Ted Lasso barely knows a soccer formation from a Marmite sandwich and doesn't pretend to either. He's open about how little he knows, and is willing to listen and learn from those who are more knowledgeable. He knows faking it doesn't build trust, doesn't make you look smart, nor does it work.

Great product leaders know they don't have to be experts in a particular subject matter to be successful. That's why you see product leaders move comfortably from one industry to another, because the relevance isn't in the subject, but the understanding of the process and the people that make it work. When expertise is needed, they turn to those with the know-how.

Run experiments to help you make decisions

Ted's no dummy. While he seeks feedback and advice from others, he's not willing to bet the farm in one shot, no matter how good an idea sounds. On a new idea he's quick to hear it out, but he needs to evaluate it before committing to it.

"We're gonna try it on and see if it fits. It might not." — Ted Lasso

Creating a culture of experimentation is a corner stone of a successful product leader. Blindly saying yes or no to ideas without examining evidence gets many organizations into rough waters. Testing doesn't have to be slow or expensive, and nor does it go against progress or innovation. It's the path to it. It's also just a smart use of resources.

Plan for outcomes and be flexible on how you get there

Ted Lasso has a goal to build a solid team. To achieve that goal he is continuously adapting his approach as more information is made available to him. The more he learns, the more he fine tunes his approach, or realizes he has to try a different angle altogether. To do this successfully he reminds others that change is worth embracing, even if it's uncomfortable.

Product leaders know that getting too attached to a solution can blind your judgement in achieving the outcomes that matter most. This means accepting that some things won't work out and that it can be more useful to alter course than to keep going in the wrong direction. A comfort with flexibility is necessary and will make you stronger.

Teamwork makes the dream work

We've been over the fact Ted Lasso is no soccer expert. If his expertise isn't in the knowledge of the game, then what is it? It's understanding people. His processes and methods all revolve around understanding people so that he can create a unified team. He goes beyond individual motivations, diving into how a group functions together — where it is strong and where it is weak.

We often overlook the people side of product leadership. We stress the need in understanding customers and users, but great product leaders understand their teams to a greater degree. You are there to guide a path forward to a successful product and to do that you need to guide the people who will actually make that happen. Product leadership has nothing to do with sitting in an ivory tower that others aspire to one day join. It's about creating a culture that promotes transparent acknowledgment of strengths and weaknesses so that the entire team can work together towards a common goal.

Be vulnerable and show others you're human

Ted Lasso's optimism isn't impervious. It cracks, and he lets others see it. Rather than it being something that shocks his team into seeing a great person fail — it does the opposite. It makes Ted more human, and makes them like him more. In Ted, they begin to see more of themselves.

To be a great leader, you need to show you don't always know the path forward. You can't always have the answers. Creating the expectation that you do is one that is doomed to fail, and yet, some try. If you want to truly build a connection with your team and with your customers, showing your own faults and weaknesses can go a long way into building meaningful relationships.

If there's one thing that you can take from this post, it's that you should watch Ted Lasso. If there are two things, then the other is that product leadership requires us to embrace our imperfections. Ted Lasso has a quiet confidence to him that can be easily misinterpreted as blind confidence. It's a confidence found in someone that has a proven, yet adaptable process, is excited and optimistic for the outcomes, and is accepting of setbacks as a natural part of any journey.

We are imperfect beings. Rather than using that as a disadvantage, it's actually our super power. Accepting the imperfection, the need for change, and the difficulty that awaits us, means we'll be better prepared for the curveballs that will undoubtedly come our way. As much as we want to control outcomes and anticipate all scenarios, we can’t — so we need to seek the help of others, be adaptable, and believe that we can do it.

And remember, as Ted Lasso says:

“Hey, takin’ on a challenge is a lot like ridin’ a horse. If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.”

Thank you for coming to my Ted talk (groan, sorry, I had to).


Hope and the stuff we read in books

How to take the concepts we read and put them into practice

Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps product teams get aligned around a shared vision through facilitated workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.

To the chagrin of my past self, I'm a big fan of a good business book — especially those related to driving positive change through innovation. Although the Carlos from 1997 (who had Radiohead's OK Computer on constant repeat) didn't know it, I would wind up finding my passion in understanding how great teams work. Pair that with a propensity for geeking out on tech, and I found working on product and innovation teams something I truly enjoyed, at least, when they worked well.

In defence of present-day Carlos, who still often listens to Radiohead, I don't mean I like those old stodgy business textbooks, but rather, those that share stories in relatable ways. They inspire you to change the way you think about work and fire you up to realize that positive change is possible. Amongst some of my favourites include Good to GreatCompeting Against LuckEscaping the Build Trap, and Alive At Work. Check them out if you haven't had a chance.

We spend an incredible amount of time at work. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think you should be able to, on the whole, enjoy the time you spend there. These books promise a pathway to a better way of working by sharing stories about cultures of experimentation, purpose-driven mindsets, and collaboratively driving towards great results.

Having gone through countless reads, though, I've noticed a familiar pattern with my relationship with these books. It's more than just a pattern, really, it's an emotional rollercoaster. You love them, you resent them, rinse and repeat.

From the moment you first crack the spine of your new book, there's the initial high you ride thinking of all the ideas you want to try with your team. This time, you think to yourself, this time, I'll find the clue that makes it all come together. As you blast through the pages faster than you would the Da Vinci Code (or the Twilight saga), you're lapping up all the great ideas. What really lands are all the spot-on examples of what you shouldn't be doing as an organization. Snort, that's so us... we totally do it wrong! This book really gets me.

Naturally you'll start suggesting the book to colleagues (heck, you even buy them copies!) so they too can see the brilliance and get caught up in the euphoria of all the good that will soon come. That strange sensation you might feel at this stage is hope. Hope that change is possible, hope that a better way of working is within reach, and hope you're not alone in getting your organization to that better place. We don't want to be miserable at work and we don't want to keep repeating the same processes that deliver the same uninspiring results. We hope that we can realize our potentials.

If you're an avid reader of these books, this feeling is familiar, as is what commonly comes next. You search for signs that others feel that same hope you did. Riding the high, you ask others what they thought of the book, you even start dropping references to it in meetings. But all you get in return are blank stares. As it turns out, no one read it. Yet, they promise. Sure your colleagues have the book, some even downloaded the audiobook, but other things are in the way so they haven't gotten around to it. What gives? I read this book over the weekend, you think to yourself. The onslaught of deep discussion and exchange of opinions and ideas you thought would come isn't materializing. It's not even on the radar. Some though, one or two, did take the plunge and read it. And yet, they're still waiting to take their cues from you. OK, I've read the book. Now what?

This stage can be demoralizing. I've been there. The hope wanes. It's now coming straight up against a wall of fear, disinterest, or simply against the inertia of how things have always been done. This isn't the fault of the authors and their books, they had good intentions. It's not your fault, the dreamer, for hoping for better things. And nor can you fault your colleagues, they were just going about their business until you made them read something. They wanted to watch Red Bull challenge Mercedes for the F1 championship this weekend, not read a business book... bleh!

The truth is you're hoping that someone else be as excited as you are, and more importantly, that they'll be the ones to tell you how to take the theory and turn it into action. Because this is the hard part. You can't expect your colleagues to do this for you. Yes, you can ask for their help and participation, but to see it through, you have to find ways to introduce new concepts and approaches to the organization yourself.

Now this is where a lot of people give up. I know I have. And then you wait until the next great read comes along and the cycle repeats itself. But what can you do to break this cycle? How do you carry that initial feeling of hope forward? How can you make it infectious? While it is easier said than done, it requires you to take the first step. It doesn't have to be sophisticated and it doesn't even have to be right. But it needs to be intentional. Honesty and transparency helps too — "hey folks I read a thing, we're going to try it, it might make a positive impact on how we work, it might not. What's worse than it failing, though, is not trying at all".

Many of these books are heavy on the great aspirational outcomes and sparse on the details of how to get started. But there are always clues if you look hard enough. Spot a question, an exercise, or even online materials that are referenced in these books and just try it. In the absence of those clues, work backwards — start at the end result and ask yourself what it would take for your organization to get there. Hint: it generally starts with understanding your customer. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

By taking action and showing others that change is possible, you are opening the door to more experimentation and improvement. Maybe others have ideas they're holding back. In my experience, being the one that takes the leap to turn concepts into practice is met with more support than resistance. Sure, you'll find the naysayers, but they are generally in the minority. Change goes against the grain, so it's natural for it to feel uncomfortable at first. But the more you try, the more likely new practices will be adopted.

Doing this requires a comfort in taking chances, making the attempts purposeful, and knowing that it still might fail. In my experience there is an appreciation for someone trying new things — people are grateful for them putting themselves out there. They want to rally around something, but might not know how to do it themselves. The more you can demonstrate that through action, the more they are encouraged to find other ways to improve. If you let the hope wane on your way to your next read, you're missing an opportunity to energize those around you. The hope you felt when you first cracked open that book can become infectious.

Are you up for a chat? Do you have a particular book that has inspired you but has also frustrated you because you're not sure about what to do next? Let's find a time to talk! At best, we'll share some ideas on how to create change; at worst, we'll exchange some more titles to add to our already heaping backlog of unread books. Either way, I think it would be a great way to spend some time.


The Great Onboarding

While people are leaving jobs in droves, we'll start welcoming new employees. How prepared are you?

Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps product teams get aligned around a shared vision through facilitated workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.

We have already started seeing signs of employee upheaval in our organizations. The "great resignation" has arrived. As the pandemic wears on (and hopefully winds down), waves of employees are taking a hard look at their lives and seeing how work fits into their new realities. Many are deciding to leave their roles in search of new challenges and opportunities. The attrition, while painful now, will lead to new opportunities and growth in our organizations. Leaders can't dwell on what was lost and need to prepare for the future. Will this exodus result in the Great Onboarding? If so, once we’ve attracted new talent how will we effectively onboard them so they can make meaningful impacts in our organizations?

While new employees can bring sparks of hope and optimism with fresh ideas and perspectives, it can be challenging to enable your organization to realize that potential. Inertia, scepticism towards new ideas and people, and lack of structure can easily derail best intentions. It's no wonder that onboarding can often go sideways. When it does, it's common for the prevailing organizational norms to suffocate the chance of new ideas from taking hold. More than just losing out on meaningful contributions that you need sooner rather than later, poor onboarding can cause that new hire to seek a different opportunity, leaving you to deal with significant costs.

A common pitfall is treating onboarding activities as a haphazard series of meetings. Typically, this looks like inviting new hires to existing meetings so they can learn hands-on and meet peers. While this isn't completely off-base, those meetings don't actually exist to onboard people. Sometimes this might be aided by a to-do checklist, often pieced together by HR, that focuses more on HR processes than it does on what matters most to the business. Through these laissez-faire attempts you can see how easy it is for the newcomer to get sucked into existing organizational norms, focusing on putting out the fires of the day, rather than bringing change that will extinguish the fires once and for all.

We want our new employees to succeed. We want to learn from them and we want them to learn from our existing teams. For a product team, there is a lot of information about customers, users, revenue models, roadmaps, team processes, let alone the product itself, that needs to be transferred to the new employee (and that's just scratching the surface!). The more effective we are in transferring this knowledge, the sooner we are allowing that newcomer to contribute in meaningful and impactful ways. This is too important to leave to chance.

As we build habits that drive alignment across our organizations, a natural side effect is being able to have meaningful conversations with new employees. You would be amazed at how much this can help to accelerate someone's onboarding. This gives them the chance to learn about the organization — the knowledge that exists, as well as the gaps. They also learn how their teammates speak about and react to the direction and goals of the business. As I've mentioned in previous posts, starting with the big picture is a great way to initiate these conversations. Moving from the landscape, to the business model, and a review of its customers and users are great areas to ground and structure these critical conversations.

At Purple Sector Strategy, we've seen the effects first hand of helping a new hire accelerate their onboarding as we align teams around a shared vision. They are able to absorb a lot of information in a structured way that helps them retain it. With a solid foundation of the critical components that drive the business it highlights where the newcomer can make the most impact and where they need to focus their efforts.

As we see turnover increase over the next months, know that it's an opportunity to find resets. With your investment in new people helping to drive your business forward, you will need to take the necessary care to ensure their success for their benefit and yours. Don't let the existing processes and norms dictate the outcomes of your onboarding. With intent and a little elbow grease you can make large strides in how you ensure the successful onboarding of newcomers, while levelling up your entire organization.


Activating your team around clear responsibilities

An introduction to Responsibility Mapping

Have you ever looked back at your job description only to laugh at how little it reflects what you actually do? Have you ever stopped to think about the fact the people you work with often have never even seen your job description? So while the job description might become quickly irrelevant once you start a new job, your peers don't even have that to ground their understanding of what your role and responsibilities are supposed to be.

Think about how that pans out across your entire organization — people are often unclear about what it is their peers do, and how they might be able to give or receive help from them in achieving your organization's mission. Remote environments, as we've all learned, no longer offer the lunchroom or hallway catchups where you better get to know the people you work with. It's so easy for an important initiative or task to fall through the cracks because no one knows if it isn't being taken care of, who is suppose to do it, or worse, they want to help but fear they will step on someone's toes and get reprimanded (imagine — getting reprimanded for wanting to help; unfortunately it happens).

I've been writing a lot about the power that purpose and alignment bring in sustaining successful product teams. To truly realize this potential, you need to activate your team around them. With shifting priorities, growth, attrition — this can feel like a lot to manage. It is!

Unsurprisingly, discussions about roles and responsibilities often occur behind closed doors, in one-on-one settings. The cadence in which they happen varies but can often be at arbitrary intervals (e.g. performance review time) rather than the moments it matters most. There actually is a good reason for that: open conversations can feel threatening if not done in an honest, fair, and transparent fashion. Fear that these types of conversations are just fronts for skill and talent assessments that will impact performance appraisals, chances of advancement, and more, are very real concerns to the people in your organization. What's needed is a method that helps to guide real team conversations that allow individuals to openly communicate strengths, weaknesses, interests, and disinterests that might help us work better together and even enjoy our work.

While traditional methods like a skills assessment matrix might help summarize swaths of information at a large organizational level, it does nothing for the team itself to really be open with each other about how they work together. Furthermore, these approaches can risk dehumanizing the people that we work with. We're complex beings, and we often jump right to over-simplification rather than taking some time to understand motivations. No wonder people feel threatened when we start talking about this.

A workshop that we facilitate at Purple Sector Strategy is called Responsibility Mapping. It's an important piece of our Alignment Program that helps activate teams around a shared vision. While you wind up with an artefact at the end (the map), the discussion that takes place in this workshop is the critical piece that builds understanding and camaraderie. It's a team exercise that encourages open collaboration and transparency to enable the outcome of becoming a high performing team.

Here's a peek under the hood of how this can help teams in your organization.

Responsibility Mapping

Responsibility Mapping is a workshop that requires team members and its leader to be involved. The discussion requires open and fair discourse that dives into what the team does as a whole, and then what each individual is responsible for. Through the process, you'll find outliers — responsibilities that don't have an owner, ones that have multiple owners, and even those that perhaps shouldn't be there in the first place. You'll also give people an opportunity to discuss what they do (current responsibilities), what they want to do (growth opportunities) and what they feel they shouldn't be doing (out of scope activities).

The map winds up looking something like this at the end of the session (this example is abstracted and condensed for demonstration purposes).

A screenshot of a responsibility map
A simplified responsibility map. While the output might look something like this, the conversation that drives towards this state is where the magic happens.

Team Charter and Accountabilities

A team charter and list of accountabilities can act as a north star to help ensure there is alignment with the team's purpose. While a formalized charter and list of accountabilities can certainly help in these sessions, is not entirely necessary.

An outcome from this discussion can point to the need for clarity or updates around the team's purpose.

Capturing All Activities

The exercise begins by capturing as many of the activities that happen in regular course of work – it's a free for all where everyone gets to add all the various activities that fill their day-to-day — the good, the bad, the ugly. Don't worry about granularity, naming, or whether you feel it should be there or not — just open up the opportunity to capture it all.

Current Responsibilities

With the all the activities captured, now comes the work that allows people to start to assign it to themselves. Watch for the items that aren't getting assigned — or the ones where there might be confusion as to who should be doing what. This can lead to some potentially uncomfortable conversations — but behind that discomfort is the underlying misunderstanding of the the jobs people feel they're suppose to do. We need to uncover that to find a resolution and move forward.

"I thought you were responsible for that", "I didn't want to step on your toes", "Oh, I'm suppose to be doing that?!", "I really don't like doing that", or even "I'd love to do more of that!" are some of the comments you might hear.

Growth Opportunities

While it's natural to focus on the work that individuals are expected to do, these discussions open up great opportunities to speak to the work people want to grow into. This helps others on the team identify mentorship opportunities now that they know others have a vested interest in learning about particular subjects. It also helps you identify some areas for training, or courses that can help.

I've seen team members step up quickly to offer guidance to others wanting to learn more about particular subjects. This transparency leads to better growth and advancement opportunities that are proven to be great for retention.

Out of Scope Activities

This opens up discussion about the work that happens but shouldn't be. Maybe there are good reasons for it, maybe there are not — maybe that’s not clear. But this makes it transparent that the work is happening. Plans can be made to move it off someone's plate, or formalize the need for it. We don't want to ignore that work, but it's so easy to do that when we don't confront it purposefully.

This can be a great catalyst to identify resourcing needs, or for engaging with other teams about how responsibilities might need to shift.

As I mentioned earlier, the value isn't in the artefact itself at the end, but rather the process in mapping it out — that's where the collaboration and shared understanding is created. People get to have open and honest discussions to improve their understandings of how they fit into the team and how they collaborate. While there may be moments of discomfort, the clarity that people walk away with is a huge win. Leaders in the room must help keep discussion honest, but fair. With more practice, it becomes easier to do. A third party facilitator can also help you focus on participating in the conversation rather than worrying about running it.

The map itself can serve as a guide for future conversations. As team members join or leave, you can start to redistribute responsibilities or identify the gaps on your team which can help support your hiring plans. Using the map helps guide discussions in those moments of change. We recommend intentionally scheduling a quarterly review just to keep yourselves honest but don't let that schedule stop you from using it when needed. You'll likely uncover areas that require deep dives in smaller groups or one-on-one's so it can be very useful in prompting the need for those discussions.

These conversations can be difficult even in tight-knit teams because we might be lacking the structure in which to have the discussions. Responsibility Mapping is just one of many useful tools that you can use in improving alignment in your product teams, and is only as good as your commitment to open, fair, and safe conversations.


Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps teams create the conditions to get aligned around a shared vision through guided workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more. 

Fuel your teams with purpose

What you can do to unlock the passion they already bring

Some industries are well poised to activate their teams around a meaningful purpose that should result in positive outcomes for the organization, for customers, and for employees. Teams can easily imagine the positive impact that their work could create because they have a direct line of sight to the outcomes the organization hopes to achieve — take healthcare or education organizations as examples. You barely have to say anything beyond "we help patients..." or "we help students..." before you have a lineup of interested people waiting to contribute their time and talent. Why is it then, that even in these organizations that have such an obvious and tangible purpose, we are unable to turn it into positive momentum? These teams are just as likely as others to stall out if their work conditions do not allow them to tap into the drive created by purpose.

Finding work purposeful isn't just something that helps people look forward to a day of work. Purpose is one of the three key components of our brain's seeking system, which activates a neurological drive fuelling creativity, productivity, and performance. An altruistic purpose isn't even required to engage it (but I can imagine it helps!)1. On the other end of spectrum, disengaged workers bring only a fraction of their capabilities to work, feeling demotivated, and unable to make an impact for themselves let alone others. Activating the why and fuelling your teams’ purpose makes good business sense.

A hesitancy to engage employees on a more meaningful level exists because of the perception that it will take time and attention away from the burning priorities of the day. In other words, it's treated as a distraction from the important work. Or worse, we get stuck thinking that the pursuit of making work more purposeful should be some reward for gruelling, unappealing, meaningless work that must get done first. Sounds backwards doesn't it? It is.

What if it's the purpose-driven, engaged employees, that get you out of a bind? What if it turns things around for you? Running a purpose-driven organization is not the unattainable reward for getting out of a shitty situation — it's the way out, and the way forward. Even typing this out seems ludicrous to me because it feels so damn obvious. Of course this is what is required, but we still seem to revert back to our ways of piling on to-do's in hopes that the weight of all those tasks open the floodgates to rapid execution and delivery. Teams are burning out, and we're not making the most of the talent we attracted to our cause. It stinks! (Yeah! I get worked up about this!).

We all want to work at an exciting company. The one where you see talented people doing great things, to know we helped create it, foster it, and then see the benefits of it. In healthcare, education, and so many other fields people are already in it because they want to make a difference — and don't we want to leverage that energy so we can make it happen — for them, for us, for our customers? It is rare to see leaders maliciously try to stop people from finding and leveraging purpose (thank goodness), but I truly believe most of us really do operate as if we were intentionally blocking it because we don’t know how to get out of the rut or to engage our employees on a more meaningful level.

If you want people to be fuelled by purpose, where can you start? Fortunately, it is not an impossible task, and the first step is quite simple. It starts with making the time and the space to be deliberate about sharing the motivation behind why you do what you do.

Start simply by asking what your teams want and need to know so that they can be successful. Your teams might not even know what to ask yet, that’s ok. If they don’t, start to speak to some decisions you’ve made in the past week and start explaining your motivations for making those choices. Dig further than “because we have to deliver on this date” – why does the date matter, why does this customer matter, what matters to the customer? You could even invite a customer to have them share directly, in their words, what matters most.

The level of transparency required to initiate and engage in these conversations can be uncomfortable for many leaders. Questions can feel like objections or even mutinous challenges — even though most of the time the intent is to try to understand the context and gather background information. This is what helps activate the purpose – the more you know about what you are tasked to do, the more purpose you can attach to it. The more you practice, the less awkward or confrontational it will seem.

These changes don't happen overnight, but deciding to take action on the first steps can. And it means the change you're aiming for will be that much closer to becoming your reality.

It's worth it.


Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps teams create the conditions to get aligned around a shared purpose through guided workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.

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