Brett van Zuiden

Completing a charter - what next?

Empowered product teams form around a charter: a long-term objective or significant customer problem that the company wants to address. As ambitious as the goals may seem at first, teams can and do complete their charters; leaders need to recognize this and step in to prevent the team from languishing without clear direction.

When a startup or new product team first articulates its vision, its goals are dramatic and ambitious: “we want to build the App Store for education”; “we want to be the single sign-on portal for every school in the country”. Many teams end up failing to achieve their visions, but after years of hard work and some luck, some teams do end up largely achieving what they originally set out to do. This is quite the achievement and should be celebrated, but this success comes with a problem of its own: what next?

When I first joined Clever in 2015, we were primarily a back-office IT tool for rostering and account creation. We had broader ambitions though, and in fall of 2014 had released a Single Sign-On portal where students and teachers could access all their education apps in one place - the charter for this then-small team was to make Clever the portal for schools. Over the course of about five years, the product grew and grew, and by mid-2019 Clever was far and away the most popular portal in K12 education, serving upwards of 40% of U.S. students and teachers. There was more room to grow and plenty of smaller improvements to make, but by 2019 we had largely succeeded in the ambitious “5-year vision” we had set for ourselves in 2014. This was a great accomplishment, but also presented a real challenge for the now large team working on the Clever Portal. In the absence of a new ambitious multi-year vision, there wasn’t a clear charter for the team, and they struggled to figure out where to invest their time.

As a leader, it’s important to recognize when a team has completed their charter or might soon. A typical sign is a team that is putting out a continual stream of small tweaks and optimizations but isn’t working on solving any new major customer problems. Often this is coupled with a long list of ambitious new ideas that the team could take on, but doesn’t; the team doesn’t have clarity on their future vision and therefore can’t determine which ideas support that vision. The solution is to either a) celebrate the team for completing its charter and then redistribute its resources to support other initiatives, or b) kick off a new product strategy exploration to establish a new charter for the team. A caution with the latter - as tempting as it is to want to keep a team together that has succeeded in its charter, a large team supporting an existing, mature product is often ill-equipped to do the rapid exploratory work required to validate a new strategic direction and find product-market fit.

In the startup world, there is a lot of talk about how to keep a project from failing, but not a lot of discussion about how to handle success. It’s an amazing accomplishment for a team to achieve their vision - when it happens, celebrate the success, and then find the next mountain to climb.