“Empowered” (Book Review)

Following the hugely successful “Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love” internationally renown product management guru Marty Cagan has just published “Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products”. Together with Chris Jones, Cagan captures how the best product companies approach technology and empower product teams. Cagan and Jones are probably in the best position to see a stark difference between the technology-powered products created by the best companies and the products created by most companies.

There are three specific areas where this difference is the most apparent: the way in which technology is viewed, the role product leaders play and the purpose of product teams.

The role of technology

In strong product companies, Cagan argues, “the purpose of the product team is to serve customers by creating products customers love, yet work for the business.” Technology is the business, and all product and customer considerations always revolve around technology, allowing us to solve customer problems.

In contrast, the vast majority of companies view technology as a necessary expense. They know technology is important, but think of it more as a cost of doing business. As a result, technology teams predominantly exist to “serve the business”, and you’ll even hear its technology people talk in those terms (e.g. “the business wants _” or “we deliver what we’re being asked to deliver by the business”).

The role of product leaders

Cagan observes how in most companies the role of true product leadership is largely missing in action. The role of product leaders in most companies is to act as facilitators, “responsible for staffing the in-house feature factory, and keeping the trains running on time.” Similar to Cagan, I’ve seen many well-intentioned companies focusing on the number of features released, without a product strategy or specific outcomes in place.

In contrast, in strong product companies, the product leaders are among the most impactful leaders in the company. “Empowered” puts the spotlight on a number of strong product leaders and I was delighted to see the great Judy Gibbons included in the book. Many years ago Judy was one of the people who inspired me to pursue a career in the digital space.

In strong product companies, product leaders are responsible for staffing and coaching the product teams; they’re responsible for the product strategy and converting the strategy into action; and they’re responsible for managing to results. When I think about strong product leaders in this mould, I think of people like Greg Peters (Netflix), Ayo Omojola (Carbon Health), Hope Gurion (Fearless Product), Brandon Chu (Shopify) and Amanda Richardson (CoderPad).

Empowered product teams depend on skilled product managers, product designers, and engineers, and it is the leaders and managers who are responsible for recruiting, hiring, and coaching these people.

The role and purpose of product teams

Having cross-functional teams that work in ‘Agile’ ways doesn’t automatically mean that your business has empowered teams. Cagan distinguishes between feature teams and empowered teams. A feature team is all about implementing features and projects (output), and as such isn’t empowered or held accountable to results. In contrast, an empowered team is accountable for solving a customer problem or achieving a specific outcome, and is empowered to do so in the best way they see fit.

Against this backdrop, “Empowered” is filled with plenty of nuggets. The book covers a great range of topics relevant to any product business or team; from coaching to team objectives. To give you a flavour, these are some of my personal favourite nuggets from the book:

On collaboration:

“First, collaboration is not about consensus. Second, collaboration is not about artifacts. Third, collaboration is also not about compromise.”

“Collaboration means product managers, product designers, and engineers working together with customers and stakeholders and executives to come up with a solution that solves for all our constraints and risks.”

One one-to-ones:

“Moreover, as the manager, you should always be seeking constructive feedback on the person – asking the other members of the product team about their interactions and asking senior executives, stakeholders, and business owners about their impressions and suggestions.”

On the written narrative:

“One company that has made this this written narrative the core of how they operate and innovate is Amazon.”

“The structure is to write the narrative itself in a few pages and then follow this with an FAQ. The idea is to anticipate the different concerns and objections that might come from key executives and stakeholders, take the time to consider and write up clear answers to these objections, and then review these responses with the people that have these concerns. When the executive later reads this narrative, she can see that you anticipated the issues and considered the response, and she knows that you have done your homework.”

On alignment:

“Alignment refers to how well the boundaries between teams track with other aspects of the strategic context.”

“Let’s first consider alignment with the architecture. Ideally, the architecture is based on the product vision, as the job of the architecture is to enable the product vision.”

“Alignment with the business includes how the product team relates to the organization – for example, to different business units, different go-to-market strategies, different customer types, or different market segments.”

On platform teams:

“Platform teams provide leverage because they allow for common services to be implemented once but used in many places. Examples of this include:

A platform team that is responsible for shared services such as authentication or authorization.

A platform team that is responsible for maintaining a library of reusable interface components.

A platform team that is responsible for providing tools to developers for test and release automation.

“Moreover, platforms reduce the cognitive load for experience teams.”

“Experience teams are responsible for how the product is experienced by users in the form of apps, UIs, solutions, or journeys.”

Main learning point: I highly recommend “Empowered” to anyone who wants to truly understand what’s involved in product leadership, and what is imperative for any strong product company.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/beauty-amazons-6-pager-brad-porter/
  2. https://www.intentionalintegrity.com/
  3. https://hbr.org/2020/11/how-apple-is-organized-for-innovation

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