Too often, companies stymie innovation by tasking their product teams with serving business needs, rather than customers’. These companies often don’t view technology and creative thinking as tools for building growth or as central to the company culture. In this helpful guide, product development experts Marty Cagan and Chris Jones explain why leaders should rethink this approach and empower product teams to solve customer problems. The pair offer useful strategies for recruiting top talent, keeping everyone on track with a product strategy and bringing out the best in your product teams.
- Lead with technology to innovate superior products.
- Coach your teams to reach their maximum potential.
- Hire people for their competence and character.
- Keep your team on track with a product statement.
- Empower your product teams to do their best work.
- Decide which problems to solve by developing a clear product strategy.
- Collaborate with the rest of the company.
Lead with technology to innovate superior products.
What makes companies such as Google, Apple and Netflix leading innovators? The culture they built around technology provides their edge. Unlike companies who view technology merely as a “necessary expense” or as a tool to serve internal business needs, strong product-focused companies regard technology as the future of their businesses.
“Technology allows us to solve problems for our customers in ways that are just now possible.”
How a company uses technology often determines its product strategy and leadership. For example, organizations that don’t value technology often task their product teams with creating apps or software to deal with things like the company’s payroll or to determine the most efficient ways to cut budgets. The tools serve the business, not the customers. These companies seldom empower product teams to identify or solve problems on their own. They’re more likely to dictate to their product teams.
Companies that value technology empower their product teams to generate strategies, hire the people they need and create products that serve consumers. Giving teams a problem to solve rather than a product to build fosters a culture of innovation. This culture yields better, more innovative products and shapes great leaders.
Coach your teams to reach their maximum potential.
You need an exceptional team to create exceptional products. However, too many product managers focus too much on the results their teams generate and not enough on the quality of their team members. These product managers regard a team as a means to an end instead of as a reflection of their influence.
“You cannot be a good manager without being a good coach.” (Silicon Valley executive coach, Bill Campbell)
Every product team manager must empower his or her team members to reach their full potential. To be a great coach, you must develop the mind-set that will frame how you manage your teams:
- Your success depends on your team’s success, so analyze each member for strengths and weaknesses and create a plan to help them excel.
- Empower team members to feel a sense of ownership over their work by creating space for individual work styles. Only step in when people need guidance.
- Do not let your insecurities undermine team efforts by micromanaging every little task.
- Cultivate diversity within your team to ensure a wide range of opinions and viewpoints.
- Push people beyond their comfort zones so they can grow and become more confident.
- Stick to your word. To develop trust, praise publicly and critique privately.
- Don’t wait to correct mistakes or to fire team members if they’re falling behind. This undermines motivation, trust and your team’s progress.
Hire people for their competence and character.
Most companies hire new people through a human resources department. This approach isn’t always effective because HR doesn’t always understand what talent a product manager needs. Product team leaders should hire for their teams.
“The most important decision at Amazon, has been, and remains, hiring the right talent.” (Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos)
However, sometimes product managers focus on the wrong set of characteristics when looking for new employees. For example, many people think that hiring a top performer leads to the best results. In reality, impressive achievers often come with a level of arrogance that can harm team collaboration and morale.
Focus on competence and character. Ask yourself if the potential hire has the necessary skills and experience to do the job. You don’t necessarily need an expert – everyone should have room for growth – but the person needs to know the basics of working on a product team. Pursue diversity. Too often, managers hire people that “look and think like they do.” This approach can result in a product team full of white men from Ivy League schools making the same kinds of pitches over and over. Hiring people from diverse backgrounds increases your chances of creating better products because you gain a wider pool of perspectives, insights and opinions.
Take an active recruiting role. Rather than waiting for talent to land in your lap, act like a recruiting college coach and seek top players. Remember that great product talent can come from unconventional places such as finance, marketing or even legal departments.
Keep your team on track with a product statement.
Almost every major company has a mission statement that encapsulates what the company wants to accomplish. A product statement explains how a company intends to deliver on that mission with the products it develops.
Product statements focus on the company’s vision of the future and how their solutions, which solve real customer problems, will build a better world. The statement tells product designers their common goal, and gives product leaders a guiding compass to keep their teams on track. For example, consider how a director sets the tone of a play. While the actors, props and sets make up the actual play – the product – the director uses his or her vision of how everything will interact and come together to craft a specific experience for the audience – the product vision.
“Though the customers don’t generally use this terminology, the product vision is usually what they’re hungry for.”
To communicate product statements, many companies use “visiontypes” – a kind of commercial that paints an idealized picture of a future product experience. These commercials can boost motivation within product teams, and serve as a recruitment tool for new talent. Each “visiontype” should focus on the customer experience, use tools such as music to emphasize customer emotions, and showcase the customer’s view of how these new products improve their lives. For example, whenever Apple comes out with a new product, they usually show a short commercial of a utopia in which new Apple products make living in society effortless.
Your product statement is your most persuasive tool for setting your team’s goals. The product statement is your selling point for convincing others to work hard, and your motivation to keep going when challenges arise.
Empower your product teams to do their best work.
How you structure your team’s responsibilities, decide the number of teams you want working on a project and control their interaction can determine the ultimate success of a product. Many products fail due to a lack of collaboration and communication or to an unclear understanding of responsibilities.
Organize your product team to empower them to do their best work. Give them problems to solve rather than to-do lists to complete. When a team solves an issue on its own, team members feel a sense of ownership over the results because they see the connection between their creativity and the value they generate. Giving teams the freedom to do things their way can mean the difference between happy, hard-working employees or resentful, unmotivated workers.
“A team that sees itself as responsible for a meaningful problem is inspired by their connection to the larger cause.”
Usually, two types of teams work on developing any product. The first are platform teams, which handle the aspects of the product that are technically specialized and complex. For example, for the website YouTube, the platform team is the group of engineers who build the code and optimize back-end storage, among other tasks. The second team is the experience team, which focuses on the customer experience and develops features such as instant replay or sharing options. The platform team helps the experience team by lightening the technical and cognitive load involved in building the physical product, so the experience team can focus on customer needs.
Constant communication and collaboration over a shared goal helps operations run smoothly. Facilitate this communication and assign weekly objectives that keep teams on track and on time. When experience teams remain clear about how and when they want platform teams to deliver, it helps businesses scale up to create bigger, more complex products.
Decide which problems to solve by developing a clear product strategy.
Surprisingly, many companies lack a product strategy. They keep their product teams busy creating features and working on other issues, but none of the work adds value to the company. For example, the music app Pandora introduced its “Pandora Prioritization Process” to stakeholders, allowing them to direct which features they wanted product teams to build. The teams created new features for the music streaming app, but none addressed genuine customer needs or focused on a clear desired outcome. This led to Pandora’s ultimate decline.
“The bottom line is that an organization will get more critical work accomplished if it focuses on just a few items at a time.”
The main reason companies struggle with product strategy is that creating one is a multi-step process, involving effort and critical thinking:
- “Focus” – Choose what you want to focus on and what you don’t want to focus on, and stick with those decisions. Some companies try to address 50 or more objectives at once, which generates confusion. Narrowing down what is important creates clear goals for teams to work toward.
- “Insights” – Research and identify which customer needs or pain points you want to solve. This takes time. You must analyze data and company statistics and interview customers. For example, imagine you work for a bank and your customers want better access to their accounts; you may then decide that creating an app is the best solution.
- “Action” – Convert your insights into objectives such as building an app, if you’re on the platform team, and designing its features, if you’re on the experience team. Provide each team with the information and tools it needs to reach its objectives.
- “Manage” – Avoid micromanaging. Your job as a leader is to empower your teams to solve issues, not to tell them what to do at every step. For example, rather than demanding that your team build an app with a predetermined list of tools, present them with the challenge of improving customer experience, so they can pursue that goal on their own.
An effective product strategy is crucial for creating products that drive value and growth or that change the way society uses technology. It provides teams with a goal to work toward and a guide in choosing which problems are worth solving.
Collaborate with the rest of the company.
As you shift your product team from a group of employees that create products to serve internal business needs to a group of individuals that solve customer problems, your relationship with the rest of the company will change. Don’t think of company stakeholders as clients to appease. Collaborate with them to help build your products.
This can be tricky at first. Remind stakeholders that the old model wasn’t working and that the new model can achieve your company’s desired results. Nothing motivates stakeholders more than delivering profitable results.
“You need to move your product organization from a subservient model to a collaborative model.”
When switching to a more collaborative relationship, understand that stakeholder insights can help your product teams. For example, top executives can tell your team if a solution will be feasible, viable, valuable or even useable. If your team builds a product for a customer need that ends up conflicting with legal constraints – by utilizing hazardous materials, for example – your stakeholders can let you know. Stakeholders set the parameters for the kinds of solutions your teams can create.
Garner insights from the rest of the company. Sharing knowledge helps other departments improve their work, sparks new ideas and provides deeper insight into how to leverage new opportunities. For example, someone in marketing might see a huge issue with a new product that the product team might miss. More eyes on product development lessens the likelihood of a market failure.
About the Authors
Marty Cagan is the founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group. Chris Jones has over 25 years experience in product development.
Here’s my review of “EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” by Marty Cagan:
“EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” is a comprehensive guide to product management written by Marty Cagan, a renowned product leadership expert. The book provides a framework for building and managing successful products, with a focus on empowering teams and individuals to achieve exceptional results. Cagan offers practical advice, real-world examples, and actionable tips for product leaders, product managers, and anyone interested in creating innovative products that meet customer needs.
- Empowerment: The book’s central theme is the power of empowerment, which Cagan defines as “the process of giving people the autonomy, resources, and support they need to do their best work.” He emphasizes the importance of creating a culture of empowerment, where teams are encouraged to take ownership of their work and are given the freedom to make decisions and experiment with new ideas.
- Customer-centricity: Cagan stresses the importance of understanding customer needs and desires, and using that information to guide product development. He provides practical advice on how to gather customer feedback, analyze it, and use it to inform product decisions.
- Product Discovery: Cagan advocates for a product discovery process that involves experimentation, prototyping, and testing to validate product ideas before investing significant resources in their development. He provides guidance on how to create a product discovery culture within organizations.
- Product Vision: Cagan emphasizes the importance of a clear and compelling product vision, and provides advice on how to create and communicate such a vision effectively. He also discusses the role of the product visionary, who is responsible for inspiring and guiding the team towards the achievement of the product vision.
- Product Prioritization: Cagan provides practical advice on how to prioritize product features and invest in the most impactful initiatives. He suggests a framework for prioritizing products based on their potential impact, feasibility, and alignment with the company’s strategy.
- Leadership: Cagan emphasizes the importance of strong leadership in product development, and provides guidance on how to build and lead high-performing product teams. He stresses the need for leaders to be visionaries, coaches, and communicators, and to create a culture of empowerment and accountability.
- Measurement and Metrics: Cagan provides practical advice on how to measure and evaluate the success of products, and how to use metrics to inform product decisions. He emphasizes the importance of using the right metrics, and of balancing short-term and long-term metrics to ensure that products are both successful in the short term and sustainable in the long term.
- The book provides a comprehensive framework for product management, covering everything from product discovery to measurement and metrics.
- The author’s experience and expertise shine through in the book’s practical advice and real-world examples.
- The book is well-written and accessible, making it an enjoyable read for both beginners and experienced product professionals.
- Some readers may find the book’s focus on empowerment and customer-centricity to be too idealistic or simplistic.
- The book’s emphasis on leadership and culture may not be as relevant for smaller organizations or teams without dedicated product leadership.
- While the book provides a comprehensive framework for product management, readers may benefit from additional resources or case studies to supplement their learning.
- The book’s focus on customer-centricity and empowerment may be challenging for organizations with more hierarchical or bureaucratic cultures to implement.
Overall, “EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” is an excellent resource for anyone looking to build and manage successful products. The book’s practical advice, real-world examples, and actionable tips make it an invaluable guide for product leaders, product managers, and anyone interested in creating innovative products that meet customer needs.