Book Notes: Empowered

Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products by Marty Cagan with Chris Jones
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The key message behind the book is that for companies to build products which are valuable to the customer they need empowered product teams where technology is seen as a core competency and partner. Where teams are given meaningful ownership of problems to solve, not tasks to complete, with data as a cornerstone. To achieve this there is a need for a higher quality of leadership.

The Role of Technology

Technology is a core function, not just an expense. To achieve amazing output technology and product needs to be first class citizens, not an expense to be reduced. Providing teams of missionaries with problems is going to actually help reduce costs compared to providing tasks to mercenaries. At strong product and tech companies technology is not there to serve the business it is the business. Technology is not just there to improve efficiency, it is a key enabler to reimagine the future of the business.

Develop People Is Job #1

For teams to achieve requires competent and capable people who can achieve the best results. This is not to just hire the best and leave them to it, this is by coaching people so that they can get better every day. These people need space to own outcomes, not just tasks.

Insecure managers have a large challenge in empowering teams as they feel a need to be recognised for their contributions and see their team as a threat to this which causes them to undermine it. This can result in a lack of diverse viewpoints which diminishes the teams value or hide mistakes which is both harmful and prevents growth and learning.

The leads need to produce a safe and trusting tram for diverse viewpoints to be heard and for mistakes to be discussed and seek to teach or push people to achieve their potential – especially when not realised by the individual.

The book provides a ways to assess product people in product, process and people to produce a gap analysis that can feed into a coaching plan. This can then be worked on and reviewed in 1:1 sessions. Key areas are for people to be dependable, to work in the companies best interests and to be accountable.

There are a set of anti-pattern to watch out for:

  • Manager Doesn’t Care – this is when leaders don’t like or see developing people as a key responsibility.
  • Manager Reverts to Micromanaging – Micromanaging is easy but it won’t help people develop.
  • Manager Spends Time Talking and Not Listening – The session is primarily for your subordinate and not you, it is too easy to talk for the whole session. Also different people learn in different ways so you need to be sensitive to this.
  • Manager Doesn’t Provide Difficult Feedback – People need to hear the hard news so that they can learn to grow and improve.
  • Manager Is Insecure and/or Incompetent – If you are insecure or incompetent then you are letting your team down as they will be unable to grow (law of the lid).
  • Manager Doesn’t Cut Losses – Not everything works out, sometimes you need to cut your losses and let someone go if they are not growing sufficiently.

Three critical characteristics of strong product teams

  1. Tackle risks early
  2. Solve problems collaboratively
  3. Be accountable for results

Collaboration anti-patterns

  • One decider – This is not collaboration, this is a dictator model.
  • Consensus – It is not unusual for there to be difference of opinion, sometimes there needs to be a judgement call or a test to resolve differences.
  • Artifacts – Documents such as “requirements” these shut down discussions and collaboration.
  • Compromise – aka vote for your favorite. This can result in mediocre results which is not good for anyone.
  • Doing what the customer said – Product is to innovate on behalf of the customer, not for the customer to produce requirements.

What we want are solutions which are

  • Valuable – for people to buy or choose it
  • Usable – so people can experience the value
  • Feasible – something that we can build to deliver the value
  • Viable – Something that is able to sell or support and it is net positive
  • Ethical – Even if we can and we could make money, should we

To achieve this we need to collaborate to identify what we don’t know and to experiment to see if these can be overcome. We need decisions and collaboration to be transparent so people understand the why and background behind them. Disagree and commit:

  1. If you see a snake (important decision to be made), kill it
  2. Don’t play with dead snakes (important decision you have made)
  3. All opportunities start out looking like snakes


The best product companies hire competent people of character, and then coach and develop them into members of extraordinary teams.

Staffing does not mean hiring – this is a much bigger topic and one that the responsibility lies with the manager, not with HR – HR are there to help/partner but they are not responsible.

Of the two phases: discovery and delivery, co-location is magic for discovery. During the discovery phase the product manager, designer and tech lead should be working together – not via artifacts passed between them.

The book highlights the important difference between an individual contributor role to a people management position where the latter is not a more-senior position but a fundamentally different job requiring different skills and talents.

We should build a product vision which is compelling and share it, not create a roadmap of features and share that else this ties our hands too much. We should be stubborn on vision and flexible on details.

Producing principles compliment the vision by sharing the values and beliefs which should help guide decision making and ensure that the product remains ethical.

In the team topology there are two types of teams – platform teams which manage services so they can be leveraged by other teams and experience teams which are responsible for how the products value is exposed to users and customers. Experience teams are sub-divided again into customer-facing teams which focuses on the experience the customer receives and customer-enabling which are teams which are internal users both work best with end-to-end responsibilities. These teams need to be autonomous such that they are regularly able to deliver value without dependencies on other teams, it is quite common for products to have two sides (e.g. buyers and sellers) here it is empowering to organise the teams by the side of the marketplace.

Product Strategy

How do we decide which problems the teams should solve? The answer is the product strategy. This requires:

  • Tough choices on what is really important to provide focus
  • Generating, identifying and leveraging insights
  • Converting insights into actions by giving teams problems to solve
  • Active (not micro) management identifying, tracking and resolving obstacles

With regards to objectives there should be just team objectives. The results must be defined in terms of business results which the team need to own and are brought into by setting the target – but the measure needs to be meaningful not a substitute because it is easier to measure. We should be clear with the team if we are looking for a roof shot or a moon shot so they can determine the aptitude for risk. To note the manager is the one assigning the problem to the team and deciding on the acceptable level of risk for the team to take. Companies that avoid shared or common objectives in the name of autonomy or communication often limit their ability to solve the toughest and most important problems.

High-integrity commitments do happen but they should be the exception else this will still be a delivery team not an empowered product team.

Effective objectives:

  • Assigning problems and giving team space to solve them
  • If a team volunteers this should be taken into account but volunteering does not mean they are the right team for the job
  • Leaders decide which teams work on which objective but the key results need to come from the team.
  • A back and forth on deciding the objectives is very normal
  • There is nothing wrong with assigning the same objective to multiple teams
  • There is nothing wrong with asking multiple teams to collaborate on the same objective
  • Clarity on the level of ambition you want from the team.
  • Keeping the lights on activities are also important and should not be neglected but this should also not become a back door to get work done by the team
  • Quarterly gives space to the team to focus but adaptability to the business

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