Marty Cagan: Ordinary people, extraordinary results

  • Shocked by the difference between how most companies work, and how great companies work.
  • That difference is what keeps me doing this.
  • I’m not talking about the difference between Silicon Valley and others. I’m talking about the difference even within San Francisco between two companies on the same street.
  • Many of the best product teams I know today are scattered all over; Israel, India, China.

Product discovery

  • Product discovery is hard. It’s about coming up with a solution that addresses the four key risks: valuable, usable, feasible, viable.
  • There are more than 100 techniques available for product discovery today. So it can take a full day to talk about all of those.
  • A lot of teams now know this and how to work well, but their company doesn’t allow them to work this way.
  • Unfortunately, that means most people out there are not working in the kind of company and team that I’ll talk about today.


Empowered teams

  • In most organizations, technology teams exist to “serve the business”. This is a clear sign they are not using the best practices for product teams.
  • In a strong product organization, the purpose of a product team is to serve the customers, in ways that meet the needs of the business. The difference is only a few words, but it changes everything.

Some examples of others who have talked about truly empowered teams:

You should read all of these, they’re inspiring books about empowered teams:

So why don’t more companies truly empower their teams?

  • When pushed, a CEO will eventually give an honest answer, which is that they don’t really trust their product teams.
  • So who hired these people? Usually that sits at the leadership level.
  • Ultimately you need to get teams in place that you do trust.
  • Amazon, Google, Apple, all have different cultures, but are all very product focused. They can all trace back to the same source, which is Bill Campbell, the coach of Silicon Valley. He personally coached Steve Jobs, Larry and Sergey, and Jeff Bezos, during the formative years for their companies.
  • Not many people know this, because he hated publicity and didn’t want any focus on him.
  • Campbell was truly sincere about creating an environment where greatness can emerge from everyone on the team.
  • Those top companies follow this mindset of truly empowering people.
  • It’s not that they hire the best people, it’s the environment they hire them into that is different.

The role of leadership

  • Management and leadership is different. Not all managers are leaders.
  • Often people believe that with agile you need to have management backoff, but that’s not the case. You need them to manage, but not in a command and control way.
  • Leadership needs to:
    • Provide the product vision
    • Particularly the common objective across all teams
    • A compelling vision is also important for recruiting the kind of quality people you need
    • Product strategy – the plan for moving towards the vision
    • Not a roadmap, but more like a series of product market fits
    • Product principles – help us to make decisions
    • Product priorities – leaders need to set the priorities so it’s clear where to focus
    • Product evangelism – the bigger the company the more critical this is. We need missionaries not mercenaries.
  • One of the characteristics of great product managers: they are humble, and don’t pretend to know things that they don’t. They are aware of what they don’t know.

The role of management

  • Steve Jobs: don’t hire smart people and tell them what to do; hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. This is the heart of good management.
  • Recruit the team – this is where a lot of companies get it wrong. It’s the responsibility of management to get this right. May have some help from HR, but they are not responsible for this – the managers need to take responsibility.
  • Coaching – must be constantly coaching people and moving them up the levels. It’s hard to have truly empowered teams without managers coaching.
  • Objectives – managers need to play an active role in aligning objectives across teams. Not just let the teams set their own, but instead have a discussion back and forth to find the right objectives and key results. A manager can’t say we need to focus on growth and get 30%. But a manager can say let’s focus on growth, what result do you think you can achieve?

The basis of trust

  • Competence – a critical point. The average competence of PMs has gone down, not up. I think this is because the only training most PMs have had, is a certified scrum training – that teaches you how to administer Jira, or a backlog, and it does not teach you how to build product.
  • Before Agile, PMs actually were better, because the focus was not so much on managing a backlog.
  • Often the people hiring PMs do not know what good looks like. Typically those hiring engineers or designers have done that role before, but this is not always the case for PMs, they’ve never seen what good looks like.
  • You can hire for potential, but only if you have a manager that will coach them on a daily basis.
  • Character – New Zealand All Blacks, the most successful team across all sports over the last hundred years. They learned a long time ago that character is key – they screen out anybody that would be toxic for the team. They have the “no asshole rule”.
  • So, find competent people, filter out the assholes, and then you have a solid group of people to hire from.
  • Google has done a great job at looking into why great teams work, the results can be found in Project Aristotle. They found the best teams are not made up of rockstars, but ordinary people who are not assholes. The best teams have psychological safety.

The true test of empowered teams

  • The team is staffed with competent people with character, covering the necessary range of skills.
  • The team is assigned business problems to solve, and they are able to decide the best way to solve those problems.
  • The team is accountable for solving the customer or business problem (outcome).

Published by

Tim Woods

Product manager (formerly software engineer and marketing manager) with 17 years of experience in the field of innovation management. South Coast of England.

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