Product Managers and Business Leadership seem to be in a love/hate relationship. There are many articles written by wonderful Product Managers and Thought Leaders about how we should implement product thinking.

They have identified a schism. Leadership still think in terms of deadlines, budgets, and features to release, while Product Evangelists preach giving more freedom to product teams.

Each party points the finger at the other. Product Managers accuse Leadership of not knowing how to do product management whereas Leadership fears not getting the results they want from the Product Managers.

I believe getting business results while giving more freedom to product teams is possible if we all take responsibility for ourselves and for others.

It sounds pretty simple. Almost too easy to believe. But it’s doable if we start empowering product teams. In this post I elaborate on the some of the key points Marty Cagan makes in his inspirational book “Empowered”.

Product discovery as the holy grail of product management

Most Product Managers and Product Leaders see product discovery as one of the most important areas of product management. It’s what makes product management so exciting and also so challenging to do.

Unlike project management, product discovery won’t break down the work into smaller pieces or predict output.

Product discovery is about getting to the best possible outcome. This is different from project thinking, where the desired outcome is agreed upon.

Cagan’s definition of product discovery:

“A rapid series of experiments, primarily using prototypes, that enable us to discover effective solutions to the problems our team is tasked to solve — solutions that are valuable, usable, feasible and viable”.

Leadership at every level

There are many definitions of leadership. For me leadership is about taking responsibility for yourself and others, empowering others, seeing greatness in them and being able to translate a vision into reality.

“Leadership is about recognizing that there’s a greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge.” Bill Campbell

When I started out I thought of leadership in terms of the drivers of an organization. I saw the people at the top as the only leaders. Today, I see leadership at every level. Most importantly, it starts with personal leadership.

Empowered product teams have leadership at every level.

Product vision as the North Star of the product journey

A product vision is a description of your product’s essence. It’s what problems it’s solving, who it’s for and why now is the right time to build it. A product vision gives your team a bigger picture of what they are working on and why. A great product vision should be inspiring, short, and clear. Here’s a useful template:

Challenge the team without telling them what to do

Most product teams are asked to deliver solutions, roadmaps, or features. Empowered product teams love to research, discover and deliver the solutions they think best solve the problem.

Don’t ask them to implement solutions. Ask them to solve a problem and let them solve it. They are great at discovering solutions.

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Steve Jobs

Seeing the bigger picture in the product strategy

A product strategy is a high-level plan describing what a business hopes to accomplish with its product and how they plan to do it. The strategy answers key questions such as who the product will serve, how it will benefit them, and what the company’s goals for the product throughout its lifecycle are.

Product principles as DNA

Product principles are the core DNA of the product. They are the fundamental values that underlie every action, decision, or move the product team makes.

Product principles are never reached, they’re not goals. They guide the team on what to decide, what to build and how to build it.

A roadmap with objectives and not features

Product priorities or roadmaps are all about what we need to do to reach our higher goals.

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a useful framework for setting goals and KPIs for organizations and teams. Building a product roadmap following the OKR framework is a great way to help your team focus on building products that matter.

Promote product evangelism in the organization

Product thinking vs. project thinking. Most of us are already familiar with project thinking.

We’ve been working on projects for years, we’re familiar with having plans, budgets, resources, and teams. We stick to the plan, no matter what. We make sure we get to our end goal.

Project thinking is breaking everything down into the smallest possible chunks. We do this to make sure we deliver what we promised.

It seems we try to build the future from the past. This can be fine for certain products, but not for software development.

Product thinking is about discovery and outcome. Since we are dealing with complex problems, we can’t know the solution from the start. We discover it as we go and make sure we have a valuable outcome.

Here comes the most important part. Product Managers and Product Leaders must coach Leadership to learn more about product management and Agile.

Most leaders focus on promoting agility within the team. However, agility also needs to be promoted within Leadership.

The right people in the right teams

Empowered product teams have the right people in the right places. The role of management is to accomplish this. Every product team has a minimum number of people needed to make a product. A product team is, at the very least, made up of a Product Manager, a Designer and an Engineer.

Some companies might want to hire only the best of the best, but I believe that we can get the best out of anyone with the right environment and coaching.

Putting the right people in the right places will increase their chance of success.

Coaching accessible to everyone

Personal development has been my lifelong focus. Gathering information, reading, and studying are great ways to evolve.

For years, I wondered why despite knowing the theory, I was unable to take the necessary actions to reach my goals. After seeking guidance from different coaches in different areas, I discovered the power of coaching and transforming my mind and body.

When it comes to making true breakthroughs, coaching has been the best way for me to transform both myself and others.

Team members must have a coach they can go to when they are stuck. A good coach will guide the team members to make new discoveries and breakthroughs.

Waterfall mythologies have made most designers and engineers lazy. Some designers and engineers are no longer thinking about vision, challenging Product Owners or coming up with new ways of discovery.

Estimations and deadlines tend to make engineers think of the fastest and easiest way to develop something, rather than the best way to solve the problem. These team members will benefit hugely from coaching. It helps them to transform and deliver great value again, thus making the project as a whole a greater success.

Trust as the base of relationships

Empowered team members trust each other. In a safe environment we help each other and work as a team. There’s no room for big egos creating a toxic environment and promoting fear.

Each team member must feel safe to be themselves, be authentic and speak up when necessary.

There’s also a need for Leadership to trust the Product Manager and vice versa. Leadership trusts the Product Manager to deliver value and make decisions. Product Manager trusts Leadership to guide, allow and facilitate what is necessary to create change.

Ordinary people delivering extraordinary results

There is greatness in everyone. It takes some time, effort and listening to find that out.
Leadership is about seeing greatness in others and empowering them to reach that greatness. It’s truly seeing something in someone they might not yet even see in themselves.

Ordinary people in the right teams deliver extraordinary results. Don’t be fooled by long CVs and big egos promising to solve all your problems.

It’s the empowered team that will discover those wonderful results. Allow ordinary people to show what they are capable of.

Final thoughts

Empowered product teams have great relationships with Leadership. They are guided when necessary, but also have the freedom to discover and act in the way they see fit.

It’s a continuous process of trust, leadership, coaching and delivery. It’s a team effort where we bring our powers together to create what we believe to be the best solution for the challenges we face.

Everybody is empowered within the team to act and take on a leadership role. Coaches guide team members if needed and create new possibilities.

Leadership is done by example and not by blaming or pointing fingers. No matter what other people think or do, it’s always our responsibility to act from a place of power and compassion.

I hope you enjoyed this article about empowering product teams.