Product Culture Marty Cagan

The Best vs. The Rest

Both of the books INSPIRED and EMPOWERED were written to try to explain and encourage the best practices of the best product companies.  I have long argued that there is a remarkable gap between how the best companies work, and the rest.

I have always straddled both worlds.  I still vividly remember being an engineer at HP Labs working on tools for other software engineers, and during my very first customer visits, being shocked at the differences between how our customers (the engineers at these different companies) were working.

I didn’t have the vocabulary then to describe everything I was seeing, and I certainly hadn’t identified a taxonomy of the different types of product teams, but I could describe to you the differences in tools, equipment, methods, processes, roles and responsibilities, education and management styles.

However, it was not until the publishing of the article Product Teams vs. Feature Teams, and then when I elaborated on this concept in the book EMPOWERED, that the deeper differences really started to resonate with people.

The good news is that I feel like people are truly starting to understand just how significantly different these ways of working are.  The bad news is that this has led to some truly bizarre conversations.

Over just the past two weeks alone, I have talked with several people at different pure feature team companies that have told me, in so many words, that the empowered product teams I describe sound like some mythical and utopian world, which can’t possibly exist in reality.

Yet in these same two weeks, I’ve also spoken to people at strong product companies working in empowered product teams, that have asked me why in the world I would spend so much energy talking about these feature team companies, that they have never seen, and can’t imagine why anyone would want to run their company that way, and further, why anyone would want to work there?  When I tell them that not only do they exist, they’re clearly the majority, they think I’m exaggerating.

With so little visibility and understanding of what it’s like on the other side, it’s really no wonder that there’s so much noise and confusion about the role of product, and also why most “digital transformations” go nowhere fast.

One of the most common questions I get is from people that do believe that empowered product teams are real, and it is how they want to work, and now they’re trying to figure out the best company to join.  It’s why I wrote this article on choosing where to work.

An interesting follow-on question I’ve received from more than a few people is: “I’ve got an offer from [some well-known strong product company] but they want me to come on as an individual contributor, but I have been a product leader for many years and this would be a major demotion for me.”

Of course, some times the issue is that people mistakenly equate a product manager with a product leader, and they have not been a product leader in the sense that strong companies mean.

But much of the time these people really have been product leaders – directors or VP of product.  In this case, I explain what is almost certainly going on.

While you may have several years of experience in product, the company does not know the nature of that experience.  They need to make sure that you know how to work on an empowered product team.

In fact, one of the very worst mistakes they can make is to hire a product leader that does not know what good looks like, and will end up spreading bad practices to the people they are responsible for coaching and developing.

Every company I know has made this mistake at times (and I have as well), and it is a very costly mistake, especially when it’s not quickly identified and corrected.

So, they prefer to hire you as an individual contributor, and to see how much you really know.  If you’re good, you will almost certainly be quickly promoted.  If not, you’ll have the chance to learn what good really looks like.

It’s also important that the broader organization see that the people that are promoted are widely accepted as very strong at their role.

Not everyone is willing to make this bet on themselves (and potentially absorb the associated pay cut), but I know many that have, and most have been rewarded handsomely for it.

In any case, I’ll continue to try to highlight the differences between the best and the rest, and do everything I can to help people make progress towards the best.

NOTE: I wrote a follow-on article to address questions I received.