Product Leadership Marty Cagan

Ensuring Excellence

This has been a difficult article to write.  That’s because there’s a very real risk of undermining what I would consider the most important message I try to advocate, which is the power and potential of empowered product teams.

But nevertheless, I think this topic has largely been missing from my writing, and it’s too important not to address.

We talk a great deal about assigning teams problems to solve, and giving them clear, quantifiable outcomes as goals.  The point of course is that shipping output that doesn’t move the needle is not a success in any meaningful sense.

All of the above I absolutely stand behind.  And it is the higher order point.

That said, in so many of the best product companies there is an additional dimension that goes beyond individual empowered product teams, and even goes beyond achieving business results.

It has to do with ensuring a level of what I’ll refer to here as “excellence” although that is clearly a very ambiguous term.

Over the years, this concept has been referred to by many different names, always necessarily vague, but all striving to convey the same thing: “desirability,” “aha moments,” “wow factor,” “magic experiences,” or “customer delight,” to list just a few.

The concept is that an effective product that achieves results is critical, but sometimes we want to go even beyond that, to provide something special.  

Maybe it’s because we believe this is needed to achieve the necessary value.  Maybe it’s because the company has built its brand on inspiring customers.

Often this dimension shows up most clearly in product design, where functional, usable but uninspiring designs can often achieve our business results, but great design can propel us into this realm of the inspiring.

To be very clear, I’m not suggesting that this dimension of excellence is critical for every product team and every product company.  Most would do well to just get to the point of consistently achieving real results.

But I also don’t want to ignore the powerful role this plays in so many great product companies.

Does Google really need playful doodles to deliver the value they consistently provide in search results?

Does Stripe really need to spend so much energy on the design of its site and SDK’s, which after all, are primarily for the developers that use their API’s?

Does Apple really need to sweat the literally thousands of very subtle and often not consciously noticed interactions on its devices?

In The Lost Interview, Steve Jobs spoke of this dimension of excellence as “spirit,” as in, in his view, Apple’s products had them, and Microsoft’s products didn’t.

The real question, and the elephant in the room, is how to introduce this element, without undermining team empowerment?

One analogy I find helpful in describing this is the role of the “bar raiser” on an interview team.  

For those that don’t know what this is, the way several strong product companies ensure that they are maintaining staff quality while hiring (especially when growing rapidly) is by having someone join each interview team as an additional interviewer, where he or she is there to ensure that a candidate that one product team considers strong, another doesn’t consider weak.  

The bar raiser participates on the interview team for many different parts of the organization, ensuring a consistently high bar across all teams.

Does this disempower the interview teams?  I don’t think so.  It is providing a holistic view of candidates that the other interview team members aren’t likely to have.

Similarly, when a product leader reviews the work of a product team, beyond ensuring that the team understands and delivers on their key results, that leader sometimes also weighs in on this topic of product excellence.

In some companies this is coming from the design leader.  In others, the product leader.  And in others, it is the CEO.  Although with empowered employees with a high-degree of psychological safety, this feedback might come from anyone.

Certainly there is sensitivity to how this opinion is shared with the product team.  

This interaction with the leader has the potential to be either very inspiring to push for something even better, or very demoralizing if the team feels they are chasing some intangible, unrealistic and unachievable expectation.

In truth, I’ve experienced each.  And this is why it’s a difficult topic to discuss.  The last thing I want to do is encourage Steve Jobs wannabes.

My favorite place to capture this dimension of product excellence is in the product principles, which typically are developed alongside a strong and compelling product vision.  I tell product teams that product principles, when done well, can help translate the brand promise into something more tangible and actionable for the product teams.

The difference is in the pointing out to the team when a product, or more likely a prototype in product discovery, is not living up to these principles.

It’s one thing to have a product principle along the lines of “we strive to exceed our customer’s expectations,” and another thing to point out to a product team that their work is not quite at this level.

The main point of this article is to acknowledge the role that a strong product leader plays in looking holistically across the many product efforts, and not being afraid to engage when necessary with the product teams to encourage them to aim higher.  Do your best to make this an inspirational interaction and not a demotivating one.

What’s important to keep in mind is that most strong product teams really do want to create something they can be personally proud of, and if handled well, this interaction can give the team both permission and encouragement to reach higher.  Acknowledge this.  Encourage this. Show appreciation for this.  

But also do your best to try to make as clear as possible in what ways a particular design or approach may be falling short of the product principles.

And when product teams do step up and deliver something that not only delivers results, but also manifests excellence in the sense we’re describing, by all means, recognize it and celebrate it.

Special thanks to Chris Jones and Shreyas Doshi for their very helpful feedback on early drafts of this article.