Product Marty Cagan

Good Product Team / Bad Product Team

NOTE: My friend and colleague Jeff Patton is the author of a book on the general topic of User Stories and especially the technique of Story Mapping.  I was asked to write a foreword for this new book, and this article is an excerpt from the foreword.  I was also a reviewer of the book and it is definitely a must-read for any product person and fills a very big gap in the current library of Agile titles.

I’ve had the extremely good fortune to be able to work with many of the very best technology product teams in the world. People creating the products you use and love every day.  Teams that are literally changing the world.

I’ve also been brought in to try to help with companies that are not doing so well.  Startups racing to get some traction before the money runs out.  Larger companies struggling to replicate their early innovation.  Teams failing to continuously add value to their business.  Leaders frustrated with how long it takes to go from idea to reality.  Engineers exasperated with their product managers.

What I’ve learned is that there is a profound difference between how the very best product companies create technology products, and the rest. And I don’t mean minor differences.  Everything from how the leaders behave, to the level of empowerment of teams, to how the organization thinks about funding, staffing and producing products, down to how product, design and engineering collaborate to discover effective solutions for their customers.

With a grateful nod to Ben Horowitz’s classic Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, for those that have not yet had the opportunity to participate in, or observe a strong product team up close, in this article I wanted to try to give you a glimpse into some of the important differences between strong product teams and weak teams:

  • Good teams have a compelling product vision that they pursue with a missionary-like passion.  Bad teams are mercenaries.
  • Good teams get their inspiration and product ideas from their objectives (e.g. OKR’s), from observing customers struggle, from analyzing the data customers generate from using their product, and from constantly seeking to apply new technology to solve real problems.  Bad teams gather requirements from sales and customers.
  • Good teams understand who each of their key stakeholders are, they understand the constraints that these stakeholders operate in, and they are committed to inventing solutions that work not just for users and customers, but also work within the constraints of the business. Bad teams gather requirements from stakeholders.
  • Good teams are skilled in the many techniques to rapidly try out product ideas to determine which ones are truly worth building.  Bad teams hold meetings to generate prioritized roadmaps.
  • Good teams love to have brainstorming discussions with smart thought-leaders from across the company.  Bad teams get offended when someone outside their team dares to suggest they do something.
  • Good teams have product, design and engineering sit side-by-side, and embrace the give and take between the functionality, the user experience and the enabling technology.  Bad teams sit in their respective functional areas, and ask that others make requests for their services in the form of documents and scheduling meetings.
  • Good teams are constantly trying out new ideas in order to innovate, but doing so in ways that protect the revenue and protect the brand. Bad teams are still waiting for permission to run a test.
  • Good teams insist they have the skill sets on their team necessary to create winning products, such as strong interaction design.  Bad teams don’t even know what interaction designers are.
  • Good teams ensure that their engineers have time to try out the discovery prototypes every day so that they can contribute their thoughts on how to make the product better.  Bad teams show the prototypes to the engineers during sprint planning so they can estimate.
  • Good teams engage directly with end-users and customers every week, to better understand their customers, and to see the customer’s response to their latest ideas.  Bad teams think they are the customer.
  • Good teams know that many of their favorite ideas won’t end up working for customers, and even the ones that could will need several iterations to get to the point where they provide the desired outcome.  Bad teams just build what’s on the roadmap and are satisfied with meeting dates and ensuring quality.
  • Good teams understand the need for speed and how rapid iteration is the key to innovation, and they understand this speed comes from the right techniques and not forced labor.  Bad teams complain they are slow because their colleagues are not working hard enough.
  • Good teams make high-integrity commitments after they’ve evaluated the request and ensured they have a viable solution that will actually work for the customer and the business.  Bad teams complain about being a sales-driven company.
  • Good teams instrument their work so that they can immediately understand how their product is being used and make adjustments based on the data.  Bad teams consider analytics and reporting a “nice to have.”
  • Good teams integrate and release continuously, knowing that a constant stream of smaller releases provides a much more stable solution for their customers.  Bad teams test manually at the end of a painful integration phase and then release everything at once.
  • Good teams obsess over their reference customers.  Bad teams obsess over competitors.
  • Good teams celebrate when they achieve a significant impact to the business (outcome).  Bad teams celebrate when they finally release something (output).

If too many of these items strike too close to home, I hope you’ll consider raising the bar for your team and see if you can’t experience the difference.