Product Culture Marty Cagan

Meaningful Transformation

Now that more people have a clearer understanding of the differences between feature teams and empowered product teams, by far the most common question I get is how to move to true product teams?

This is essentially a question of transformation.  Most companies have figured out by now that adopting techniques such as Agile methods for delivery may be necessary, but they are nowhere near sufficient.

So what does it really mean to transform to empowered product teams?

The prerequisite for this transformation is getting your senior leaders – normally starting with the CEO – to understand the necessary role of technology as the key enabler of the business, and not just a necessary cost of doing business. Without this understanding, your chances of success are low.

But assuming your senior leadership understands how essential this is, and is willing to back their words up with action (granted, that’s a big assumption), then we can get to work.

At the highest level, there are three major steps. And as a general rule, they need to happen in this order:

First, you’ll need to ensure you have strong product leaders in place. Without this, you won’t be able to recruit and coach the necessary staff for the product teams, you won’t have a solid product strategy, and you won’t earn the trust of the leaders and the stakeholders. So, this is really the first and most-critical step, which is why it has been the main focus of my writing for the past year.

Second, you’ll want to give those strong product leaders the ability to recruit and develop the staff required for empowered product teams. This almost always means raising the bar on the product managers, but it may go well beyond that. Note that you don’t need to up-level all teams at once. You just need to be sure that, before you empower a given product team, you have ensured that the team is staffed with people who are up to the task.

Third, for the product teams that are ready to operate in the empowered product team model, you will need to redefine the relationship with the business. 

Recall that, in the feature team model, the stakeholders were largely in control and the feature teams were set up to be subservient to the business. Now, with the empowered product team model, the idea is to be true partners with the business—collaborating to come up with solutions that customers love, yet also work for the business.

Please remember that this change represents a bit of a give and take with the leaders in the organization. Realize you’re asking them to take a pretty big leap of faith. What’s in it for them is that the old way of working has never been very effective, so most are willing to at least give it a try (iff they have trust in the product leaders).

For most feature teams, the most dreaded aspect of the product manager role is dealing with the stakeholders. The product managers of feature teams feel like they can never make all the various stakeholders happy. There simply is not enough time, or enough people, and sometimes the requests from the stakeholders don’t even make sense.

I’m not suggesting that empowered product teams can or should ignore these stakeholders, but they do have a fundamentally different relationship—one that I find is much more constructive and conducive to innovation.

In an empowered product team, the team is there to serve customers, with products that customers love, yet work for the business. The stakeholders are partners we need to collaborate with to come up with solutions that work (specifically, that means the solutions are valuable, usable, feasible, and viable). In particular, the stakeholders help us with business viability.

For example, we may need to sit down with a company lawyer to discuss legal constraints and the various ways we might be able to address them. We know that, no matter how much the customer might absolutely love the solution, if it’s not legal it’s a non-starter.

Rather than the stakeholder being “the client” that tells us what to build and as such needs to “be managed,” now we have a strategic partner that we need to help understand the constraints so that together we can discover a solution that works.

Especially for larger organizations, there’s much more to be said about how this transformation impacts finance, HR, sales, marketing, and nearly every other aspect of the business.  My SVPG Partner Lea Hickman has been specializing in these topics and large company transformations, and she will be publishing her learnings over the coming months.

Moving to empowered product teams is not in any sense easy, but I hope you can see that it’s definitely possible.  And I believe that this change is necessary in order to survive and thrive going forward.  But be warned that if you wait until after a strong product company decides to go after your customers, it will almost certainly be too late.