Product Operating Model Marty Cagan

Product Model Competencies

NOTE: The context of this article is that for the upcoming book TRANSFORMED, this overview is intended to introduce the new core competencies that the product operating model requires.  But unlike other descriptions of these roles I’ve published, these are intended to be understandable by anyone in your company, from CEO to a sales person.

In the prior models, feature teams exist to serve the needs of the business. 

But in the product model, product teams exist to solve hard problems for your customers and for your business, in ways your customers love, yet work for your business.

This difference may sound minor, but the implications are quite significant in terms of how teams work.

Consider for a moment how profound this is.  We are essentially pushing the decisions and responsibility for finding the best solution to the problem down to the product team, and then holding the team accountable for the results.

This is what drives the need for the new product core competencies.

In this series of articles, we’ll discuss each of these critical new core competencies, so that you know what to look for and what to expect, and are not fooled when someone adopts a new title, but doesn’t have the necessary skills or experience.

It’s important not to underestimate the effort to establish these new competencies.  Everything that follows is built upon these competencies.

To be very clear, if your transformation fails, it will very likely be because you did not establish these competencies.

It’s also important to acknowledge that these new competencies can feel threatening to people that have built their career around different competencies.

Some will view the product model as a major career opportunity and a chance to stay relevant for years to come.  Others will dismiss the topic saying “they already do this,” and others will simply prefer to “wait it out” in the hopes of the leaders giving up after a few months.

It’s also important to emphasize that many of your existing people can be coached and developed into strong contributors with the necessary competencies.  But don’t expect that to be true of all of them.

And everything depends on your people wanting to learn, and then having product leaders or product coaches that are capable of helping your people learn these new competencies.

In this series of articles we will be describing each of the new core competencies.  But we’re not going to try to describe them in enough detail that you can learn these competencies.

These are each specialized competencies that normally take years to learn.  In fact, we have published two other books that attempt to teach the skills and techniques needed for these competencies.

Rather, we want to describe the new competencies such that you understand the need for these competencies, and you know what you can and should expect from people with these job titles.

One of the challenges in transformation is that many people have adopted the new titles of the product model, yet without learning the new competencies.  This is a much more severe problem than you might imagine.  

We want to give you the tools to be able to effectively judge competence.

Product Managers, Product Designers and Engineers

A typical cross-functional product team requires three specific and very distinct skill sets.

Usually that means at least three people, but sometimes a single person is able to cover multiple skill sets, or in certain specific cases, the particular product may only require two of the skill sets. 

Recall that when solving problems for our customers or our business, we need to come up with solutions that our customers love, yet work for our business.

In order to discover an effective solution, the team is responsible for addressing four different types of risks:

  • Value Risk: will the customer buy our solution, or choose to use it?
  • Viability Risk: will this solution work for our business?  Is it something we can effectively and legally get to market, sell, service, fund, and monetize?
  • Usability Risk: can the user easily learn, use and perceive the value of the solution?
  • Feasibility Risk: do we know how to build and scale this solution, with the staff, time, technology, and data we have?

In a cross-functional product team, these are the critical competencies and what each is responsible and accountable for:

  • The Product Manager is responsible for the value and viability risks, and overall accountable for the product’s outcomes.
  • The Product Designer is responsible for the usability risk, and overall accountable for the product’s experience – every interaction our users and customers have with our product.
  • The Tech Lead Engineer is responsible for the feasibility risk, and overall accountable for the product’s delivery.

It’s also true that each of these three competencies can contribute to all aspects of the solution, but it’s important to know who specifically is responsible for each risk.

As you’ll see in the upcoming articles, the skills required to develop each of these competencies are substantial.

Product Leaders

The product leaders are the managers of product management, product design, and product engineering.

These are the people who will need to recruit, onboard, coach and develop the actual product managers, product designers, and engineers.

In addition to building and coaching the product teams, these product leaders have critical responsibilities related to creating a compelling and inspiring product vision, an insight-driven product strategy, and a carefully crafted team topology.

More generally, these leaders are responsible for ensuring that the product organization is aligned with the broader company in pursuing the best opportunities, and addressing the most serious threats.

This is why the people you select as your product leaders will very likely prove critical to your transformation efforts.

If you don’t yet have product leaders with the necessary skills and experience, then our first choice is to recruit them and get them in place for the kick-off of our transformation work.

That said, in many companies, the product leaders have some but not all of the necessary experience, and we can temporarily supplement their knowledge with the help of external product leadership coaches.

Other Impacted Roles

Finally, it is important to point out that there are a few other roles that are significantly impacted by the move to the product model.  These include product ops (in particular user researchers and data analysts), product marketing, and project management (aka delivery management).   These and others will be discussed later.