Product Operating Model Lea Hickman

Transformation Theater

By Lea Hickman and Marty Cagan

Recently we’ve been writing about two very common and very problematic forms of theater: product management theater, and product leadership theater.

We’ve been intentionally trying to shine a bright light on these behaviors, as we see them at the source of so many weak product organizations, causing a great deal of frustration for all of those involved.

In that same spirit, there are several other forms of “theater” that pertain to efforts to transform how a company builds products.  This certainly includes the two forms we’ve already written about, but it goes much further.

It’s no secret that most transformation efforts fail to deliver the desired results, so in the spirit of trying to call out the problematic behaviors so that they can be recognized and addressed, we wanted to share the most common forms of theater we encounter.

Most of these behaviors involve going through the motions, without actually changing how the people or the company operate.

Transformation Theater

At the highest level, there is often theater pertaining to the transformation effort itself.  The most common symptom of this is when the organization is focusing on transformation activity, and not transformation results.

You might recognize the irony of this.  As transformation to the product model involves moving from output to outcomes, the problem here is that the transformation effort hides behind output (activities) rather than outcomes (results).

Realize that outcomes are much harder to achieve, and people will revert to what they know, so one of the most common forms of theater is to showcase all the various activities – new training and new certifications, reorganizations, new ceremonies, new processes and tools – yet still doing business as usual.

Another possible cause is that in many companies, from the viewpoint of the many employees, the company has been “transforming” for years.  There has been one big company transformation initiative after another, usually tied to some new senior leader.  No wonder that the people suffer from change fatigue.

It’s also not a surprise if some people decide to wait it out, and hope that this too shall pass. Unfortunately, this behavior can create its own self-fulfilling prophecy. 

If people are just going through the motions, this is theater and not helpful.

Title Theater

Very analogous to the concept of title inflation, is the concept of title theater.

This is when key titles change, and often the job descriptions change, but the same people are performing the same role as before.

This is most damaging when it happens to the roles most critical to transforming: the product model competencies.  When product owners or business analysts are re-titled to product managers.  Or when graphic designers are re-titled to product designers.  Or when engineers are re-titled to tech leads.

Without people that know what good looks like, who can usefully and accurately assess the skills of the employees, and then coach the people to the necessary competence, the transformation is almost certainly doomed to fail.

Innovation Theater

Many organizations have largely given up hope that their product teams are capable of innovation, so they then get the idea to create a dedicated “innovation team” that is supposed to do the innovations.  

Unfortunately, while these innovation teams often can and do discover good potential solutions, they rarely end up making it to customers.  That’s because the product teams that discover the solutions, need to be the same people that will deliver those solutions, otherwise they will very likely go nowhere.

Moreover, culturally, this creates two classes of product people – those responsible for innovation, and those responsible for… non-innovations? 

Discovery Theater

Moving from feature teams to empowered product teams is at the core of changing how you solve problems, and this involves introducing real product discovery skills.  Yet it’s easy to just continue doing the design and development of new features, but now pretend this is product discovery.

The key is whether or not the solution generates the necessary outcome.  But you can also look at the number of ideas the product team is trying out, and if they are just designing and building all their ideas, then this is just discovery theater.  You want to see that they are discarding at least half of their ideas, and only building the ones where there is evidence the solution is worth building.

Agile Theater

One of the most frustrating problems in companies that need to transform, is that in so many cases, they previously spent significant time and money on transforming to use Agile methods, yet they have little in the way of results to show for it.

Today they may have an army of Agile coaches, Agile-specific roles, and ongoing Agile ceremonies, yet they are still releasing monthly or even quarterly, and there’s no empowerment to speak of. This is commonly referred to as Fake Agile and is one of the most obvious forms of Agile theater.

This is not just a development process argument.  It gets to whether the company can truly take care of its customers, and whether it believes in empowering its people.  The difference between doing agile and being agile.

Strategy Theater

Similar to discovery theater and Agile theater, most companies today talk about product strategy, but for most of them it is much easier to continue to give allocations to the various stakeholders and just let them decide what they each need.  This is sometimes referred to as “peanut butter product strategy” as in spreading the resources very thinly over the company, doing many things but nothing well.

Looking holistically across the company requires both strong and skilled product leaders, and the senior executive support to focus on the most impactful areas, and say no to countless other less meaningful distractions.

Stakeholder Collaboration Theater

One final form of theater that is important to call out.  

There’s no question that moving from stakeholder-driven roadmaps to product leadership-driven product strategy represents a shift in control, and many of the stakeholders will understandably be apprehensive about this change.

What sometimes happens is that the product leaders and product managers view this change as a transfer of power from the stakeholders to them.  But what is really needed is to move to a collaborative model.  Remember that a strong product team is asked to solve problems in ways our customers love, yet work for the business.  And “work for the business” typically requires real collaboration.

What sometimes happens is that the product leaders and product managers start ignoring the stakeholders, or maybe just humoring them – pretending to listen and care.

If the stakeholders feel they no longer have the ability to influence what the product team builds,  and if they feel like their responsibilities have been co-opted by the product teams, the transformation is headed for some very rough waters.

In order for stakeholders to support the product model, they need to believe there are competent people in the product teams that make a sincere effort to learn and understand the different stakeholder needs, and will respect the constraints of the business.

To gain that knowledge there needs to be a trust-based relationship between the product leaders in the organization and the stakeholders they partner with. 


It’s important to understand that none of these forms of theater are usually intentional. It is simply that changing to the product model is hard, and people most often follow the path of least resistance, which is typically to avoid change.

But if you are aware of these behaviors, and understand the reasons they occur, you can work to identify and address these issues early in your transformation efforts, and direct the attention to the examples where this is done well.