Markers of an Empowered Product Team: A Talk by Marty Cagan

What does it mean to be an empowered engineer? According to Marty Cagan, product leader and founder of Silicon Valley Product Group, if you want your engineers to produce a stellar product, then all of this starts long before a new feature kick-off or sprint planning.

Jeff Phungglan
Freelance writer

What does it mean to be an empowered engineer? Does that mean you’re the one deciding how things are coded? Or you’re the one choosing the framework your team uses? If you’re a manager or leader, how do you ensure that you’re empowering your team? Marty Cagan, product leader and founder of Silicon Valley Product Group, gave a talk during Ionic’s Enterprise Summit 2020, where he answered all of these questions and more. 

Cagan has over 35 years of experience in the tech industry, working for HP, Netscape, and eBay before founding Silicon Valley Product Group. And when he’s working with teams, these are the things he looks for and calls out. 

According to Cagan, an empowered engineer isn’t someone that gets to figure out the best way to code something. Rather, an empowered engineer figures out the best way to solve a problem, what approach the team will take, and what capabilities will be needed.They are presented with a problem and then given the tools needed to solve it. 

If you want your engineers to produce a stellar product, then all of this starts long before a new feature kick-off or sprint planning. 

What is the source of innovation?

Cagan likes to dispel the myth that great products rarely, if ever, come from customers or even executives. He quotes Steve Jobs saying, “You can conduct 100 focus groups, and you’ll never come up with an iPhone.”

According to Cagan, while customers are great at pointing out the pain points in your product, they don’t know how to solve them. Executives might have an idea, but even they don’t know what’s truly possible. The single most effective source for incredible product innovation is engineers.

Engineers are the ones working with the technology day-in and day-out. They’re the ones that know where things can be pushed and when something is just not possible. Engineers are in the unique position to know just what your product is capable of becoming.

And ironically, engineers are usually the first part of the team to be outsourced. But as Cagan argues, in a good product, you would no sooner outsource your engineers than you would your CEO.

Customer inspired, technology-enabled

Most times, engineers are given things to work on that are technologically possible but aren’t very interesting for customers. If an engineer is brought in early, even at the start of an idea, they’re able to push the concept even further based on just their knowledge of what technology is currently available.

That’s why Cagan believes great product innovation is the marriage of customer inspiration and technology that has only become available today. He uses the following examples to support his hypothesis: 

Google Translate

Cagan uses the example of Google Translate to explain the evolution of technology. When this product went to market, it was notoriously terrible. Sure, it was better than not having anything, but Google Translate was wholly unreliable. However, Google was able to harness machine learning to improve the results and implemented it without ever changing much about the front-end experience.

Magic bands at Disneyworld

In this example, Cagan points out that innovation doesn’t always come from tech giants like Amazon or Google. Disneyworld, the over 50-year-old amusement park, is proving that technological advancements can come from the most unexpected places. For years, customers have had to carry so many different items around the park with them: a room key, park tickets, fast passes, etc. After a $1 billion investment and advancements in RFID and cloud technologies, Disneyworld was able to consolidate all of those things into a wearable device.

Apple and iPhone

Cagan points to Apple and the iPhone as another example of customer pain points meeting with the latest technology. There was much concern surrounding it because just a few years before Apple had launched the failed Newton tablet, which had a notoriously difficult-to-operate touch screen. But by the time the iPhone was announced, multitouch technology was available and implemented into the device.

Empowering your product team.

Cagan believes that to produce innovative products extends beyond just empowered engineers. Your entire product team also needs to be empowered. When working with organizations, Cagan likes to use this quote from Leslie Kilgore, “Lead with context, not control.”

As Cagan puts it, having an empowered product team is not about briefing them on the ideas that have already been decided. Like with engineers, it’s about making sure the team is involved as early as possible. That way, they’re all on the same page, figuring out the best solutions for your customers’ needs.

What defines an empowered product team?

So, what are the earmarks of an empowered team? Cagan uses these three main characteristics to define them.

1. Teams are cross-functional.

Cagan says, when most people think of cross-functional teams, they think of front-end and back-end support, but there’s a little more to it than that. It’s about making sure your team is staffed with competent people, covering the entire range of skills needed for your product.

2. They are empowered.

According to Cagan, an empowered team is one that’s not just assigned problems to solve, but they’re also given the ability to decide the best ways to solve those problems. More importantly, they’re given the tools and support to solve them. Continually removing those resources will only stifle their creativity and further limit future innovation.

3. Teams have accountability.

Cagan believes an empowered team has to be accountable for their solutions. And that accountability goes both towards the company and the business problem. So, ultimately if a team is empowered to come up with a solution, then they’re the ones that are responsible for its success or failure.

What is product discovery?

Cagan concedes that product discovery is a massive undertaking. When he works with teams, he says it usually takes him a couple of days of filling whiteboard after whiteboard with all the techniques that can be deployed.

In the simplest of terms, product discovery is a rapid series of experiments, primarily using prototypes. This enables teams to discover the best solutions that are valuable, usable, feasible, and viable.

Key roles to aid product discovery.

There are two key roles that Cagan talks about that can aid in product discovery: product manager and designer.

First, Cagan dives into the role of product manager. Most companies will confuse a product manager for a project manager. And that’s a big mistake. A project manager is there to shepherd along projects, while a product manager has a much deeper knowledge of your product and knows more of the ins and outs.

Cagan says, in an empowered product team, the product manager will have a deep understanding of:

  • Users and customers
  • Product data
  • Business constraints
  • Industry trends and landscapes

Cagan believes the other key role in product discovery is product designer. He quotes Steve Jobs, “Design is not just look and feel; design is how the product works.”

That is such a critical distinction. A great product designer thinks about the entire experience around your product. That’s what will separate a good product from a great one.

The purpose of an empowered product team

During his talk at Ionic Enterprise Summit, Cagan wrapped up his presentation by quoting entrepreneur and investor Avid Larizadeh Duggan, “A leader should articulate what needs to be done, and why, and then let the team decide how best to do it.”

Cagan reminds us that empowered product teams exist to: 

  • Innovate on behalf of your customer.
  • By creating products our customers love.
  • Yet also meeting the needs of our business.

Additionally, Cagan believes that empowered product teams are assigned to:

  • Customer or business problems to solve.
  • Be empowered to discover and deliver an effective solution.
  • Be held accountable to results.

When a product team is empowered, they have the support and, more importantly, the know-how to create solutions for your customer’s pain points. The door is left open for your product team to be truly innovative.

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