Book Review: “Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones

The book “Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones is a must read for all product and business leaders. Marty’s earlier book “Inspired”is probably the most-referred book for aspiring / noob product managers, authors need no introduction to the authentic insights they bring!

What follows next is my recollection of broad themes, key takeaways and compelling arguments the authors put forth. Authors have relied on their learning from 500+ organisations of different scales, what they state is generally applicable. That the book was published during Covid times is testimony to the new realities we are all living in around resilience, adaptability to change and staying true to our core values amidst volatility. Unstated but these themes keep recurring throughout the book

Cover Image of the Book: “Empowered” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones

The book is divided into 81 chapters, although most chapters can be independently read like a well-written blog. The authors differentiate strong product teams from what they call feature teams (one striving to serve the business) and most of the book is organised around helping leaders create strong product teams in their organisations. In the strong product team, the purpose of the product org is to serve customers by creating products customers love, yet work for the business. The book also argues that the key to building strong product companies is having strong product leaders

On coaching mindset

  • Coaches roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, whereas mentors dole out words of wisdom
  • Developing people is job #1 for managers
  • To earn trust of the team, be interested in the team member as a person
  • While a team member’s self-assessment to develop a career plan is helpful, the manager should not hesitate from correcting the difference in perception between him and the team member. Not doing so is abdicating the responsibility!

On developing talent

  • The biggest difference between competent PMs and effective PMs is probably their people skills
  • It’s manager’s responsibility to bring a new product manager into the team and unless she is competent enough to ensure the person is NOT doing harm to the team and is making reasonable decisions
  • Constructive feedback is the main source of value you provide as a manager. There should never be surprises in annual reviews related to performance!
  • A written narrative for major decisions / products is helpful to be an exceptional product leader. It’s mostly a 6-pager doc with narrative in the first few pages followed by FAQs that might come from key stakeholders
  • An employee with an owner’s mindset takes responsibility for the outcomes rather than just the activities
  • Ability to think is the single most important behavior of a capable product person. How to assess this in interviews is by probing what the candidates do when they don’t know they answer
  • Three critical characteristics of strong product teams no matter what processes they use are
    • tackling risks early 
    • solving problems collaboratively
    • and being accountable to results
  • A product manager’s career will survive mistakes which inevitably happen if she is on the whole dependable in her commitments, always works toward the company’s best interests, and takes responsibility for her mistakes
  • Also coach your people around ethics of product management i.e. whether something should be built in addition to viability, feasibility, usability and valuable
  • As a leader, it probably helps to measure success by the growth of people one has managed or helped throughout the career
  • Also the leadership is not about you, it’s about the team member. More like an actor vs. director in a theatre aphorism “don’t fix a line”
  • Leaders need to set the expectations, establish the governance that acknowledges necessary boundaries—but removes barriers to progress—and support the teams with the necessary tools and resources

On stakeholders

  • In general the more senior an executive in the organization more likely they care about everything – customers, brand, revenue, compliance
  • Product managers need to invest in trust before they need it
  • On imposter syndrome: if I don’t do home and prepare thoroughly, the fear of looking clueless is what drives preparation. It’s not necessary something to fight against
  • Treating stakeholders like customers may dilute the role of true customer
  • On reducing number of meetings: if there is a way to make them happen asynchronously like status update is generally better

On decision making

  • The authors describe a colloquialism by Jim B, former CEO of Netscape
    • If you see a snake (i.e. an important decision to be made), kill it
    • Don’t play with dead snakes (past decisions)
    • All opportunities start out looking like snakes

On hiring

  • Hiring is the responsibility of the hiring manager and not the HR!
  • The best product companies hire competent people of character, and then coach and develop them into members of extraordinary teams
  • There are two bases of hiring 1. Competence 2. Potential. Nothing wrong in hiring basis 2 as long as hiring manager is willing to invest time to develop the person
  • Product vision is one of the most effective tools for recruiting great product managers!
  • Every new hire should raise the average of the people
  • Reference checks should be taken seriously especially to weed out toxicity in behavior which can be hidden during the interview process 

On product vision

  • Vision answers two critical questions 1. What’s the end game 2. What is my team’s contribution to it? It’s purpose is to inspire and it’s told from customer’s perspective
  • Evangelism is never finished. Just because a person is convinced one day doesn’t mean they will not be unconvinced the other day 
  • Product vision should be accompanied by product principles or tenets in order to provide guidance to PMs in decision making

On team topology

  • Establishing an effective team topology is one of the key responsibilities of a product leader
  • The best team topology will balance the needs of product, design and engineering orgs
  • Topology choice should be guided by the team empowerment, real ownership, team autonomy and alignment with other facets of the company
    • Optimise for the product team rather than executives, managers or access to customers!
  • Beware of Conway’s law i.e. shipping your org chart!
  • If you’re making changes to team topology more than once a year, something else is wrong
  • Platform teams reduce the cognitive load for experience teams in using the underlying technology whether customer facing or customer enabling

On product strategy

  • While product strategy starts with focus, it depends on insights. Product strategy requires choice, thinking and effort. For elements of the product strategy are 1. Focus 2. Insights 3. Actions 4. Management
  • Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on few pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes

On OKR framework

  • If the leaders want the product team to feel ownership of the results, then the key results must come from the team
  • The team will also need guidance from leadership on how ambitious or conservative (roof shot or moon shot) they should be in pursuing solutions
  • Activities are not key results, outcomes are 
  • All of the work need not be OKR. There could be some high integrity commitments which need to be tracked differently
    • High‐integrity commitments are intended for situations where you have an important external commitment or a very important and substantial internal commitment. They are the exceptions
  • It’s normal and often wise for different teams to chase the same objectives simultaneously
  • Technology makes many things possible, but if it doesn’t deliver on the needs of the customer, it will not deliver on the needs of the business

On product leadership

  • There are 3 things a product leader will be judged on a. Business results b. Product strategy c. Product team
  • Evangelism is one of the critical roles of product leaders in mid- to large companies
  • Top methods of evangelization
    • Use prototypes 
    • Share the customer pain
    • Share the vision
    • Share the learning i.e. information the audience needs to help come up with solution
    • Share credit generously 
    • Learn how to do a great demo! It’s sales!
    • Spend time with your developers, designers and product managers
    • Show genuine enthusiasm!
  • The best source of innovation are your engineers!

In short, a must read book for all product and business leaders. The book contains decades of product leadership experience in a very concise and easily practicable manner and you can keep it like a ready reckoner for quite some time to come!

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