Go, Do, Be.


Marty Cagan on empowered product development teams

By: Chris Greacen - 03/18/2024
I had a chance to hear Marty Cagan speak at Dan Olsen's Lean Product Meetup hosted at the Intuit office down in Silicon Valley. Marty has just published a new book titled Transformed which helps to lay out rationale and a pathway for organizations to move from a feature factory to operating more as an 'empowered product team'.

Marty Cagan speaking at Lean Product Meetup

After Marty's presentation I asked him about the thing that's been bugging me - are we even making progress in this industry? Our work at Lab Zero has always been to try to bring empowered software product team practice to our clients. Somehow, this doesn't really seem to fit with much of the industry - most companies are happy to have people cranking out work in a more predictable fashion instead of seeking real value.

Marty talks about "the best" and "the rest" both in this answer and in several of his books- the best companies are some of the most valuable companies on earth right now. They have empowered product teams. The rest don't -- and their value shows it.

Scroll to 47:40 to find me:

Me: I have the microphone... thank you. I’m gonna ask a quick question here.

When things get tough in my business, my business partners and I go to YouTube and we put on one of your keynotes. And we watched you recently: 2018, talking about empowered teams, product management skills, product / engineering collaboration, discovery... it was a long time ago when you were bringing that up. Preaching to the choir here, at least in this case. I love the book, the way you’ve laid it out here.

I’m excited to try to bring that to what we’re doing but like it still seems like the exception and a rarity, where there are empowered teams that have the permission to do the right thing. And are we are we losing the fight? Are we fighting the right way? Can you talk about how we can drive more of the goodness into the world that we work in?

Marty Cagan: Yeah. By the way, you just summarize endless frustration for me.

I mean, look, 20 years I’ve been trying to get more people to work like “the best” and when we look at overall... I mean in the absolute sense, there’s way more people working like “the best”... but in a relative sense, it seems about the same percentage. Which is not very good. I mean, it’s somewhere -- it’s hard to know really -- somewhere like 10 to 20% I would put in that “best” category and 80 to 90 in “the rest” category. I don’t think that’s very good.

One of the things I discussed with Lenny (on his podcast the previous day) I probably shouldn’t have was, why the hell is that not the case? So essentially what you’re asking, and I have a theory, and it’s a difficult one to share -- I did share it with him and but and that is that it’s very frustrating. What motivated this was not… this was more recent than the book… if you have been following — I’ve had a lot of stuff talking about theater -- product management theater, transformation theater, product management

Me: LARPing it's a lot of LARPers in there live action roleplaying.

Marty Cagan: Yes, well, we're both being generous with what's going on but you know, how is that possible? And I what what kicked me -- really frustrated me was one of the biggest organizations in the US at least that trains product managers shared an article. I won't embarrass them publicly, but you know, takes two minutes to figure out... and it shared an article about how they define the product manager role. And I'm looking at this article and I can't believe they said this out loud. Because they don't most people you know, you hear him try to define a product manager they go to... bend over backwards to try to make it sound important. And try to make it sound more than a project manager. This company did not. It was 100%: communication, coordination, and you should know a little bit about engineering, a little bit about design. Like I cannot believe they said this out loud. And this is the primary group creating a certifying product manager. So I'm like we're screwed.

If that's what's going on, and I'm like, how does that happen? Well, my theory is, if you're a brand new product manager, and you join a job, you go to Google, you type something like you know, "how do I product manage" or something? Chances are you will end up with people teaching you from feature team world, or worse. That's just the odds. And by the way, generative AI will only increase the likelihood of this not going well if you think about how predictive text works. So those people they just get put on this path, and they think they're doing -- what they're supposed to be doing. And then their CEO says, I mean, there's one other thing that motivated me was a European CEO told me he had 200 product owners... and he said "the truth is I think if we got rid of all 200, nobody would care." That hurts, right? I mean, that's harsh. But you know, how can I disagree with him?

And "product owners" Have you met? You know, this is thankfully not much of an issue here. I hope none of you have a title on your LinkedIn profile "product owners" you do you should wake up and fix that like right away. That is not a job -- that's a role on a delivery process. That's not a job but unfortunately, these -- I don't know how many millions, maybe of people that have been certified as a product owner. Almost all of them have been certified by an Agile Coach that is never done product. Anybody think there's something wrong with this picture? So it just propagates!

On the other side on the on the side of light -- we have the most valuable companies in the world. Otherwise, I think we would have drowned out a long time ago. So it is bizarre. You're all -- we're all fortunate to be right here. In most of the world. I mean, it's shocking. It really is. So you just asked like a BIG question.

So- I think we're both losing sleep over this topic. There's a missing ingredient in making this fit and making this the obvious choice, the obvious better path. I have a lot of work to do - we all do.

BTW- I took this transcription from otter.ai which was one of the sponsors of the event. I made a couple edits in this for clarity. Go listen to the whole thing on otter.ai.