Are you in an empowered product team?

Illustration showing the product trio consisting of the product manager, design lead, and teach lead.
At the forefront of an empowered product team — the product trio consisting of the product manager, design lead, and tech lead.

In the product community, we have long agreed that empowered product teams are much more effective in discovering and delivering products that customers love in ways that work for the business (Marty Cagan). Nevertheless, many product companies still need to catch up to this reality. More often than not, the leadership is to blame for the status quo. However, an interesting observation is that truly empowered and non-empowered teams may exist within the same company. Given that these teams serve under the same leaders, why are their situations so different?

The answer usually boils down to trust or lack thereof (Marty Cagan). True empowerment is possible only if leadership trusts that the team can get the job done. Only then will they grant autonomy to the product team and let them determine how to achieve the desired outcomes. So, when leadership dictates what to build and pushes for deadlines, it’s usually because they are uncomfortable giving this autonomy (Jonathan Smart).

Many product teams take the victim role and blame the other side. But trust is a two-way street, and both sides are responsible. So let’s look at three simple things that product teams can do:

  1. Establish two-way communication
  2. Demonstrate ownership of the outcomes
  3. Show progress

How can leaders trust teams if they cannot talk with them? Effective two-way communication isn’t about leadership keeping a tighter grip on what product teams do. Instead, it manifests in product teams sharing insights, learnings, progress, and potential blockers. This allows product teams to receive leadership’s guidance, support, and help.

Equally important, it’s an arena for the leadership to convey their perspective. Open and transparent dialogue permits both parties to share and understand each other’s goals, priorities, and concerns. When leadership and product teams communicate efficiently, they can align their effort and ensure that the product is something the customer wants and works for the business.

Communicating with leadership and other stakeholders isn’t so much about “managing” them but more about engagement and collaboration to ensure the product succeeds (Melissa Perri). This helps establish trust by eroding the “them vs. us” mentality and showing that both sides are committed to the product’s success and working towards the same goal.

Potential tactics to consider:

  • Regular meetings
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Informal chats

Be careful what you wish for — empowerment is a double-edged sword. Yes, you get the authority and autonomy (within given guardrails) to make decisions and prioritize the work. But it also comes with the accountability of the outcomes (the results) your products produce (Marty Cagan). So, to move toward empowerment, you need to demonstrate ownership of those outcomes.

A practical approach is to ensure that the team goals focus on the outcomes rather than the outputs (e.g., features, code, designs, and other artifacts). And look to find a good level of involvement from leadership. Ideally, the goals should result from negotiations between them and you (Jeff Gothelf). However, as a non-empowered product team, chances are that you fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. You are asked to deliver outputs rather than outcomes.
  2. The leader sets the goals with little input from you.
  3. You set the goals with little input from leadership.

Let’s unpack the three categories using an approach from Teresa Torres.

Case 1: Output focus

Ask the leader to share more of the business context when you are asked to deliver outputs rather than outcomes. Questions to explore:

  • Who is the target customer for this initiative?
  • What is the ultimate goal of this initiative in terms of business outcomes?
  • Why do you think this initiative will drive those outcomes?
  • What assumptions are we making?

Connect the dots between the outcome and the output you are asked to deliver. Start measuring progress toward the outcome (or a leading indicator of it) rather than focusing on outputs and delivery dates.

Case 2: No team involvement

When the leader sets the goals with little input from you, try to shift the conversation to a two-way negotiation by:

  • Sharing your inputs on drivers that may help achieve the desired outcome.
  • Communicate how far you think it’s possible to get within the given timeframe.

Case 3: No leadership involvement

A common misconception is that being an empowered product team means a total absence of leadership (Marty Cagan). That’s not the case. If you find yourself setting goals with little input from the leader, try to shift the conversation to a two-way negotiation by asking for more business context before setting any goals. Questions to consider:

  • What are the top priorities for the business at the moment?
  • Is there a particular customer group the business focuses on more than others?
  • Are there any strategic initiatives that the business is currently working on?

Trust is earned. The best way to show that you are ready for the accountability that comes with being an empowered product team is to show progress. A prerequisite is that the team goals have clear performance metrics measuring the right things (i.e., the agreed-upon desired outcomes as per the section above). You should measure and report on these outcomes regularly and articulate the value of your initiatives clearly, be it towards the customers and/or the business. This is a great way to show that you are on top of things, that you know your shit, and ultimately that leadership can trust you to get the job done.

With this article, I hope to have shed light on three practical actions product teams can leverage to foster trust from their leadership and move closer toward empowerment.

However, I don’t want to let leaders off the hook. The journey toward empowered product teams should start with excellent product leadership. It’s up to the leaders to build an environment where product people can thrive and do their best work. Nevertheless, many product teams lack leadership’s trust for various reasons, making empowerment challenging. So if you find yourself in a non-empowered product team, it may be time to self-reflect on whether you appear trustworthy.

  • Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value by Teresa Torres
  • Product Leadership Is Hard by Marty Cagan
  • What Everyone Gets Wrong About Stakeholders by Melissa Perri
  • Sooner Safer Happier: Patterns and Antipatterns for Organizational Agility Jonathan Smart
  • Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan
  • Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products by Marty Cagan
Categorized as UX

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