• Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Empowered by Marty Cagan | Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products

Updated: Feb 7


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Toby's Rating: 7/10 - Recommended For: Product Leaders


This book is intended for anyone interested in creating a strong product organization—from a startup founder to the CEO of a major technology‐powered company. Specifically, the book is aimed at product leaders and aspiring product leaders. Especially the leaders of product managers, product designers, and engineers.

- Marty Cagan

3 Big Ideas 💡

  • Empowered product teams. These teams are the foundations for business success. They serve customers in ways that work for the business.

  • Eradicate the old idea that "Technology" is in service to the business. With this mindset, your business will not transform into a great Product company.

  • Coaching is what turns ordinary people into extraordinary product teams. Yet so few product teams get the high-quality coaching they need. Empower Product Leadership to become great coaches.

2 Most Tweetable Quotes 🎙


"Give teams problems to solve, rather than features to build. Empower them to solve those problems in the best way they see fit."

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"Leadership is about recognizing that there's a greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge."

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1 Top Takeaway 🖨


I've been wrestling with the term "Feature Teams" for some time. The original intent behind the idea has been lost in many organisations. Feature teams are now often tasked with creating features as quickly as possible. They focus on stakeholder needs, not customers. They are often not empowered. They perform the role of order takers.

Instead of Feature Teams Marty uses the term "Empowered Product Teams". These are teams empowered to solve customer problems in ways that work for the business. Instead of working on Features (output), they are held accountable for solving customer problems. The litmus test for empowerment is that the team is able to decide the best way to solve the problems they have been assigned.

To make this shift it requires a radical power shift in organisations. Technology is no longer a servant to the business. Teams serve the customer in ways that work for the business. This summary focuses on:

  1. Challenges for Traditional Organisations 😩

  2. Importance of Empowered Product Teams 💪

  3. The Role of Product Leadership 👩‍💼

  4. How to Coach Product Teams 👨‍⚕️

  5. Team Design for Product Organisations 🧭

  6. Creating a Great Product Strategy 📘

  7. How to do Team Objectives well 📈

  8. How to get started with your Transformation 🌱


Challenges for Traditional Organisations 😩

Three critical differences between the strongest product companies and the rest:

  1. How the company views the role of technology.

  2. The role product leaders play.

  3. How the company views the purpose of the product teams—the product managers, product designers, and engineers.

The challenges in traditional organisations can be summarised as:

  • The Role of Technology - Many companies still have the old IT mindset when it comes to technology. It's viewed as a necessary cost rather than the core business enabler. Technology teams are there “to serve the business” The technology teams are encouraged to think of their stakeholders as their customers.

  • Leadership - Do not empower the Product Team. Command and Control style leadership. Act in service to the business stakeholders, not to the team. No coaching. No understanding of how great product people think and act.

  • Empowered Teams - Teams are not empowered to solve problems in ways customers love. Feature teams are responsible for pushing out features(output) rather than enabling outcomes.

Importance of Empowered Product Teams 💪

In traditional organisations, Feature Teams focus on features and projects (output), and as such are not empowered or held accountable to results.

In contrast, within strong product companies, teams are given problems to solve, rather than features to build, and most importantly, they are empowered to solve those problems in the best way they see fit. And they are then held accountable to the results.

Empowered Product teams create solutions that are:

  • Valuable (our customers will buy the product and/or choose to use it)

  • Viable (it will meet the needs of the business)

  • Usable (so users can actually experience that value)

  • Feasible (so the company can effectively market, sell, and support the solution).

Together, the team own the problem and are responsible and accountable for the results. Empower Engineers


Empowered engineers are the single most important thing that you can have in a company. — Bill Campbell

Empowerment of an engineer means that you provide the engineers with the problem to solve and the strategic context, and they are able to leverage technology to figure out the best solution to the problem.

In many cases, product managers will resist the empowerment of engineers. You will hear: “My engineers are not interested in anything but coding.” What's usually going on is that the product manager doesn't want the engineers to be included because they would rather the engineers spend their time coding.

Collaboration is at the heart of how strong product teams work. It's a combination of skills and mindset, and it often takes active coaching by the manager to help new product people develop this capability.

Characteristics of strong product teams

  1. Tackling risks early

  2. Solving problems collaboratively

  3. Being accountable for results.


Decision Making - To empower decisions are pushed down to the product team level.

Three rules of decisions:

  1. If you see a snake, kill it. (an important decision that has to be made)

  2. Don't play with dead snakes. (don't revisit old decisions)

  3. All opportunities start out looking like snakes. (opportunities often look like problems)

- Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape

The Role of Product Leadership 👩‍💼

For product leaders, the product team is the product.

Leadership is about recognizing that there's a greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge. People look to leadership for inspiration and we look to management for execution.

If you want to have truly empowered product teams, then your success depends very directly on first‐level people managers. If you are wondering why there are so many weak product companies in the world, this would be the primary culprit.

With empowered product teams, you don't need less management, you need better management.

Management responsibilities:

  1. Staffing (Check out How to Hire Product Managers by Kate Leto)

  2. Coaching

  3. Team Objectives

  4. Deciding which problems should be worked on by which product teams.

  5. Sharing Strategic Context

The litmus test for empowerment is that the team is able to decide the best way to solve the problems they have been assigned (the objectives).

Unlesss leaders trust the teams this empowerment will not happen.

If product teams are to be empowered to make decisions, they need to have the context necessary to make these decisions.

Six types of strategic context.

  • Company Mission - The purpose of the company.

  • Company Scorecard - Key performance indicators (KPIs) that provide an understanding of the overall picture and health of the business

  • Company Objectives - Specific objectives the company is focused on for this year.

  • Product Vision and Principles - The product vision is how we hope to meet customers needs.

  • Team Topology - Describes how each Product team will organise to deliver value.

  • Product Strategy - Specifically how we'll meet customer needs in ways that work for the business.

Great Product People:

  • Focus on the outcome

  • Consider all of the risks—value, usability, feasibility, and business viability.

  • Think holistically about all dimensions of the business and the product.

  • Anticipate ethical considerations or impacts.

  • Solve problems creatively.

  • Persist in the face of obstacles.

  • Leverage engineering and the art of the possible.

  • Leverage design and the power of user experience.

  • Leverage data to learn and to make a compelling argument.

How to Coach Product Teams 👨‍⚕️

Coaching is no longer a speciality; you cannot be a good manager without being a good coach. —Bill Campbell

Coaching is what turns ordinary people into extraordinary product teams.

Developing People is Job #1 As such, leaders must focus on:

  • Spending most of their time and energy on coaching the team.

  • Being self-aware of insecurities. Insecure managers have a particularly hard time empowering people.

  • Cultivating Diverse Points of View

  • Seek Out Teaching Moments - Many, if not most, people are not aware of their own potential. As a coach, you are in a unique position to help them see it.

  • Continually Earn the Trust of Your Team. Coaching efforts will be ineffective without trust.

  • Establishing personal rapport and trust by sharing some personal challenges.

The key is to ensure that, one way or another, coaching is considered a top priority, and that every person on a product team knows who is specifically assigned to help her develop and reach her full potential.

Keys to Effective One‐on‐Ones

  • The Purpose - The primary purpose is to help the product person develop and improve.

  • The Relationship - This is a relationship that depends on trust.

  • The Frequency - Should be no less than 30 minutes, once per week, and is sacred and not to be another one of those “You okay with skipping this week?”

  • Sharing Context - If you are to empower you must provide the strategic context.

  • Thinking and Acting Like a Product Person - Mainly about helping the product person learn to think and act like a strong product person.

The Written Narrative - A Coaching tool

The technique is writing out a narrative explaining an argument and recommendation.

  • Roughly a six‐page document that describes in narrative form:

  • The problem

  • Why this will be valuable for customers and for the business

  • The Strategy for solving the problem.

If this narrative is done well, the reader will be both inspired and convinced.

One company that has made this written narrative the core of how they operate and innovate is Amazon.

Coaching might be even more essential than mentoring to our careers and our teams. Coaches hold up a mirror so we can see our blind spots and they hold us accountable for working through our sore spots. They take responsibility for making us better without taking credit for our accomplishments. —Bill Campbell

Team Design for Product Organisations 🧭

Though there are exceptions, it's rare that an entire product will be developed by a single product team. Most products require many teams working together—dozens or even hundreds. This means that every product organization must deal with the question of how to structure their product teams in order to best divide the work.

A product organization's team topology answers questions such as:

  • How many product teams should our organization have?

  • What is the scope of responsibility of each team?

  • What are the skills required for each team, and how many of each skill?

  • What are the dependencies between the teams?

Optimise team design for:

  • Empowerment

  • Ownership

  • Autonomy

  • Alignment


Two types of product teams:

  • Platform Teams - Provide leverage because they allow for common services to be implemented once but used in many places.

  • Experience Teams - Responsible for how the product is experienced by users in the form of apps, UIs, solutions, or journeys.

This topic is explored further in Team Topologies where the authors suggest 4 Topologies that optimise for flow.


Product Teams should be aligned by the customer.


This could include aligning by:

  • User type or persona (e.g., Riders Team, Drivers Team)

  • Market segment (e.g., Electronics Team, Fashion Team)

  • Customer journey (e.g., Onboarding Team, Retention Team)

  • Sales channel (e.g., Self‐Service Team, Direct Sales Team)

  • Business KPI (e.g., New‐User Growth Team, Conversion Team)

  • Geography (e.g., North America Team, Asia Pacific Team)

As a general principle, optimize for the product team as opposed to optimizing for the managers, or for access to customers, or for anything else. Signs your team design is not fit-for-purpose:

  • You are frequently shifting developers between teams

  • You must frequently step in to resolve dependency conflicts

  • Your developers complain of too many dependencies on other product teams in order to ship simple things

  • Teams have a very limited scope of ownership

  • Developers deal with too much complexity in too many areas

Creating a Great Product Strategy 📘


When leaders are unwilling or unable to make choices among competing values and parties, bad strategy is the consequence. - Richard Rumelt

A strategy is how you're planning to go about accomplishing a goal.

How do we make the product vision a reality, while meeting the needs of the company as we go?

Once you have decided what's critically important (focus) and studied the landscape to identify the levers and opportunities (the insights), then you need to convert those insights into action.


Whilst executing your Product Strategy it's critical to stay focused:

The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. - Jim Barksdale
Generating activity is not a problem; in fact, it is easy. The fact that it is easy makes the real problem harder to solve. The problem is getting the right things done—the things that matter, the things that will have an impact, the things a company is trying to achieve to ensure success. - Stephen Bungay
If you do not pick your battles and focus on the few truly critical problems, most of the work going on does not make an impact. A good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes. - Richard Rumelt

It is important to remember that no product strategy survives its initial encounter with the real world.

How to do Team Objectives well 📈

If the company is still using feature teams, as most unfortunately are, then the OKR technique is going to be a cultural mismatch, and almost certainly prove a waste of time and effort.

In the vast majority of companies that are struggling to value out of OKRs, the role of leadership is largely missing in action.

Three prerequisites for OKR's:

  • Move from the feature team model to the empowered product team model

  • Stop doing manager objectives and individual objectives, and instead focus on team objectives

  • Leaders need to step up and do their part to turn product strategy into action.

High‐Integrity Commitments

Some amount of high‐integrity commitments is necessary when trying to run a business.

High‐integrity commitments are intended for situations where you have an important external commitment or a very important and substantial internal commitment.

Once the product team believes they understand the solution sufficiently, they can estimate with high confidence how long it will take for them to deliver on this commitment (feasibility), and also whether that solution will work for the customer (value and usability) and work for your company (viability).

High‐integrity commitments and deliverables should be the exception and not the rule. Otherwise, it is a slippery slope and pretty soon your objectives become nothing more than a list of deliverables and dates.

10 keys to effective team objectives:

  1. Empower teams by assigning them problems to solve and then give the teams the space to solve them.

  2. Involve teams in the planning process early

  3. Product leaderships allocate teams to objectives. But teams decide the key results.

  4. Enable product teams to speak up and volunteer to work on specific objectives.

  5. Iterate on objectives.

  6. Enable multiple teams to work on the same objectives.

  7. Be clear on the level of ambition and risk desired.

  8. Don't expect success is the product team is not empowered.

  9. Create space for “keep‐the‐lights‐on” activities.

  10. Work on a Quartley cadence

How to get started with your Transformation 🌱


Realize that your company is currently used to feature teams that exist very clearly to serve the business, and now you're trying to replace them with empowered product teams that exist to serve our customers, in ways that work for the business.

What this really means in practice is that you need to move your product organization from a subservient model to a collaborative model.

Four focus areas:

  • The Example Starts at the Top

  • Focus and Strategy

  • Establishing Trust

  • Deliver on Promises

Three steps to begin with:

  • Ensure you have strong product leaders in place.

  • Empower product leaders the ability to recruit and develop the staff required for empowered product teams.

  • Redefine the relationship with the business.

When you get it right, this will become reality:


Most important, the product teams are empowered to come up with the best solutions to the problems they've been asked to solve, and they are accountable to the results.

  • The engineers are constantly looking to apply new technology in new ways to better solve customer problems.

  • The designers are continuously working to provide the necessary user experience.

  • The product managers take responsibility for the value and the viability of the solutions.

  • The teams are inspired and proud to be working collaboratively with skilled colleagues on meaningful problems. They have a strong sense of ownership and define their success by their consistent contributions to customers and the company.

©2020 by Toby Sinclair.

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