Why some companies fail to empower product teams: a response to Marty Cagan’s ‘Product vs. Feature Teams’

Monica Viggars
Sep 2 · 5 min read

Businesses are suffering from some very human problems when it comes to empowered product teams…

Why some companies fail to empower product teams — illustration by Ian Viggars
Why some companies fail to empower product teams — illustration by Ian Viggars
Illustration by www.ianviggars.com

Marty Cagan recently published an article about product vs. feature teams and it caused a bit of a stir in the product world.

His frustration about his ongoing experiences with companies who can’t seem to make the transition to outcome-driven, empowered product teams was clear to see.

Not to mention the solidifying of poor ways of working in conference talks, training programmes and “certification” programmes for product people.

Having spent much of my product career either working on empowered product teams or coaching teams to work in this way, I have seen first-hand the kinds of things that prevent people and businesses from making this shift — and I feel Marty’s pain!

I don’t profess to have all of the answers, but by understanding some of the “whys”, we might be able to move to a place where we can start to improve the situation and shift mindsets to allow for outcome-driven, empowered product teams to flourish.

Humans don’t like change

Old habits die hard, as the saying goes, and this definitely applies to product teams and businesses that are set up to work in a certain way.

Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel like they have lost control over their work or domain. Which can be acutely felt when it comes to stakeholders outside of product teams.

I have often seen people working in other departments, who are used to treating product teams as more of a service, feeling quite lost and uneasy about what it means for them when product teams start to work in an empowered way.

Gaining focus via OKRs / similar often means that not every idea in the business can be worked on and ideas that stakeholders are passionate about might not be a point of focus for product teams. This can be hard to accept and can lead to the afore-mentioned feeling of lack of control — or in more difficult scenarios, stakeholders trying to crowbar their work into team OKRs / similar.

One way to deal with this is to collaborate more closely with people outside of your product team and help them to understand and be involved in these new ways of working. It’s a slow burner, but I have seen success through perseverance — it’s not always an easy journey!

For those on product teams, the main difficulty they face is uncertainty. And humans don’t like that either! Often I hear “we’ve always done it that way” with a large dose of scepticism about the results of working as an empowered product team. There are often worries such as: “we’ll never be able to test enough ideas to find the right solution”, “I don’t trust small sample sizes”, “what if we don’t hit our key results?” etc.

The only time I have seen empowered product teams work well is when there is both support from the business and leadership as well as a willingness to follow through from the product team itself. Once both parties see how well this set-up works from the great results it produces, it becomes much easier to change, accept and continue.

Businesses don’t like uncertainty

If product teams are nervy about uncertainty then businesses are 10 times more nervy when it comes to the unknown.

There are plenty of things that businesses would like to be certain — how much money they are going make / spend on product and people, when certain things will be delivered so that marketing can be planned and the Sales team can be briefed. Not to mention keeping shareholders, the board and the CEO up-to-date on exactly what is going to be delivered and by when.

Bearing all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why empowered product teams, and how they work, might jar with the rest of the business.

Transitioning teams from being feature-driven to being outcome-driven isn’t just something that happens to product teams — it affects the entire business and how they work also and thus must be treated as such.

Empowered product teams need buy-in from the entire organisation and for everyone to be brought along on the journey to some extent — no mean feat!

Product as a discipline is sometimes poorly understood

Having worked in some companies that operate a legacy arm in their business, there are often additional compounding factors, such a lack of understanding for product and tech in general.

Product teams might be treated as a service and the individual roles and responsibilities of people on those teams misunderstood. I have also seen teams in companies continuing to operate as if product teams are unimportant and shouldn’t be part of decision-making that affects the company’s product set.

This situation can be particularly tricky as the product team itself knows how it should operate and may try to do this but it always has to contend with other parts of the business that don’t understand or accept their ways of working.

A two-pronged approach in these scenarios can be helpful — both bringing these people along for the ride with the work that product teams are doing while also trying to educate around the roles and responsibilities of the team.

Happiness and motivation of teams is not always a priority

This might be a controversial point for some, but if you have read any of my other writing you will know that I strongly believe that a happy and motivated team will deliver great results.

Sometimes I see companies that are focussed on delivery at any cost — and that often means that product teams are not given problems to solve and empowered to find solutions, they are asked to deliver something specific and to do it quickly.

In my experience, product teams do their best work when the opposite is true — I have seen first hand how great and impactful solutions to customer problems can be found when a team is galvanised around an OKR.

I have spent much of my career advocating for what Marty calls “missionaries, not mercenaries” — and this starts at the top of the company with educating the leadership team around the importance of team happiness and how that contributes to awesome results.

With all of this in mind, it’s not surprising that companies are struggling to adopt the outcome-driven and empowered product team set-up — it’s very much a human mindset challenge that we need to find ways to overcome.

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Monica Viggars

Written by

Product Practice Coach. Director @ Rather Good Consultancy: I help make product teams awesome! 💫 Writing about the human side of Product Management.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +525K people. Follow to join our community.

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