Empowered Product Management

Why Product Team Empowerment is Essential

The case for Empowered Product Teams

Empowered Product Team

A few years back, I joined a well-known UK PLC tasked with leading Product Management for one of the divisions. The various systems I inherited had been worked on by multiple internal and outsourced teams over the years, in what I can only describe as a centralised ‘agency’ or ‘mercenary’ approach. These teams had kept the lights on and developed features as demanded by various high-level stakeholders, who had no holistic view of the system or seemingly basic IT knowledge. Every system had the classic hallmarks of being ‘built’ rather than designed, with seemingly no consideration of user experience or interface. A new managing director had taken over, who instinctively knew that the existing ‘agency’ approach would not deliver the results needed, after they reached out, I started building the organisations first Empowered Product Team.

Empowered Product Teams

Unfortunately, I have come across far too many companies who seem to have adopted the Product naming conventions but failed to empower their Product teams and therefore ended up with nothing more than feature teams. A seemingly powerless Product Manager goes about delivering features as dictated to by a roadmap, with no consideration for the changing market conditions or customers actual needs. If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is that the world can change almost overnight, while a few adapted and prepared the majority sat motionless, leaving companies exposed to unnecessary harm.

An Empowered Product Team on the surface looks much like any other, a team is made of Product Managers/Owners, Product Designers and Engineers, some may include Testers/Quality Assurance but in my personal view these roles are defunct and quality is better managed holistically by the team (but that’s a whole other article). The fundamental difference is that Empowered Product Teams focus on results not features, they focus on moving measurable metrics guided in their darkest days by the ‘North Star Metric’. Ok so maybe that’s a touch melodramatic but you get my point; these are not feature teams, they are set complex problems and are given the freedom to independently discover and deliver creative solutions, with no rubber stamping or approval processes.

Product Discovery can be conducted in a large number of ways, but starts in almost every case with a customer interview of some sort; if your Product Managers aren’t having face to face time (video calls at the moment obviously) with actual customers, I’m sorry but they aren’t Product Managers. They are Project Managers (yeah, I said it) carrying out a superiors’ instructions blindly, who in contrast to an Empowered Product Manager can take no responsibility for success or failure of the Product. The authority to act independently gives Empowered Product Teams absolute accountability for the success or failure of the product, with that mindset in place they heavily invest in its success.

If you are still unsure as to what your team is, work through the following points, answering honestly

Empowered Product Teams Do:

  • Focus on results with measurable metrics (Following the North Star)
  • Deeply understand the business
  • Have a TRUE understanding of the customer and frequently meet with them
  • Solve problems not build features as instructed
  • Have the authority to act independently
  • Own the outcome of developments and take corrective actions where necessary
  • React quickly to the ever-changing business landscape
  • Have the technical knowledge to push the boundaries/work within limitations
  • Drive themselves through data insights and analytics

Empowered Product Teams Do Not:

  • Build features as demanded by executives or other stakeholders
  • Work to a predetermined road map
  • Require approval to make changes
  • Exist outside of the business unit (the team must be embedded)
  • Build features/products whose success/failure is owned elsewhere
  • Build without comprehensive data analysis

The Difficulty

As a manager creating a truly Empowered Product Team is not easy, many managers are stuck in the old ways of ‘command and control’ and fear giving authority to the team. While this is somewhat understandable, it is important to realise that without trust, even the best team will eventually fail to deliver to its true potential, for both its customers and the business. As the manager, you no doubt searched and interviewed numerous candidates until you found the perfect one, so trust your abilities or have the ‘chat’ with any non-performers. Remember, a truly Empowered Product Team lives and breathes its results, you don’t need to micromanage them they already know the impact and importance of their work. Your job is to coach and guide them through the process, challenge opinions, to roll up your sleeves and get involved.

A Route to Success

There are no end of successful teams taking this approach worldwide, but to give you a taste of what’s possible I’ll share some of our headlines. Our Empowered Product Team increased online sales through new journeys by over 65% within the first six months. They reduced customer support calls by over 70%, with an increase in customer satisfaction by delivering the enhancements our customers needed. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on TV announcing a largely unexpected Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, our teams were deploying adaptations to our products enabling customers to receive the support required, preventing the support team from becoming overwhelmed. To clarify, just one hour after the announcement all customer support was routed through new digital channels as the Product Team had identified changes in customer behaviour, anticipating change was on the horizon they had begun building an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) digital-only contact solution. While Feature Teams in other organisations awaited instructions from senior management authorising a change from agreed roadmaps (via emergency CAB meetings etc), Empowered Product Teams across the UK implemented the changes their customers and businesses desperately needed at exceptional pace. In this new business landscape, businesses with Empowered Product Teams have adjusted quickly and even thrived, while more cumbersome organisations have fallen by the wayside.

Head of Product & Technology https://www.linkedin.com/in/kieranruss