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Don't "empower" your product team before they're ready


Every product manager's career dream is to work on an empowered team. For most, it remains just that - the dream. Either their organisation cannot support this model or they try to act empowered before they are actually ready.

Firstly, let's talk about what an empowered team is NOT. A team is not empowered if they are
  • Given a roadmap to deliver
  • Not having direct access to users/customers
  • Not having the necessary skills
  • Unable to release their product frequently

This is the first filter you should apply to see if your team is ready to be empowered. To properly apply this filter you need to understand fully and truly

  • How you build things
  • How you solve problems
  • How you decide what to solve

Only after passing this essential filter, can you move on to empowering your team.

How to empower a product team?

Empowered product teams own the problem space, get feedback from their customers quickly and regularly, have the necessary skills to solve problems and are guided by their leaders with context around what is important.

We can solve problems

To create an empowered product team you need to make sure you have all the necessary cross-functional skills represented on the team. Design, engineering, and product are the core skills you need on the team. However, for some products, you might need additional product-specific skills such as product marketing, dev ops, data science, sales enablement, customer success, trainers..etc.

An empowered product team is self-sufficient and able to solve problems fully which means they can get the outcomes of their work in front of their customers.

We learn from customers

An empowered product team should have direct access to customers and data. They need to use this access all the time. Every single person on an empowered product team should be able
  • To talk to customers directly
  • To analyse source data for their problem area
  • To test things rapidly

This concerns not only designers and product people, but equally engineers. There's no better source of innovative ideas than an empowered engineer who learns from their customers.

We own problems

An empowered product team is given problems to solve not a roadmap to deliver. The problems can come from anywhere, some of the most useful sources are
  • Customers
  • Business leaders
  • Technology leaders
  • Competitors
  • Partners
  • Market changes

An empowered product team collects the problems from all relevant sources, prioritises them based on a wider business context and strategic direction, discovers valuable, usable, feasible and viable solutions, iterates on a solution by frequently putting it in front of their customers and getting feedback.

We ship non-stop

To get real feedback you need to put your product in front of your customers as quickly and frequently as you can. That's why truly empowered product teams are shipping their solutions continuously. They experiment constantly to learn and refine their solutions as quickly as possible.

What is the role of leadership in an empowered team?

The first priority for leadership is to ensure their empowered teams keep passing that filter to stay empowered. Leaders should work tirelessly to make certain that the empowered team has the necessary skills, access to customers, own problems and is able to ship their work regularly.

The second priority for leadership is providing strategic direction and winder business context to their empowered teams. An empowered team can only be successful if it understands the vision, strategy and key business constraints their leaders can provide. Leaders should become key collaborators for the empowered teams.

Finally, leaders must prioritise coaching as their main activity and the biggest value they can bring to empowered teams. And if a team is truly empowered they will be hungry to learn and get better. Leaders should be there, eager to enable growth.

Enable, contextualise, empower

Many organisations try to empower their teams before they are ready. This always leads to failure and frustration. Before empowering your team make sure they have the necessary skills, they own the problems, they have direct access to customers and they can ship their work often. As a leader, you should support the empowered team by providing strategic direction, sharing a wider business context and coaching your people.

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