I’ve read Inspired by Marty Cagan multiple times. It is single-handedly the best product book ever written. It details how product teams should optimally function within an organization and illuminates their crucial role in building tech products that customers love. I have nothing but praise for the book. I recommend it to everyone that I work with as a consulting product guru and freelance product manager.
I regularly get feedback from product managers that reading Inspired leaves you feeling somewhat down about how your organization works, often because there is little that a product manager can do to make some of the changes required to function like the product teams in the book. Here are a few points that are important to remember as you embark on transforming and improving your product team:
Product Managers are Lifelong Learners
I recently asked someone just entering the product field why they wanted to work in product:
“I think a product role is rare in that it encourages us to be better human beings—you have to listen, compromise, develop empathy, communicate, let go of ego… There aren’t many professional paths that allow you to have these qualities.”
Great product managers self-evaluate regularly, which generally leads to a hunger for information and learning. This is one of my favorite parts of being a product manager. We are all seeking continuous improvement in ourselves, our skills, our products, our processes, our tools. This insatiable hunger to improve can be a double-edged sword—causing us to be hard on ourselves in our pursuit for the optimum product team. That side of a product manager is in full force when picking up a book like Inspired, let alone trying to apply all of the principles within it.
So, if this is you, then go easy on yourself. Recognize that you’re not alone in feeling the daunting nature of the improvements ahead. Most teams have a lot of work to do to apply the principles to become a successful product team. Find the low-hanging fruit and start there.
Recognize the Audience
It’s important to recognize that some of the advice in Inspired is catered more toward company founders and executives. Much of what dictates the way a product team functions is the way the organization is set up or the way that executives view the product team. For example, in Inspired, Mr. Cagan discusses the difference between a feature team and a product team. This is a tremendous distinction that most companies need to understand. The trouble is, if the product manager were to completely change their team’s role in the company, they could cause massive conflict.
Much of the difficulties that arise in a product role stem from the way the executives view the purpose of the product team.
In these circumstances, while you may be a product manager reading Inspired to gain inspiration about how to improve your product team, you must also recognize that some of what is written in Inspired cannot be changed by you alone. You are simply not the audience for some parts. You may lack the authority within the company. And some of the most drastic changes likely need to be made at the C-suite level.
Instead of feeling down about yourself and your team, try sneaking a copy of the book onto your favorite executive’s desk 😀
Lead by Influence, not by Force
If you are a successful product manager, then you understand that your goal is to lead by influence. Oftentimes, product managers have no direct reports on an organizational chart, but they supervise and facilitate the work of many individuals. This is because the role must largely lead by influence. If you’ve read Inspired and felt depressed about the way your team functions, that means that your eyes have now been opened to how an ideal product team should function. But guess what? Most product teams do not function in an ideal way. Having an image of the ideal only helps us understand how we can improve. “When you aim for the moon, if you miss, you’ll still end up amongst the stars.” Find ways in which your team can function more like an ideal product team as outlined in Inspired and make incremental adjustments by leading through influence.
Change the Person, or Change the Person
In a coaching session, a very compassionate and caring leader once said to me, “If one of your employees is not performing in their role, then there are only two options: Change the person, or change the person.” In other words, try to find ways to coach, adjust, change, and improve the paradigm and behaviors of the individual to enable them to succeed in their role. If for some time, the individual is still unable to perform with added coaching, then it may be time to “change the person,” or move the individual somewhere where they can be successful and find someone else to fill the role.
I believe this same principle applies in your product organization. If you have found gaps in the way that your product team functions and the way you believe it should function, strive to influence change throughout the company without causing unnecessary friction and conflict. This requires patience and perseverance and true leadership through influence.
If after some time, you are struggling to find incremental improvements to the way your product team functions or is perceived within the company, it may be prudent to write down the key changes that you would like to see in a product team and find a company of the right size that has some of those key principles where you can grow. (In this case, “change the person” may mean “change the company.”)
Caution: The grass is not always greener, but you may find opportunity to be more Inspired. In your interview process, find the leader that has the copy of Inspired on their bookshelf.
If you are having trouble internalizing the principles of Inspired, or you need to brainstorm complex product problems, please sign up for a free coaching session from one of our senior product consultants.