Book Review - Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products
A Monthly Deep-Dive Into A Product or Tech-Related Book
I’m an avid reader, and have decided at least monthly we should review together a useful product or technology related book. So at the end of each month (if not a few other times), we’ll look at a book that can help you, and I’ll give you my thoughts on the highlights (and lowlights), as well as key takeaways.
(Subscribers will get full chapter-by-chapter bulleted notes, so if that interests you, hit the button below. If not, read on.)
This month we’ll review the latest book from the person many people refer to as the godfather of product management, Marty Cagan. The follow-up to Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love, Chris Jones and Marty Cagan have written just released Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products.
Inspired is primarily about product management, while Empowered is primarily about product leadership.
While it is about product leadership, Empowered isn’t just for product leaders, though. So if you’re not officially in a leadership or management position, don’t feel like it isn’t for you.
That’s because the primary emphasis of the book is on how the best companies create empowered product teams. And empowered product teams are fostered through good leaders who create a compelling vision and strategy, recruit and coach their people, structure teams for success, and partner with their business stakeholders.
So let’s dive in:
I found Empowered to be jam-packed with useful insights. You expect that from a book by Marty Cagan and Silicon Valley Product Group.
The book has 10 sections, but I loosely group them into four themes for myself:
Recruiting, hiring and coaching (parts 2 and 3)
Product vision, strategy, and objectives (parts 4, 6, and 7)
Team structure (part 5)
Business collaboration (parts 9 and 10)
They really based each area on what the best and most successful companies are doing. ‘What goodness looks like’ as a former colleague of mine liked to say. And you’ll be hard-pressed to come out of each section without something to improve on for your company, yourself as a leader, or yourself as a product manager.
I’ll highlight a few examples.
The idea that we shouldn’t be handing off recruiting to HR, but should be responsible as leaders to actively recruit the best people into our organizations.
Another example is the coaching plan. I’ve created a coaching plan for teams, and use it for assessing skills and allowing for personal assessment. However, this section gave me a new lens to view the framework I’ve created (which I’ll likely share in another post) along with some revisions I’ll probably make.
Within People, Process, and Product, it gives specific areas to focus on for individuals, along with a way to gauge as a leader.
I’ve used a similar framework for several years, though the rating system is different and the specific competencies are different. Tailoring it to your team is a good idea, but this is a good starting point.
These are a few great examples of how to level-up what you’re doing as a product manager or product leader. And the book is full these insights.
While the strength of Empowered is the sheer amount of bits of wisdom it packs in, that may also be its weakness. This book will incrementally help product leaders and product managers, but it won’t take anyone, or any organization, from zero to one. It will make good leaders better, and good teams great (an admirable accomplishment). But it won’t make bad leaders good. Or bad organizations great.
And it won’t take unempowered teams to empowered.
It will show what empowered teams look like, and what is so important, but the gap between the ideal and the reality can be huge. That is one of top difficulties I hear talking with product managers throughout the industry and that I’ve experienced myself.
They acknowledge in the beginning that it is hard, and that many companies want to change but may not know what that means or how to do it.
But, as I’ve experienced, even once you start it can become too difficult for many organizations, and they fall back into their old ways.
And then the enormous question as product managers and leaders of how to drive these types of changes forward. There is a massive assumption at the end of the book that senior leaders are on board, otherwise chances of success will be low (so true). But how do we get them on board and keep them on board? These are often the questions I’ve faced.
There continues to be a gap between theory and practice. Which is often my complaint.
It’s easy (and often more productive) to focus on the changes where we have high ability to influence. But overlooking the changes that need to happen where we have low ability to influence is a mistake. Because often those are critical to success.
As always, more to come on this.
I enjoyed Empowered. It’s undoubtedly going to be another go-to product book for many of us, myself included. Understanding what other best-in-class companies are doing is critical. And then finding ways, big or small, to innovate on those ideas and apply them to our work is what product is all about.
You could easily create a book on each section or even chapter within this book, and I already have several posts on some of these topics (like OKRs and One-on-One meetings) and many more on the way.
So if you’re in product management, design, or development, I’d consider this a must-read. But you probably already knew that.
For the next book, we’ll be looking at Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon. If you have other books you’d like to add to the list, let me know.
Good Read, Listens and Videos
Prioritization, Creating Order, and Product Management - An Interview with Rachael Larsen, Head of Education (podcast) - In this episode, we were joined by Rachael Larsen, the new Head of Education at Product School. Rachael has been in technology and education for over 14 years, and has built software products that range from mobile apps to large enterprise systems. We discussed everything from "beta spring" weather to prioritizing in product and in life. We discussed tips for product managers, best advice, and some highlights and lowlights from Rachael's career in product.
15 Years of Spotify (article) - Has it really been that long? I started with Pandora, and still miss the music discovery (which I think was better). But an interesting look at the history of Spotify and streaming music.
Apple April Event (video) - If you missed Apple’s latest announcement (where have you been?), here is a quick recap video. Airtags are finally real, but where will they go from here? I’m actually excited to see. I’m ready to order an iPad pro, and they’ve just about sold me on the iMac. For the first time ever.