EMPOWERED by Marty Kagan and Chris Jones

Hannes Rössler

A book review

I just finished reading Marty Cagan’s second book EMPOWERED (Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products) written with his co-author Chris Jones and want to share my impressions.

Marty is one of the most renowned advocates of modern product management and most product managers have read, or in my opinion should read, his first book INSPIRED. While the latter focusses on the craft of managing products, EMPOWERED focuses on product leadership — coaching product managers, engineers and designers, setting product vision and strategy, and helping organizations and teams use tactics to delight customers and create value for the business.

At AMBOSS, we’re empowering all doctors to provide the best possible care, through our education products for students and knowledge products for physicians. We show up everyday knowing that we’re building tools that help physicians make the best clinical decisions in the shortest amount of time, all around the world.

To achieve our mission we’re constantly aiming to further empower our product teams and Marty’s work has been very influential for many of our product people. I still remember vividly the night I started reading INSPIRED. I was constantly exchanging WhatsApp photo snippets of the book with my colleague Tobi. It was eye opening and we were often saying, “That’s exactly what we need to try out next!”

A book not just for leaders

I’m currently working as an individual contributor but have accompanied AMBOSS’ growth for seven years. I’ve learned a lot about the leadership challenges of developing a great product organization. But despite the fact that EMPOWERED is written for product and company leaders, it also makes a great ‘manual’ for people being managed by these leaders.

Not only does it set expectations that reports should have towards their managers, it also shows the responsibilities of individual contributors, what their managers aim to coach them towards, and what they expect from them. I also caught myself realizing several times that what I was reading was what our product leaders at AMBOSS are actively working on. The book helped me understand this context even better.

In this regard, the book felt complementary to INSPIRED and can act as a little product leader in your pocket to be consulted at any time. I’ve recommended it to a few people already and think any product manager will benefit from reading the book.

A shared language about things that are simple, but not easy

When watching and reading some of Marty’s work, there are a few key statements and mental models that come back again and again.

There were several times in the past when I realized how Marty’s mental models gave me the words to outline my thoughts to peers, or zoom out and think through a problem differently. I still remember reading his point about the four risks when making products — value, usability, feasibility and viability.

I knew I’d better retain this mental model as it seemed to be something I’d be able to use every day — correctly, as that turned out.

The same thing happened to me with EMPOWERED. A good example is the way the authors clear up common misconceptions regarding OKRs. There are many blog posts and talks about using OKRs for product teams but the process can be unclear and messy. EMPOWERED makes a compelling case for how to go about setting OKRs:

It’s the responsibility of the leaders to decide which problems should be worked on by which product teams,” then the teams define the key results, leadership defines the level of ambition (roof-shot vs. moonshot).

Sounds simple, but it’s not easy to do.

At AMBOSS we’re not using OKRs but a derivate of Spotify’s Data-Insights-Bets-Beliefs approach with a quarterly review and planning cadence. Marty and Chris deliver strong concepts instead of narrow frameworks so a lot of their writing on OKRs can be used to further improve our processes as well.

A principled view

Marty and Chris take a clear position towards what separates okay companies from great companies. They go into great detail explaining the differences between feature teams and empowered teams, and the consequences it has for their ability to innovate.

They emphasize the enabling role of technology, (“If I had to pick just one concept from this entire book […] it would be the idea of an empowered engineer,”) and how it’s often falsely regarded as a burden instead of an enabler.

And they clearly appeal to the responsibilities that come with hiring people and being their manager and coach (“[…] there’s nothing wrong with hiring based on potential — but if and only if the hiring manager is willing and able to sign up to actively coach that person to competence. And if they fail in that, to find that person a different job.”)

At times I had to laugh out loud while reading EMPOWERED because Marty often has a principled, dry, and common sense tone and view on the complex and sometimes chaotic world of product (and leaves short, disarming comments in brackets).

A light on less discussed topics

EMPOWERED touches some areas that won’t be discussed in detail in other books or blogs. The most outstanding to me are the chapters on coaching, team topology, objective setting and assignment, and a 40-page case study based on a real life example from a larger company with 12 product teams. Additionally, the authors highlight outstanding leaders to share their career paths and key learnings. As in previous talks by Marty, this part of the book features eight women thereby making a strong point for the great work that women do in tech. Hopefully this helps encourage more women to join the industry by highlighting successful role models.

A quick read and manual

There are 416 pages in the book. I’m not a speed reader but despite the length I would consider it a quick read. That’s because the entire book is structured into 81 chapters, each the length of a medium sized blog post. I read the book every night while bringing my little son to bed (don’t worry, I read him children books before and only picked this one up silently when he was almost in dreamland). I finished it in three weeks. The blog post sized chapters make it possible to re-read and easily share with colleagues. They also give the reader the feeling of making constant progress.

A book on leadership as leadership

When browsing through EMPOWERED the first time, I saw lots of chapters, and lots of text. Where were the illustrations, where were the frameworks? Marty makes clear in one of his chapters on strategy:

First, if you’re looking for some paint-by-number playbook or framework for coming up with these insights and a solid product strategy, I’ll save you some time and tell you right now you’re not going to find that here.

After reading EMPOWERED I felt that Marty and Chris didn’t only aim to write on leadership but also to provide leadership itself via the book. The book doesn’t micromanage the reader by explaining everything in detail. It rather gives a broad outline and order to things, and if you want to learn more about a particular topic in detail, you can (elsewhere).

It provides clear language and mental models, takes a principled stand on controversial or vague topics, and sheds light on all relevant topics of product leadership. This allows product managers or leaders to go on that journey on their own.

Some steps for myself after reading the book

AMBOSS is constantly evolving and there are lots of takeaways from the book. Here are three things I’m going to try to bring into AMBOSS:

1. Even more ownership for people’s success

Marty seems to be a big fan of the extreme ownership approach and coaching mindset. He recommends his readers take responsibility no matter what. I’m currently switching roles and handing over my product manager responsibilities for my previous mobile experience team to a new colleague.

In a very short time she’s had to absorb all the necessary company, user, market, product and data knowledge, build relationships, take over discovery and more. Together, we worked on a three month handover/onboarding plan with lots of check points and homework for both of us.

We regularly check in and I’m trying to devote several hours per week to coaching sessions, especially around our product and users. She has teamed up with our user research team and started a weekly user testing lab so that she and the team get exposure to enough users.

2. Team topology and team goals

I’m currently working on product strategy inputs for our physician products. The team topology aspects from EMPOWERED come in handy, especially the part on how to set up experience teams vs. platform teams.

We have a few teams where platform groundwork and experience work is both strong and combined within one team. While it is a great approach for end-to-end responsibility of a team, for some more elaborate products it might help separating these concerns.

After reading the book, I can see myself bringing up whether or not to set up separate platform and experience teams for these products to allow for more ownership and (ironically) less in-team dependencies.

3. Stakeholder focus

At AMBOSS we’re working on trying to get away from the term ‘stakeholder’ and the working relationship that’s associated with it. Language shapes thinking so we would rather use ‘partner’ or ‘collaborator’ instead.

We believe this empowers both product managers (as in, “You’re not the one who takes requirements but who facilitates collaborative decisions,”) as well as partners (as in, “I’m not the one who needs to fight for access to the feature backlog but I’m rather the one who partners with the product manager and product team to make them most effective to create value for users and the business.”).

Marty and Chris offer a nice and simple exercise for finding the most important stakeholders to build relationships with in their book. I’ll definitely do this one for myself and will try to follow the advice on building deeper relationships with these people.