People First Product Strategy: Your Guide to Empowered Teams

Empowering teams starts with putting the people on the team first


Josh Dormont

3 years ago | 4 min read

Ever since Marty Cagan has been writing and preaching the gospel of the “empowered team,” the internet has been ablaze with commentary on what it means, how to do it, and what to look for in anti-patterns. But part of what doesn’t get talked about much is the road to actually building those teams — especially in places where they’re not the norm.

This is a story of how we found our footing first trying to build an empowered team around an exciting new project and later better understood what it would really take to get it done right.

What is an Empowered Team?

Over the last year or so, Marty Cagan has been writing and talking about the concept of an “empowered product team” and its alternatives (e.g. a delivery team). As he sums up in the post:

“Great teams are comprised of ordinary people that are empowered and inspired. They are empowered to solve hard problems in ways their customers love, yet work for their business.”

Compare this to a team that has received a set of features to build with defined specs to meet a certain need. Sometimes that’s absolutely what is needed (e.g. think of all of the required reporting that businesses and government agencies need to do). And still other times a hybrid approach is also valid.

So what happens when you start with the makings of an empowered team, discover there are more constraints than you anticipated, but have a team that is motivated by that very sense of empowerment?

How do we, as product managers, manage the shift in narrative both to our teams and stakeholders?

A Story. A PM. And an Empowered Team.

Empowered teams aren’t motivated by building a particular feature; they’re inspired by solving both business and user problems and needs. They’re excited about deploying new solutions to excite and delight while learning something new along the way.

The story we began with at the beginning of the project was one that hinged on experimentation, continuous improvement, and capacity building. The story we found ourselves in was one of precision, delivery, and efficiency. How did we reconcile the gap?

if strict adherence to principles are burning people out, it’s time to revisit the principles.

One of the greatest challenges we faced was shifting the story we were telling ourselves about what this project was.

I desperately wanted it to be something that could help people develop new skills and apply new methods that led to a user-centered solution. What we needed was an ability to efficiently build a precise solution from a new and complex set of data to meet the needs of a small set of stakeholders.

Those two models didn’t fit well. We tried to keep the structures and systems we originally had in place without adapting enough to the new context, needs, and pace. We made changes after each retrospective and iteration on the product, but not well and not big enough.

Lesson learned: if strict adherence to principles are burning people out, it’s time to revisit the principles.

A Chance to Begin Again

Leadership had a tough call to make: do they take a huge pivot and shift the work back into a more traditional model owned by a small team that was familiar with the data, familiar with each other, and used to dealing with the high-stakes pressure? Or do they try to persist and hope third time’s the charm? Fortunately, they had a chance to do a bit of both.

What we began to understand was that in many ways the principles behind empowered teams were essential to bringing together self-motivated teams that could solve difficult problems in creative ways. What we also understood that we couldn’t apply those principles in the same way to every project.

The result was that leadership was able to shift the high-stakes and rigid-requirements project to a team that could more easily take it on while creating more space for a different team that was just beginning to ramp up again to have the space to work with the empowerment it needed and thrived on.

Put People First. Skip the Dogma.

Sometimes putting people first means recognizing when a particular pattern that looks so good on paper is having the opposite effect. When the very principles that we hoped would motivate and inspire the team made it more challenging for them to shift gears, we should have listened sooner.

An empowered team can accomplish incredible things. Be sure that you’re empowering them with the psychological safety and trust that it requires.

But if you want an empowered, internally-motivated “team of missionaries” (as Cagan likes to call them), then yes. Put those principles to work. Name them explicitly. Check in with the team on how leadership is living up to their commitment to them. And use them as a guide during retrospectives to identify changes to be made.

An empowered team can accomplish incredible things. Be sure that you’re empowering them with the psychological safety and trust that it requires. Recognize signs of wear and tear and be ready with back-up plans if what you require really is bound by external constraints.

(Disclaimer: the views here do not represent the views or perspectives of the NYCDOE and are my own)


Created by

Josh Dormont







Related Articles