EMPOWERED — Achieving Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People by Marty Cagan (Talk Summary)

12 min readNov 21, 2018

What is the difference between how great product companies work and how others work? Marty Cagan has years of experience working in the very best technology product teams in the world. In this talk, the author of the book Inspired discusses the critical traits and behaviors of many of our industry’s best product teams. From how the leaders behave, to the level of empowerment of teams, Marty inspires you to achieve extraordinary results with ordinary people.

Product Discovery

Building product is incredibly inspiring. Between product design and engineering, you’re there to work together and solve hard problems. Marty Cagan calls this process discovery.

“Product Discovery — a rapid series of experiments, primarily using prototypes, that enable us to us to discover effective solutions to the problems our team is tasked to solve.” — Marty Cagan

There are four solutions in product discovery, that are:

  1. Valuable. If the product is valuable, people will buy it or choose to use it.
  2. Usable. Can your users figure out how to use the product?
  3. Feasible. Do you know how to build it?
  4. Viable. Is it viable for the business and does it work for the different parts of the business?
“In great organizations, teams are there to come up with solutions that our customers love.”

Marty Cagan states that product discovery is finding solutions with those characteristics. These fours characteristics help to build the right product. However, a lot of teams that Marty has worked with, are not allowed to work this way. Why are they not allowed? How these companies can avoid a fiasco and stay in business?


Empowered Teams vs the Rest

Empowered teams = people you can trust.

In most organizations, teams exist to serve the business. And even if it’s not explicit it’s implicit. The business gets together, gives roadmaps to the teams and says: “build these features.” But in great organizations, they have a very different model. Teams are actually there for a different purpose. They are there to come up with solutions that our customers love. That is a massive difference. We often refer to the second as the product mindset or a product culture and we refer to the first by various sort of derogatory terms, such as IT mindset, project mindset, feature factories, etc.

Marty argues that if your company is running in the first way, they really don’t need product managers. In that model, it’s not product management. It’s literally a product owner just administering the role in a scrum team. Or it can be a project manager that performs a little bit of business analysis. But if you’re a real product manager, you’re probably not very happy if your company runs in that way.

Why is this the case?

Empowered Teams

“They have proven their ability to consistently innovate on behalf of their customers.”

All of us have talked about transformation. Let’s take as an example the term digital transformation. Marty assumes that even if most companies have digital transformation initiatives, in some sort or another they almost never work.

It’s because they’re not willing to really make the transformation of empowering their teams.

Why don’t more companies actually empower their teams?

The answer lies in trust. The CEO’s basically do not trust their teams. Mostly, they do truly focus on product managers that are not worthy of being trusted. However, it’s the fault of the CEO’s who hired them. Marty gets it out on the table: if you believe that you need to run with truly empowered teams, then you need people you can trust.

In his talk, Marty describes the three most valuable companies in the world that are valuable for a good reason:

‘’They have proven their ability to consistently innovate on behalf of their customers.’’

These companies are:

  1. Amazon
  2. Apple
  3. Google

Talking here about product culture is not really sufficient. Marty claims that all of these three companies actually have very different cultures. Yet, all three manage to have a pretty amazing environment for product teams and their results are the consequences of that environment.

These three companies have something hugely critical in common. All the four founders of these three companies (Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin) were coached by the same person — Bill Campbell, known as the coach of Silicon Valley.

Bill Campbell for a decade through the formative years of Google, Apple and Amazon showed them how to set up a product company.

Here is one of Cambell’s quotes:

Source: Slideshare

Marty Cagan argues that lack of trust is the root cause of why so many companies are just clueless on product.

This statement directly leads to the topic of leadership.

The Role of Leadership

Marty raises the problem of mashing together leadership and management. He states that even though it is true that most leaders are also managers, their responsibilities are different. Marty talks about them separately at a high level of course.

“Leadership is about inspiring the organization and management is about guiding us there.” — Marty Cagan

You can’t hope to have truly empowered teams unless you give the teams the business context of what we’re all trying to achieve. That is the primary role here of leadership.

There are five big responsibilities of leaders:

  1. Product vision. A lot of people make the mistake of doing product vision per product team that misses the point of the product vision. Product Vision should be your North Star, an objective that your company is contributing to. Marty argues that every good product design or engineer wants to contribute to something meaningful, and that’s what the vision describes.
  2. Product Strategy. Product strategy is about the great vision that you are anxious to make happen — a massive topic on itself. It usually turns out to be a sequence of product market fit, however, there are other ways to do it too. Marty Cagan argues that product strategy represents some important choices. He advocates the companies to avoid solving everybody’s problems at once. Try to make some intelligent intentional choices about what problems you attack in what order.
  3. Product Principles. Product principles describe the nature of the kind of product we’re trying to create. What are the things we believe to be true
  4. Product Priorities. There are many different ways to techniques for getting teams to focus on outcomes rather than output. But the most popular one today really is the O.K.R. system: objectives and key results. Even though the system is conceptually simple, most companies completely bungle it up for the first couple of times because one of the first things they do is they get this wrong. They just basically ask every team to propose their objectives and end up having 25 teams going in 25 different directions.

The product leadership’s job is to define the organization’s objectives.

  1. Product Evangelism. The leaders need to evangelize their organization and it’s vision. Marty Cagan gives an example of John Doerr, one of the most famous venture capitalists, who argues we need teams of missionaries not teams of mercenaries. That’s his way of saying truly empowered product teams versus the old style mercenary teams just build features on a roadmap. The leaders need to preach, they need to share that vision and convert the people to be true believers.

Evangelism is a huge non-stop responsibility in a large company.

As the example, Marty Cagan brings up the case of Stacy, a veterinarian who in a short time has created a successful start-up to provide a quality care for animals.

Marty states that great product people at all levels know what they don’t know, they know what they can’t know. They admit what they don’t know. Or, putting in other words, they are humble, they’re not arrogant.

The Role of Management

There are three responsibilities of managers: staffing, coaching, setting objectives

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do,” ― Steve Jobs

Marty Cagan says that we tend to have this myth that Steve Jobs was like a product manager. Marty argues that he wasn’t. He was really good at looking at your prototypes and telling you all the reasons they were bad. He was an amazing product visionary. That’s critical for the team of missionaries. You hire smart people not to tell them what to do by giving them a roadmap of features that mostly won’t work. What you do, is you hire smart people and set them up so that they can show you what’s possible. That’s really the key.

The Responsibilities of Management

By ‘management’ Marty doesn’t imply the CEOs or product managers, he implies people managers: managers of product managers, managers of designers and the managers of engineers.

There are three responsibilities of managers

  1. Staffing. Their job is to put in place competent people. It is not the job of the heart of HR. It is the job of the hiring manager to source the right people, to recruit, to sell, to close and convince them of the vision and why they should come work here.
  2. Coaching. Managers should help their staff to get good at their job. Marty sees lack of competency as the major problem in Product Managers. Incompetency is not the person’s fault, that’s their managers’ fault. Marty Cagan brings up the piece written by . In his piece, the author argued that the director of Product Management is the single most non-executive position in a tech product company. He was saying that product teams are only as good as their product manager. Who’s responsible for competent product managers? The director of product. If they’re not able to do this job, everything falls apart.
  3. Setting objectives. There are objectives at the organization level but there are also objectives at the team level. This is the part where managers really earn their money. The way Marty advises to work in the model is the managers should get together and decide which objectives they will deliver on the organization’s objectives. Then, they’ll go to a team, like a search team, and they ask them to improve the experience in this or that dimensions. And the team then looks at that and proposes you back the results. It’s normal for there to be some give and take.

As the case study, Marty brings an example of Christian, one of the best people managers that Marty knows.

The Basis for Trust

“Leadership is about inspiring the organization and management is about guiding us there.” — Marty Cagan


For truly empowered teams you have to provide the context of trust. We need to get the teams to the point where the leaders trust them — that’s really the two big elements. Many of you probably know Stephen Covey.

“Trust is the function of two things: competence and character. Competence includes your capabilities, your skills, and your track record. Character includes your integrity, your motive and your intent with people. Both are vital,” — Stephen Covey

Marty’s main advice to a new product manager is not to worry about the company. He advises finding a high manager that would be committed to coaching you for the next year or two. You cannot expect the Director of Product Management that has never actually done product at a good place to be able to hire competent product managers.

Some companies think that they all need a Google product manager. However, many of them just cannot find or afford one. From Marty’s experience, they tend to find somebody who’s really skilled, but who’s “a bit of a jerk.” They lower their bar in other areas.

“We need to hire competence,” — says Marty Cagan.

That’s why the head of product management hires product managers, the head of design hires designers, and the head of engineering hires engineers. Marty also advises hiring not only for competence but for potential. Remember, you hire for potential only if the hiring manager is willing and is able to coach them from potential to competence.


The New Zealand’s All Blacks — the most successful sports franchise across all countries, all sports — figured out the secret of the empowered team.

It doesn’t matter how talented and skilled a player is if he’s an asshole.

They literally have a rule which is the No Asshole Rule which is applied to both players and coaches.

However, most companies, instead of having the No Assholes rule in their guidelines, they have the rules that are meant to ensure cultural fits. Marty Cagan argues that cultural fit is the vaguest term because it just means that you need to find people that are like you and the rest of your team.

“Do not institutionalize hiring people just like you!” — urges Marty Cagan

Ordinary People

For truly empowered teams you have to provide the context of trust.

We need people to think differently. The talent is there, it’s usually hiding in plain sight. We see organizations hire for them, looking like them, acting like them, talking like them. Marty finds it to be a deep problem. In his presentation, Marty highlights a few ordinary people that did amazing jobs because they were in an environment that let them do amazing things.

You should not want engineers to just roll over and build whatever you tell them to build. Good engineers in the empowered team they ask you to show them why they should build this. They challenge the product manager. You need engineers that will go toe to toe with a product manager and the CEO.

Extraordinary Results

This is what we’re looking for your engineers. These are just ordinary people that when you put them in the right environment, they do amazing things.

Marty advises seeing Google’s recent report called Project Aristotle.

What they did is putting all the best “rock stars” of the company to work together, expecting amazing results to come out. The results came out, but no amazing at all.

It turns out that teams who consistently produce, are the ones with the ordinary people that trust each other. You need to feel safe and comfortable in the environment where you work in.

“We need to hire competence,” — Marty Cagan

As the final remark, Marty suggests to the audience to do a litmus test.

The first test is:

Is the team staffed with competent people covering the range of skills we need?

The second test is:

Is the team actually assigned problems to solve versus just given features to build?

Do these tests at your company and decide if you’re in that or out. If you are not, it’s only a matter of time. It’s a race.

“You either get to hear or you will fall prey to somebody that knows what they’re doing in the tech space,” — Marty Cagan

Marty Cagan recommends 📚

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t Paperback, by Simon Sinek

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration Hardcover, by Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace

Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders Hardcover by L. David Marquet, Stephen R. Covey

Hand-drawn Sketch of Marty Cagan’s talk

Watch Marty Cagan’s PRODUCTIZED talk:

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About Marty Cagan

Marty Cagan is the founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group. Before founding the Silicon Valley Product Group to pursue his interests in helping others create successful products through his writing, speaking, coaching and advising, Marty was most recently senior vice-president of product and design for eBay, where he was responsible for defining products and services for the company’s global e-commerce trading site. Marty is the author of the book INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love.”

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