Marty Cagan is driven by a desire to help others build successful tech products. As a Founding Partner of Silicon Valley Product Group (SVPG), he regularly offers his expertise to startups and established companies. He also heads a team of industry veterans who share a vast pool of experience and best practices about how to develop innovative, popular tech and guide organizations with the necessary courage and vision to create it.
An in-demand speaker, adviser, coach, and author, Cagan has drawn on his years of experience for his book INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love, with its second edition informed by the techniques he’s had a hand in implementing and studying in the 10 years since the seminal volume debuted. Having worked as a Developer at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories and Vice President of Netscape in the earlier part of his career, and serving as Senior Vice President of Product and Design for eBay, Cagan details in his book the various processes for assembling successful teams, creating a strong product-centric culture, innovating consistently, and delivering value to customers.
As a featured videoconference guest speaker at a virtual Center for the Management of IT session May 8, Cagan will provide his vital insights on industry-defining products.
We recently spoke with Cagan about what it takes to launch, manage, and transform companies that produce the kind of tech that leads the way.
You’ve said that many CEOs simply don’t trust the people on their teams enough to allow them to be truly empowered. What factors do you believe led to that widespread climate among organizations that continue to practice the old “command and control” management model despite evidence of success used by major tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google?
I think there are many factors, but fundamentally it gets to the culture of the company and the technology experience of the leaders. It’s worth noting that the founders of Amazon, Apple, and Google were all personally coached by the legendary Bill Campbell on this exact topic. One of my favorite Bill Campbell quotes speaks to this difference: “Leadership is about recognizing that there’s a greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge.” Contrast that with what you see in most companies.
This difference is at its most stark when you look at the role of an engineer. In most companies, this is a fairly unimportant role—necessary but uninteresting—in fact, it is very often outsourced. Yet in a strong product company, they are at the very heart of innovation. As Bill Campbell also said, “There’s nothing more powerful than an empowered engineer.”
The real question to me is why more companies aren’t more serious about emulating the top tech companies. I think that’s partly because they don’t understand the meaningful differences and partly because it’s a very difficult transition and requires more than they have the appetite for.
The benefits of hiring “product evangelists” who are product “missionaries” (and not just “mercenaries”) for teams are clear: deep commitment and belief in the work being done. Yet you’ve explained that finding the right people is only a small piece of the puzzle. What role does coaching play for managers in making sure that their teams succeed?
Very few people out there have actually “been there and done that” at great product companies. So most people need to learn how to work the way they need to, and the normal way to learn is from your manager, yet the situation that most companies are in is that their managers have no experience with product done well.
This is why meaningful transformation begins with making sure you have managers who are capable of recruiting and coaching the necessary talent.
For companies and/or managers entrenched in old management models—but intent on transforming how they lead their teams—is there any hope? What steps can they take in the short term to try to initiate the process for fostering empowered and inspired teams within their organizations?
I absolutely believe it’s possible for every company to transform, so long as this transformation is supported and led by the very top, and so long as the company doesn’t wait so long that it’s already too late (usually because they’ve already been disrupted). But the clear test is whether the CEO is truly leading this work, or whether the CEO delegates this to some “digital transformation leader” or similar.