Why Agile Product Management Is Stuck in the Echo Chamber

Marty Cagan at the Productized 2018
Marty Cagan at the Productized 2018

When I have read the excellent speaker line-up for this year’s Productized conference in my beloved Lisbon  (1-2 November), I knew, that I definitely needed to attend: To experience Melissa Perri, Jeff Gothelf and especially Marty Cagan live, was something I really couldn’t miss!

For those of you who don’t know about the Productized conference; it is one of the top 10 conferences of its kind, consisting of around 600 product people (product owner, product manager, product leads, etc.). These are workshop series on day one and interesting talks about product development/management on the second day. There’s even plenty of opportunities for networking in-between or afterwards. Throw in the beautiful location at Lisbon, with its nice people, great weather and delicious food, and it rounds out the entire experience.

Inspiring High Quality Talks

Just as it was two years ago, the talks were to a large extent, genuinely inspiring maintaining a very high quality. Also a breath of fresh air, was that 50% of the talks were held by women!

The best hands-on talk came from Tanya Aulachynskaya, who presented a process how to handle and prioritize customer feedback for improving the decision making for a product and professionally collaborate with all stakeholders.

This time, these three deeply interconnected themes jumped out at me:

  1. Product-led” was the term that Melissa Perri used in her opening keynote for an organization, whose employees are completely aligned and focused around customer problems to put their whole energy into the product – and not in defending their department’s silo. Prerequiste for such a company: Establish an inspiring vision (Justin Bauer  called it “North Star”), a clear strategy and a strong leadership.
  2. Outcomes” (instead of outputs) was again a key element through many presentations. Especially Melissa Perri, Marty Cagan and again Justin Bauer (in my eyes the best presentation on that day) mentioned this topic. This means, that we should focus on the effects that a software feature or product produces, instead just measuring what we ship (user stories, etc.).
  3. Empowered“, x-functional teams are a key success factor for a great product! And that’s the way Amazon, Apple, Google and Netflix are doing it. But they are only able to do it, because their leaders enable them, by giving them the inevitable trust, as Marty Cagan emotionally emphasized!

Talking in a Filter Bubble

If you have also attended several product conferences over the last few years, or having been an attentive observer of agile product management through reading appropriate blogs, books or by listening to podcasts, you might notice, that these themes are “good old friends”. By talking to other attendees you can be sure, that there’s always a common understanding about these topics or their relatives „Feature Factory“ (from the great John Cutler), „Product Discovery” or (the classic) “Solving problems, not implementing solutions.“

We, who all go with great thirst of knowledge to these conferences for years, know very well, how we should work as a product manager. We have sucked up all the postulated do‘s and don’ts of agile product development. And yes, it’s important to hear the cornerstones over and over again, re-mixing or bringing them into another context. That makes us even more professional.

But we need to admit, that we somewhere butted up against a hidden ceiling! Nowadays, it seems that we are just talking with ourselves. Honestly we should recognize, that 17 years after the agile manifesto was published, we are no longer the primary target group of such conferences, rather our leaders and executives. They need to attend! We need an open dialogue. We need to understand their positions. We need to be challenged and finally we need to get out of our comfort zone. We should listen to and integrate them, understand their “wrong” mindsets and why they want to use “the best of both worlds”approach. That way, we can convince them from our approaches in such events. It’s not sufficient just presenting a short “What have I learned” summary after such conferences. In most cases it remains bloodless. We are not understood, when we‘re talking about „product-led“, „outcome“ or „empowered“ teams!

Marty Nails It

Thus, I really enjoyed Marty Cagan’s talk! He was fuming, because for years, as a consultant in Silicon Valley, he still sees so many companies where supposed „empowered“ teams are hindered. The problem: “Lacking trust” of their leaders. With no trust, no partnership will ever exist! But how did it come to this? And why do such leaders mostly point to Amazon, Apple and Google as the yardstick of great product development and desirable industrial design?

Marty delivered an interesting theory: All these leaders have been coached by the same guy, Bill Campbell. A former head football coach and afterwards the “coach” of Silicon Valley. As a mentor, who asked good questions instead of knowing the best answers, he decisively influenced Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt for modern leadership, management techniques, agile product development principles – and building trust towards their employees.

Let’s Get Out Of The Echo Chamber

So the key question is, what can we do to support these execs to build up knowledge and competence, so that they can also be an inspiring mentor or coach for us? Now the time has come, where we should think about, how we can mobilize our leaders and colleagues to visit product management conferences. We need new formats, or perhaps rearrange them (i.e. discussion panel with executives and talks from leaders of corporates). Maybe we need special offers like “grab a colleague and bring them with you” and smarter marketing approaches to get them addicted to these events.

Otherwise, we would be still blocked by executing and stuck in the echo chamber.


2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Lesenswert: November 2018 | produktbezogen.de

  2. Hi Thomas,

    yes, this resonates with my recent experiences: while product management and its methods got more and more advanced, the product built, however, only got marginally better… Like you said, we seem to have hit a ceiling or barrier which prevents us from creating better or even great products.

    Cheers, Brian

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.