I was almost ready with the third article in the series on learnings from the last two years at Cognite, when Brian Chesky and Marty Cagan made me pause and instead write this post.
Marty Cagan is one of a handful of thought leaders that have had a profound impact on my thinking and practice. My early days in Silicon Valley pre-2000 made me stay connected to developments there when I moved back to Europe and Norway, and the lessons from in particular Geoffrey Moore, Steve Blank, Marty Cagan, Eric Ries, and Tony Fadell have been important to my growth as a product leader. But, Marty’s huge success and influence on the product manager role has in my experience also led to some serious obstacles to product building at least on the European side of the Atlantic. I have struggled with articulating the root causes to what I have thought have been the fallacies of the product manager role, but the last pieces only clicked in place for me with Marty’s two recent articles on Alternatives to Product Managers and Alternatives to Product Leaders. These articles came as a response to Brian Chesky’s changes to product management at AirBnB and a visit Brian did to Lenny’s podcast where he shared his thinking.
So, here is the dark pattern I have noticed many times here in Europe: visionary founders start a company, grow, become successful, and need to figure out how to scale themselves as leaders. Their board, employees, and people around them will tell them that they need professional product management. They hire a Vice President or Head of Product Management, and the founders step back to allow the professional product manager to take lead. More product managers are hired, and the product management group works hard to do great product management (often citing Marty Cagan), and the company starts loosing clear direction and starts meandering. The strong original vision is kept as a relic. The founders former push to go deep and keep iterating to solve hard problems erodes, and the organisation starts accepting surface-level victories and hedges its bets across many things. The commercial side of the organisation becomes frustrated with selling a product that is not yet complete, but where the future is difficult to paint. They cry for more detailed 12/24-month product roadmaps, and ask what on earth the product organisation is really spending their time on. Productivity is questioned, and there is a push for more process and more program management.
I know that Marty Cagan very precisely can pinpoint what is going wrong in this scenario. He is a proponent of empowered product teams and strong product leadership, not product managers in isolation or pre-mature introduction of product management in a startup. Without strategic context, coaching, and leadership that sets clear ambitions that bring teams together, each team will try to make meaning out of their individual piece of the puzzle.
I have sometimes jokingly (and frustrated) said in this situation that product decisions are too important to leave to product managers. Incidentally, this is also more or less Brian Chesky’s underlying message when he moves many product managers to program management, takes the product helm himself, and focuses mostly on senior product managers and product marketing. My personal hypothesis is that the root cause is lack of strong coaching of not only product managers, but also tech leads, designers, and managers to help them understand what the empowered product team operating model really means practically. And often lack of strategic direction and context setting for the teams. Sadly, with Marty’s books and articles in their hand, product managers have a strong case for what they should be reponsible for. Even when they are not experienced enough to really be handed that responsibility.
My joke makes me sad because it emphasises how the empowered team model with the “Marty Cagan-style product manager role” can become a strait jacket. I believe this happens when the organisation doesn’t have leaders who have a unified understanding of how the Marty Cagan-style product model should be put into practice. Reading about a methodology and actually understanding how to apply it are two very different things, and to understand how to apply a methodology, you need to have worked with people who know how. If everybody is trying to figure it out, they have ample opportunity to point to the book and tell each other “you got it wrong”. Then great insights instead become a straitjacket. Before Brian Chesky’s move, I assumed that all Silicon Valley companies “got it”, and that our problems were due to the distance to the valley from Europe. Now it seems that even a company like AirBnB is not immune. Or maybe the AirBnB product managers got it, but the coaching was not good enough, and the strategic context and direction were not clear enough to allow everybody to pull in the same direction?
In Marty’s article, he seems to assume that Brian will now be making the product decisions, that the teams will be less empowered, and that program management will be used for command-and-control style decision making. I understand his concerns, I have seen it happen too, and even with good intentions you can end up there unless you pro-actively invest in coaching and making the teams empowered. My personal view is that unless you are able to recruit people who understand and know the product operating model well, you need to go lean on the strong product leaders you have and rely on them to evolve your operating model. In Marty Cagan’s words about product leaders at Apple: “Their product leaders are exceptionally strong, deeply knowledgeable, true product people in the best sense of the term, deeply engaged with the product teams on value and viability, as well as product vision, product strategy, team topology, all on top of being responsible for coaching and developing the talent on their teams.“
I sincerely hope that Brian Chesky understands the needs to coach and empower his teams, and that he can avoid command-and-control. Incidentally, my next two articles in the series on learnings from Cognite the last two years is about how to keep the organisation’s ability to adapt to change as you grow and then how to evolve your product operating model. Stay tuned, they will be better due to the fuzz around AirBnB!