PRODUCTHEAD: Empowered teams can’t simply do whatever they like

PRODUCTHEAD: Empowered teams can’t simply do whatever they like

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

anyone can manage products #

every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


Empowered teams can only succeed if the leadership team is on board

Leaders can’t scale or have all the answers; empowered teams stand a better chance

Leadership needs to be open and transparent when issuing a “must-do” edict to an empowered team

Product leadership is continually striving for coherence of approach and clarity of purpose


This week I’ve been thinking about empowered teams and some of the problems product leaders can experience with them. I have some great articles and videos on this topic, so if you’re impatient, click below :-)

There’s a couple of Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions, with Marty Cagan and with Christina Wodtke, both of which delve deep into the challenges of building empowered teams.

Eira Hayward writes about how to handle the situation when you just need your empowered team to get something specific done.

And lastly, John Cutler hosts a panel session with Shilpa Sarkar, Rich Mironov and Petra Wille to discuss how product leaders can cultivate empowered teams.

On an unrelated point, Product People has just donated to 20 separate charities as a result of all the product coaching we’ve done this financial year. (We donate 25% of all coaching fees to charity.)

I would be delighted if you’d consider making a donation yourself, or booking a coaching session to help us donate more next year.

Speak to you soon,


Common misunderstandings about empowered teams #

Have you encountered these misunderstandings about empowered teams?

Nope #1 – “We’re empowered and autonomous — we can do whatever we like”

Nope #2 – “As the leader for an autonomous team, I’m not allowed to set direction”

Nope #3 – “As an empowered team, it’s not our job to explain our Very Important Work to others”

If any of these are familiar to you, I explain some of the reasons why this is happening, and how to fix them.

How an empowered team should work #

Working with an empowered team is rather like delegating a task to a capable, motivated individual. First, you need to be confident that they have the capabilities to do what you need them to. You are setting the team a goal or desired outcome and are trusting them to work together effectively as a unit to achieve that goal, using their skills, experience and best judgement to achieve it.

With your help, they should already be well aligned with the broader strategic goals, but if not, there is an implicit contract that they will clarify with you if they don’t fully understand the intent or context of those goals. You should be able to expect that they’ll communicate their progress to the people that need to know, and they’ll seek help when they need it.

If you’re confident that your team will work in this way then you can continue to describe the outcomes you’re looking for, let them get on with it, and provide support as and when they need it.

When a team still needs support and direction #

The thing is, not every team can and will work in this way. If they lack one or more of the necessary attributes, you can’t fully delegate to them yet — you’d be setting them up to fail. This is no different to delegating a task to an individual before they’re ready.

These necessary attributes are:

Let’s consider each of these attributes in turn.

Do they have the capabilities and motivation?

A empowered team needs to have the right set of skills to achieve the desired goal, based on the current understanding of what it is you want them to do. If they don’t, you’re either setting them up to fail or you’re going see a mediocre result at best.

Common examples of this anti-pattern are when a good development team lacks a dedicated user researcher or designer. They’ll always strive to fill the gaps and do they best they can with what they have, but the resulting product will never be as good as it would have been with the benefit of those skill sets on the team.

Part of being an empowered, autonomous team includes being sufficiently self-aware that they recognise when they lack experience in a particular area. But rather than that blocking their progress, you would expect them to adapt and learn that new skill (if practical to do so), or to seek out someone with that specialism to help them.

Are they aligned with the broader strategy?

An empowered team can only deliver what is valuable to the organisation if they’re pulling in the same direction as the organisation wants to go. In other words, empowered teams can’t simply do whatever they like.

The team should be responsible for finding that tricky right balance between what is of value to their users and what is valuable to the organisation. They should understand that there will be occasions when they’ll be told what they need to work on next and why it was decided, rather than always having complete freedom to choose. (As an aside: don’t be surprised if a wildly unethical or otherwise suspect request causes the empowered team to rebel and refuse to do it.)

Likewise, it’s the responsibility of the team’s leader to be clear on what the organisation is trying to achieve, why it needs to, and broadly how it’s going to do so (and how it won’t). Or to put it another way, the organisation needs to have a clear vision and strategy, otherwise you can’t even begin to be aligned.

Alignment to the organisation’s broader strategy also helps the team to be able to prioritise and filter their work, and to place a few helpful constraints on how they go about achieving the desired outcome. When faced with different options for doing something, the team can evaluate which is mostly closely aligned to the strategy, or which helps the organisation to move forward most rapidly.

Will they check when they’re not sure about something?

An effective, empowered team will recognise when they’re working with received wisdom and assumptions, and seek out evidence to validate or invalidate that view.

However, the team also knows how to avoid ‘analysis paralysis’ because they can weigh up how confident they need to be in the context of the risk and implications of their decisions.

There’s no point in spending days figuring out whether a new product feature should be designed this way or that, when it affects only a handful of users and takes 20 minutes to change and redeploy.

In contrast, I would sincerely hope that a team would be as confident as they can be before pushing the button on a high cost, one-way manoeuvre affecting all users of a product.

Rather than remaining hands-off, the team’s leader can help by constructively challenging the team’s attitude and approach to risk-taking. In response, the team should be able to articulate the reasons why they are comfortable with their current spread of high, medium and low risk bets.

Will they communicate appropriately?

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

An otherwise capable and diligent team, which is doing great work both for users and the organisation, will rapidly become unstuck if they fail to communicate effectively.

Empowering a team means a leader trusting them to achieve a desired goal. But as I’ve written about before, trust depends on three factors:

1. Demonstrating competence in the task (competence)

2. Actually doing what you said you’d do (contract)

3. Being transparent about what you’re doing (communication)

In the absence of communication from the team about what they’re doing and why, it’s all too easy for the rest of the organisation to start assuming the worst and forming their own incorrect narrative for the team. This would go some way to explaining why remote working tends to breed distrust.

In her study of workplace trust, Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School Heidi K. Gardner observed that some people tend not to trust until they’ve been given adequate reason to do so. Being transparent to the point of over-communicating is an important way for empowered teams to maintain the trust they’ve been given to work independently.

Will they seek help when they need it? #

There is a risk that a high-achieving empowered team can let their reputation go to their heads. Occasionally a team can start to believe that they’re infallible or that they always know best. This is when positivity can become toxic.

This is fine meme from On Fire, Gunshow #648, KC Green
“On Fire”, Gunshow #648, KC Green,

Related to good communication, an empowered team should remain humble and realistic enough to know when they are reaching the limits of their own capabilities and could do with an assist. This is arguably easier for teams working in a psychologically safe environment (where they know they won’t be punished for ‘failing’ by seeking help). But even when that is not the case, leaders can feel more comfortable when they know a team will reach out for help when it’s needed.

Equally a team leader should be aware of the kind of help the empowered team needs. The team probably doesn’t want the leader to swoop in and take over the decision-making, or to give them all the answers. Instead adopt a coaching approach.

Rather than telling them what to do, the leader could instead use their experience to offer pertinent examples and analogies. These would serve to reframe the problem the team is experiencing, perhaps helping them to unlock a different approach for themselves.

Final thoughts #

Just as with delegating work to individual, don’t set up teams to fail by empowering them before they’re ready. To become empowered, a team needs to earn and maintain trust from their leaders. A team can foster greater trust from their leaders by working transparently and communicating openly. Empowerment does not mean that a team has free rein, but instead must seek balance in creating value for their users as well as for the organisation.

what to think about this week

Marty Cagan on empowering teams, discovery challenges, alignment, and more

We were joined by Marty Cagan who took your questions on empowering teams, discovery challenges, product owners, transitioning from product role to a leadership role, and much more.

(This took place just before Marty’s book Empowered was published.)

[VIDEO] Leaders create the right environment for empowerment (or don’t)

[Marty Cagan / Mind The Product]

AMA with Christina Wodtke: encouraging autonomy and writing awesome OKRs

As a leader you just do not scale. So the idea that you’re some sort of puppet master who’s going to manage every single little activity of every single person that works underneath you is ridiculous.

Christina wrote her book The Team That Managed Itself as a reply to all the questions her clients asked about how to run a strong autonomous team.

[VIDEO] How to teach people how to be autonomous

[Christina Wodtke / Mind The Product]

Managing “must-do” initiatives in empowered teams

What do you do about a “must-do” initiative when your team is empowered? When do you tell empowered teams they have to do something, and how do you handle it well?

Handling edicts from external and internal sources

[Eira Hayward / Mind the Product]

What does it take to become an excellent product leader?

Football coach Vince Lombardi may have said it best: Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. But what kind of specific work does it take to become an excellent product leader?

This session is hosted by Amplitude’s John Cutler, which brought together a powerful panel of experts. This included former Instagram consumer product lead Shilpa Sarkar, consultant Rich Mironov, and product leadership coach Petra Wille.

[VIDEO] What does building an empowered team really look like?

[Shane Schick / Productboard]

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can we help you?

Product People is a product management services company. We can help you through consultancy, training and coaching. Just contact us if you need our help!

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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from the air that we breathe.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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