I’m a big advocate of empowered product teams and have helped many companies make a healthy transition towards such a culture. However, I regularly come across executives who think they have already achieved this while, in fact, having created expensive Jira resolution machines. There are also scenarios where I believe a shift to empowered product teams might not be the best fit for the company. This article will help you diagnose which state you’re in and whether you should consider an active push one way or another.
Consider the diagram below. I’ve split teams with two aspects that are particularly relevant to our discussion:
Goal type: Whether the team receives specific tasks to execute, which is prescriptive, or a big problem to tackle, which is outcome-oriented.
Vision: How clear is the road ahead? How much fog surrounds its current path? Short-term thinking is when there is no clear road ahead, while long-term thinking is for when we possess sufficient clarity.
Jira Resolution Machines
These teams are kept on a tight leash, without being supplied with a long-term vision, and are constantly fed specific tasks and delivery instructions. This is often the case for offshore teams used for minor and time-consuming tasks. A typical example is for companies that have to create many different API integrations that do not require too much seniority or creativity. Too many companies are operating at this mode unnecessarily with managers who tend to micromanage merely because they don’t know what to do differently.
This is probably the mode most modern and aware teams are moving towards right now. That is because it is often a prerequisite to achieving truly empowered product teams. In this mode, the team is working on a long-term vision, is responsible for a part of the product, and often is cross-functional. That sounds like it’s ticking all the right boxes, except for the fact that without great product leadership (the product and engineering managers), it often ends up delivering only part of the empowerment promise.
These teams are often very productive and can deliver features consistently. However, they are still being fed specific tasks. These are the sorts of organizations where an OKR’s “objective” might be something like, “deliver new onboarding feature.” This misses the essence of empowerment and OKRs, where a team is given an outcome to achieve and not prescribed the work to be done ahead of time.
Clearing the Fog
As I explain in The Tech Executive Operating System, every innovative company undergoes periods where its future is foggier. That means that an outcome-driven team can perform short iterations and focused experiments in order to achieve clarity on the best road ahead. An example would be empowered and senior teams that haven’t reached product-market fit yet.
Even though these teams lack a long-term vision, for the time being, they have agency when it comes to determining it. They focus on short-term targets that help validate the right path forward.
The holy-grail, where teams are given a business outcome and then let loose. With excellent product leadership, these teams can operate independently to find creative solutions, innovate their industries, and dominate markets. I’m not even exaggerating—which is why my mission in life is to help create more of these. Nevertheless, this doesn’t come easily and can often be rushed. When you force such a mindset on a team that’s not ready for it, it usually ends up with the executive realizing only months later that a lot of time has been wasted.
Examples where this might be premature, include committing to a long-term vision that has yet to be validated enough, allowing such independence to a team that’s not senior enough, or during times of great volatility (e.g., a pandemic has just started and might change your industry).
You might have spotted your teams in one of the above descriptions. The point of this article, though, is to go further than merely describe the possibilities, but help you realize when transitions should happen. Teams are living organisms and sometimes require adjustments in their operation modes.
In the diagram above, I’ve outlined a few common transitions that you should keep in mind:
Clearing the fog to Empowered teams: A very natural transition that indicates the team has successfully cleared the fog! Once we have clarity for the road ahead, the team can continue operating in a similar manner and focus on a long-term vision. This makes sense if you’ve been operating in a kanban mode executing a lot of experiments and have now achieved product-market fit and can plan a meatier roadmap ahead that you are quite certain will remain relevant 6 or 12 months into the future.
Empowered teams to Clearing the fog: The opposite transition is also possible and doesn’t have to mean anything wrong is going on. I’ve seen it take place when companies pivot to new opportunities, a market disruption has occurred (e.g., regulatory changes), or a new innovative concept is being considered.
Feature factories to Empowered teams: These are teams that are “growing up.” Finally, being equipped with enough senior talent and the right mindset, they can move on to work on meaty problems and fully utilize their potential. It often happens once the team has acquired senior leaders (product manager and engineering manager) along with buy-in from the executive team and stakeholders.
Empowered teams to feature factories: The mirror case is often not good news, but it does happen. I’ve seen this when teams lose their leaders and don’t have replacements handy. In such scenarios, it doesn’t make sense to pretend that everything is alright, and it makes sense to go into this sort of “war mode” until the right people are onboarded.
Feature factories to Jira resolution machines: Frankly, this is bad. The only reason I’m mentioning it is that if you, as an executive, spot this happening, it often means that one of your managers decided to micromanage the team even more than previously. This might happen either because they are new or because they are stressed. My recommendation would be not to dismiss it and consider the causes to help alleviate their fears.
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