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Product management theater | Marty Cagan (Silicon Valley Product Group)

Product management theater | Marty Cagan (Silicon Valley Product Group)


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Marty Cagan is a luminary in the world of product. He’s the author of two of the most foundational books for product teams and product leaders (Inspired and Empowered), he’s the founder of Silicon Valley Product Group (one of the longest-running product advisory groups), and he’s almost certainly worked with more product leaders and teams than any human alive. Now he’s releasing his newest book, Transformed, which is sure to become a staple of tech-powered companies worldwide. Marty’s previous appearance on our show remains one of the most popular episodes to date. In this conversation, we discuss:

  • The rise of “product management theater”

  • Changes in the PM role post-ZIRP and the shift from growth to build functions

  • The disconnect between good product companies and online product advice

  • How over-hiring has created challenges in the product industry

  • The most important skills for PMs to build

  • How to know if you’re on a “feature team”

  • The potential disruption of product management by AI

  • Marty’s new book, Transformed: Moving to the Product Operating Model

  • Four new competencies required for successful product organizations

Some takeaways:

  1. Beware of “product management theater,” where people hold the PM title but lack necessary skills. Real product managers are creators and are responsible for both value (ensuring the product meets customers’ needs) and viability (ensuring the product aligns with the business objectives).

  2. During the pandemic, tech companies hired excessively for product roles, leading to a surplus of ineffective product managers who now resemble overpaid project managers. Marty labels this inefficiency the “theater” of product management, where “fake” product managers engage in non-essential activities, often under titles like Agile coaches, product owners, product operations, or business analysts.

  3. Build empowered product teams by filling four key roles: a genuine product manager, a real product designer, a legitimate tech lead, and an authentic product leader. Seek individuals with deep expertise, coaching abilities, and a contribution to comprehensive product strategy.

  4. Feature teams focus on delivering output, while empowered product teams focus on solving problems and delivering outcomes.

  5. Marty advocates for a return to the traditional product model, where product leaders concentrate on strategy, and product managers drive discovery and deliver solutions that generate value for both customers and the business. Product teams can then execute by building, testing, and deploying products to achieve the desired outcome.

  6. Be discerning about product management advice. Much online content stems from well-meaning individuals sharing insights based on their own experiences, often learned in suboptimal environments. Evaluate advice based on context, considering the source’s background, company approach, and alignment with successful practices.

  7. Founders should be cautious about hiring product managers too early in the startup journey. Wait until after achieving product-market fit to avoid conflicts and unnecessary complexity in decision-making, especially if the founder remains the primary driver of product direction.

  8. In his new book, Transformed, Marty outlines how product managers and founders can change the trajectory of their careers or companies, respectively. Product managers can acquire skills or make moves to avoid being stuck in a feature team. Founders can restructure their org or reimagine roles to create empowered product teams.

Listen now on Apple, Spotify, Overcast, and YouTube.

Where to find Marty Cagan:

• X: https://twitter.com/cagan

• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cagan/

• Silicon Valley Product Group: https://www.svpg.com/

Where to find Lenny:

• Newsletter: https://www.lennysnewsletter.com

• X: https://twitter.com/lennysan

• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lennyrachitsky/

In this episode, we cover:

(00:00) Marty’s background

(04:46) His take on the state of product management

(12:08) Product management theater

(18:33) Feature teams vs. empowered product teams

(24:48) Skills of a real product manager

(29:27) The product management reckoning is here

(32:05) Taking control of your product management career

(34:59) The challenge of finding reliable product management advice

(40:18) The disconnect between good product companies and the product management community

(44:23) Top-down vs. bottom-up cultures

(47:06) The shift in product management post-ZIRP era

(49:44) The changing landscape of product management

(52:05) The disruption of PM skills by AI

(55:56) The purpose and content of Marty’s new book, Transformed

(01:02:05) The product operating model

(01:08:27) New competencies required for successful product teams 

(01:11:25) Marty’s thoughts on product ops

(01:15:13) Advice for founders who don’t want product managers

(01:18:06) Lightning round


Transformed: Moving to the Product Operating Model: https://www.amazon.com/Transformed-Becoming-Product-Driven-Company-Silicon/dp/1119697336

Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love: https://www.amazon.com/INSPIRED-Create-Tech-Products-Customers/dp/1119387507

Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products: https://www.amazon.com/EMPOWERED-Ordinary-Extraordinary-Products-Silicon/dp/111969129X

• The nature of product | Marty Cagan, Silicon Valley Product Group: https://www.lennyspodcast.com/the-nature-of-product-marty-cagan-silicon-valley-product-group/

• Product Leadership Theater: https://www.svpg.com/product-leadership-theater/

• Product Management Theater: https://www.svpg.com/product-management-theater/

• Linear: https://linear.app/

• How Linear builds product: https://www.lennysnewsletter.com/p/how-linear-builds-product

• Brian Chesky’s new playbook: https://www.lennyspodcast.com/brian-cheskys-new-playbook/

• Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be coders, Jensen Huang warns: https://www.theregister.com/2024/02/27/jensen_huang_coders/

• Epic Waste: https://www.svpg.com/epic-waste/

• What is scrum and how to get started: https://www.atlassian.com/agile/scrum

• CSPO: https://www.scrumalliance.org/get-certified/product-owner-track/certified-scrum-product-owner

• PSPO: https://www.scrum.org/courses/professional-scrum-product-owner-training

• Jira: https://www.atlassian.com/software/jira

Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products That Create Customer Value and Business Value: https://www.amazon.com/Continuous-Discovery-Habits-Discover-Products/dp/1736633309

• Shreyas Doshi on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shreyasdoshi/

• Ben Erez’s LinkedIn post: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:7168978777966891008/

• Oracle: https://www.oracle.com/

• The essence of product management | Christian Idiodi (SVPG): https://www.lennyspodcast.com/the-essence-of-product-management-christian-idiodi-svpg/

• Making Meta | Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth (CTO): https://www.lennyspodcast.com/making-meta-andrew-boz-bosworth-cto/

• Building a long and meaningful career | Nikhyl Singhal (Meta, Google): https://www.lennyspodcast.com/building-a-long-and-meaningful-career-nikhyl-singhal-meta-google/

• Partners at SVPG: https://www.svpg.com/team/

• Trainline: https://www.thetrainline.com/

• Almosafer: https://global.almosafer.com/

• Expedia: https://www.expedia.com/

• Shopify: https://www.shopify.com/

• Salesforce: https://www.salesforce.com/

• The ultimate guide to product operations | Melissa Perri and Denise Tilles: https://www.lennyspodcast.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-product-operations-melissa-perri-and-denise-tilles/

• Understanding the role of product ops | Christine Itwaru (Pendo): https://www.lennyspodcast.com/understanding-the-role-of-product-ops-christine-itwaru-pendo/

Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making: https://www.amazon.com/Build-Unorthodox-Guide-Making-Things/dp/0063046067

What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies: https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Our-Problem-Self-Help-Societies/dp/B0BVGH6T1Q

• Rivian: https://rivian.com/

• AI-1 airbag vest: https://www.klim.com/Ai-1-Airbag-Vest-3046-000

• Leslie Lamport’s quote: https://quotefancy.com/quote/3702194/Leslie-Lamport-If-you-re-thinking-without-writing-you-only-think-you-re-thinking

• Joan Didion’s quote: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/264509-i-don-t-know-what-i-think-until-i-write-it

Production and marketing by https://penname.co/. For inquiries about sponsoring the podcast, email podcast@lennyrachitsky.com.

Lenny may be an investor in the companies discussed.

Lenny's Newsletter
Lenny's Podcast: Product | Growth | Career
Interviews with world-class product leaders and growth experts to uncover concrete, actionable, and tactical advice to help you build, launch, and grow your own product.