(2024-06-04) Lenny Erez In Defense Of Feature Team Product Managers

Lenny Rachitsky lets Ben Erez speak In defense of feature team product managers. Really weak. And, I think, his 2 points are written in the wrong order. So I need to summarize and then rebut.... tk

Lenny: After my conversation with SVPG founder Martin Cagan (currently the fifth most popular episode of the podcast and still growing) ((2024-03-10) Lenny Interviews Cagan On Product Management Theater), I saw many reactions to Marty’s difficult-to-hear advice. The strongest response came in a thread by Ben Erez. Ben made the case that feature teams are not innately wrong, and that “feature factory” PMs are real PMs doing important work

I asked Ben to expand on his experience and insights in a guest post, which you’ll find below.... he now partners with early-stage teams as an advisor and interim first PM, helping founders define the PM role before making a full-time hire.

Ben: This past March, Marty Cagan joined Lenny on the podcast to talk about his new book, Transformed

Marty believes that most companies would be better with empowered PM cultures and expressed his views about why feature team PMs are more project managers than product managers

At one point, Lenny asked Marty for his response to a LinkedIn post I wrote about why feature factories—businesses that focus on outputs over outcomes—might actually be the optimal product culture for some companies. Marty said that in the long run, this way of thinking leads to building products that nobody likes (e.g. Oracle and SAP). On that point, we’re in agreement.

Where our thinking diverges is that I see the feature factory as the right choice for some CEOs to run their companies, especially when those CEOs have a clear and compelling product vision.

While I don’t think that feature factories make for better businesses, I do believe that many founders have a clear vision of what needs to be built in order to win

Counter to the popular narrative, I believe that:

  • Feature team PMs are real PMs doing important work
  • Feature teams are extremely valuable to CEOs in certain scenarios

What’s a feature factory?

“Feature factory” is a term that, I believe, John Cutler coined in 2016 (shout-out, John, for being awesome) to describe a process focused on rapidly producing and shipping features without strategically considering the impact these features have on users and the business.

Feature teams vs. empowered teams

The alternative to the feature factory is a culture that rewards outcomes over outputs. These teams are praised for helping the company figure out what to build, solving customer problems, improving customer satisfaction, moving the needle on key product metrics, and contributing to company goals.

Marty refers to teams in feature-factory environments as “feature teams” and the alternative as “empowered teams.” I’ll use those terms in this post.

I’ve worked in both environments and personally find empowered teams 10 times as enjoyable as feature teams

Yet despite empowered teams being dramatically more popular environments for PMs (stated preference), the majority of PMs still seem to be operating in feature teams (revealed behavior).

Regardless of their reasons, many feature team PMs decide to stay. And when they hear the following, they feel frustrated because the validity of their role as a PM is called into question

I believe that PMs on feature teams are also real product managers.

The role of feature team PMs

I believe Marty is heavily discounting the product work required for feature teams to be successful. When a feature request comes in, it’s usually vague. Sometimes it’s a single sentence.

In my experience, the product work involved on a feature team and empowered team are largely the same

Why CEOs value feature teams

Successful product leaders often help the CEO flesh out their vision and bring it to life by working with PMs to execute at the highest level.

Many CEOs (especially founders) want to hire world-class product leaders to help them build winning products, yet they ultimately struggle to create empowered product cultures. Some of these CEOs value execution speed above all because moving quickly is what has worked for them in the past

Here are a couple of scenarios that will sound familiar even to CEOs who want an empowered product culture:

Scenario 1: Staying ahead

You’re the founder of a company whose competitor launches a new capability.

You decide to build the feature as a defensive play to protect revenue.

Scenario 2: Displacing incumbent

You’re the founder of a vertical B2B SaaS company attempting to displace a legacy player in a well-known domain with clear jobs to be done. You decide that reaching feature parity on certain must-haves is the only way to win deals

In both situations, it’s the responsibility of the product leader to help the CEO understand the tradeoffs of various paths

But once a CEO has made up their mind, the product leader needs to commit to the decision

When feature team PMs try behaving like empowered PMs

The PM starts pushing back on feature requests and refocuses the momentum toward product discovery.

Sales leaders perceive the PM to be slowing down velocity instead of accelerating it. They tell the CEO about the problematic PM.

With that said, I’d like to highlight a story about a product leader (not an individual contributor) who pushed his team to do the empowered product job on top of the feature team job for the better part of a year to show results. Marty describes this as a proven transformation technique called an “outcome-based roadmap,”

my team took a crazy third option. We did both at the same time. For two quarters we did two jobs and twice the work—feature factory and empowered product. We continuously measured the results and showed it to our stakeholders. It was nuts, but the model was awesome and the results convinced stakeholders to eventually buy in, because the model delivered on their results agenda. (Ronnie Varghese, product coach and advisor)

So what’s my advice for feature team PMs?

  • 3. Don’t beat yourself up if your environment makes empowered PM behavior impossible or risky. If you feel truly stuck on a feature team, there’s no shame in being a great feature team PM. However, if you have the opportunity to join an empowered team, it’s worth exploring!
  • 4. In interviews, no hiring manager will explicitly say the role is on a feature team. You’ll need to make your own assessment. Questions you can ask:....

Edited:    |       |    Search Twitter for discussion