If you are interested in a topic, you will find a “The best topic books” list sooner or later. And when you find it repeatedly included in these shortlists, you (or at least me) start to think that I must read it.
So, after finding it in several lists and reading multiple references to it over the years as well as many articles on the Silicon Valley Product Group’s blog, I decided to read “Inspired. How To Create Tech Product Customers Love” by Marty Cagan.
Cagan served as an executive responsible for defining and creating products for some successful companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Netscape or eBay. After several years on the field, he founded the Silicon Valley Product Group (SVPG), a product management coaching firm which was created to share lessons learned and the best practices of how to create innovative products.
As I have done on other occasions, I write down some notes and ideas to try to remember them better in the future. I hope you will find them interesting enough to continue reading this post until the end.
“If you only have one book on product management, this is the one”
The above headline is a quote by Chad Dickerson (former CEO of Etsy) that you can find on the back cover of this book. Well, you know how this kind of quote works… but I think this case is pretty accurate.
Inspired is an overall master class about how to structure and develop effective product organisation, and how to discover and deliver technology products. The book includes four main sections about assembling the right people and skills, defining the right goals, discovering the right product, and creating a strong product culture.
The book is a summary of brief chapters (quite similar to a blog post, so they are usually between 3 and 5 pages long) about interesting topics in each one of the main sections. Obviously, there is only an introduction about the subject which should be investigated further… but the book helps you to gain an excellent general overview about all the product management processes.
Additionally, the author has filled each chapter with some personal stories and profiles of other product management people, which shows you different approaches on the path to building great digital products.
Finally, although the author uses a well-defined structure to move forward in the book, there are some points which help him to build a solid story. Some of them are the root causes of the failed products, the importance of the team and the culture, or how the discovery phase is the best base to identify and solve business problems.
What is Inspired by Marty Cagan about?
Inspired; How To Create Tech Products Customers Love starts by identifying the root causes of failed product efforts. As an introduction, Cagan describes how getting ideas from the wrong source, avoiding involving all teams in the whole process, and managing the product with a traditional project management mindset means falling into the abyss.
To avoid this situation, the author describes three principles based on Agile and Lean spirit:
- Risks are tackled up front, rather than at the end.
- Products are defined and designed collaboratively, rather than sequentially.
- It is all about solving problems, not implementing features.
The right people
“It’s all about the product team”.
That is one of the key concepts which is repeated throughout the different chapters. Cagan explains the roles (Product Manager, Product Designer, Engineers…) in a product team, how they should work and how to scale a team.
The goal is to form a team of missionaries (and not mercenaries) who collaborate for the whole process, and where the team has the ownership and responsibility for the outcome.
The Product Manager should have the necessary information about the client, the data, the business and the industry as well as being smart, creative and persistent. Additionally, the Product Manager is in charge of communication where how to deal and manage the expectations is a key point for a successful performance.
Regarding how to structure teams, the author explains that one key is to be aligned (with company strategy, with the clients/users and with the architecture of the product). Additionally, he describes how to minimise dependencies and maximise leverages, how the team should manage their ownership and autonomy or how big the team should be.
The right product
In this part of the book, Cagan writes about how to determine what the product team should be working on through three areas: product roadmap, product vision and product objectives.
According to the author (well, it is my opinion too and I am not alone), the classic roadmaps have several drawbacks. At least 50% of the ideas described in a roadmap will not work or we will need several iterations to achieve it, so it is quite difficult to accomplish .
For this reason, Cagan suggests an alternative based on the product vision and strategy, adding up the business objectives to get “outcome” and not “output”. In other words, we should focus on how to solve business problems and avoid thinking about launching features or projects.
The product vision describes the future we are trying to create, typically somewhere between two and five years. Its primary purpose is to communicate this vision and inspire the teams to want to help make this vision a reality.
The product strategy is our sequence of products or releases we plan to deliver on the path to realising the product vision. Cagan encourages the reader to construct it around a series of product/market fits (vertical market, different customer, geography…) but focused on only one at a time. Regarding prioritisation, he recommends three factors: market sizing (total addressable market – TAM), distribution capabilities (go to market – GTM) and estimation how long it will take (time to market – TTM).
In order to achieve the product objectives, Cagan also briefly describes the OKR technique , which is based on two principles: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity” (a George Patton quote) and “When performance is measured by results” (you can release all the features you want, but if it does not solve the underlying business problem, you haven’t really solved anything).
The right process
There are no silver bullets, so the right process is not any single process. Rather, it is more accurately described as a combination of techniques, mindset and culture: the product discovery.
For most of the teams, there are two significant challenges to tackle. Firstly, discovering in detail what the customer solution needs to be. Secondly, needing to ensure we deliver a robust and scalable implementation that our customers can depend on for consistently reliable value. So, we need to learn fast, yet also release with confidence.
The purpose of product discovery is to address these critical risks:
- Will the customer buy this, or choose to use it (Value risk)
- Can the user figure out how to use it? (Usability risk)
- Can we build it? (Feasibility risk)
- Does this solution work for our business? (Business viability risk)
But it is not enough with the product manager’s opinion. We need to collect evidence. And for that, there are several methods which can be used:
- Framing Techniques help us to identify the underlying issues that must be tackled during the product discovery phase. Include: Opportunity Assessment Technique, Customer Letter Technique and Startup Canvas Technique.
- Discovery Planning Techniques to identify the bigger challenges and how you will attack this work. Include: Story Map Technique and Customer Discovery Program Technique.
- Discovery Ideation Techniques in order to come up with ideas: Customer Interviews, Concierge Test Technique, The Power of Customer Misbehaviour and Hack Days.
- Discovery Prototyping Techniques, with different purposes and characteristics. Include: Feasibility Prototypes, User Prototypes, Live‐Data Prototypes, Hybrid Prototypes
- Discovery Testing Techniques, about how to try out an idea as soon as possible. Include: Testing Usability, Testing Value, Testing Demand, Testing Value Qualitatively, Testing Value Quantitatively, Demand Testing Techniques, Qualitative Value Testing Techniques, Quantitative Value Testing Techniques, Testing Feasibility and Testing Business Viability.
The right culture
The author thinks of product culture in two dimensions. The first dimension is whether the company can be consistently innovative to come up with valuable solutions for their customers (this is what product discovery is all about).
The second dimension is execution. It does not matter how great the ideas are if you cannot get a productised, shippable version delivered to your customers (this is what product delivery is all about).
If I have to choose only one chapter from the whole book, I will choose chapter 64 because it describes how a good (and a bad) product team works in several fields (obviously, these ideas are summaries of many concepts which have been previously described by the author): the product vision, the relationship with stakeholders, how to develop ideas, how to manage data, or how to achieve business impact.
Additionally, Cagan gives advice about how to build a strong product culture. In the discovery and innovation area, he thinks the key factors are experimentation, having an open mind, empowerment, technology, diversity and discovery techniques. On the other hand, in the execution area, the fundamental aspects are urgency, high-integrity commitments, accountability, collaboration, culture of results and recognition.
My two cents about Inspired, How To Create Tech Products Customers Love
Inspired is definitely a must-read book and it deserves all its fame. It is a great overall view of the product management process, focusing on how to build a strong product team and culture.
Cagan gets to the point throughout the whole book and you will not find any content there only for padding out. It is easy to find several cases where he explains a technique in 3 or 4 pages, while other authors use a 250 pages book.
Obviously, you will discover new things which you will need to investigate deeper (inside the book, there are some interesting references such as User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product, or Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster) but I like that the book helps you to understand the key points of the topic without wasting your time.
This is the reason why if you are an experienced product manager, you will find the book a bit simple, but my opinion is that Inspired is especially interesting for junior product managers, who want to have a full picture about how to improve their work.
However, there are two things to take into consideration. First of all, it will be quite difficult to find a company which follows all of Cagan’s recommendations, regardless of their size or product. It is true that we must take them as a “model” to follow, but the real world is usually quite different.
Secondly, you do not believe that the product management role is a 60 hours a week job as Cagan writes. Yes, there are stressful moments, it is quite intense (as it happens with many others in the industry), and you will need to be constantly up-to-date with new techniques and technologies and improving your skills. However, in any case, it should not become a routine.
My opinion is that “keep focus as strategy”, “prioritise” and “say no” are key in a product management role, so it is a must to develop these skills to manage your product… and your daily work to avoid being totally burned out. Work better, not longer.