Product teams, feature teams, and responsibility

Marty Cagan introduced the distinction between feature teams and product teams, and over the last few months I’ve had quite a few conversations with people about this—how their teams compare, what they want to aim for, how to make a change, and more.

One critical distinction between the two types of team is that engineers in a feature team don’t collaborate with the product manager on the subject of product value or business viability. They do work out the feasibility of a solution, but are not really part of the conversation about whether it would be valued by customers or be worthwhile for the business. Similarly for designers, but with their focus on usability. In a (true, or empowered) product team the engineers and designers also collaborate on the value and business viability.

The vast majority of product managers I’ve met want to work with empowered product teams… and most of them don’t.

But what motivation would a senior leader (a CEO or a CTO, say) have for supporting product teams over feature teams? If they were to take a purely output-based approach perhaps the feature team is the best approach. After all, if the value and business viability sit clearly with one person, the product manager, that provides motivation and backside to kick. Plus, the engineers’ job is clear, and they can crack right on with it. Or perhaps the value and business viability are clear to the senior leader, and just doesn’t factor into any thinking about the teams.

One possible motivation—a possible pitch to the senior leader—is to consider responsibility. What do—and don’t—we want the engineers to be responsible for? If the engineers aren’t involved in the definition of the product, including its value and its viability within the business, then they cannot be held responsible for how it’s received or what it does for the business. But if we want to really motivate our teams, then let’s get them collaborating on those bigger questions, too. It’s not just just a bonus on top of their usual work of writing code; it means they have skin in the game.

Photo by DurhamDundee