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A review of Inspired, the product management classic by Marty Cagan

A review of Inspired, the product management classic by Marty Cagan

“It doesn’t matter how good your engineering team is if they are not given something worthwhile to build.”

In the opening lines of the newly released second edition of the product management classic — Inspired — Marty Cagan begins with a story that will sound familiar to anyone who’s followed him over the years.

It was the mid-1980s, and Cagan was working as a software engineer on a high-profile product at HP. His team was tasked with shipping an innovative low-cost general-purpose workstation. Sacrificing countless nights and weekends, they worked on their product for over a year, adding a handful of patents to HP’s portfolio along the way. They exceeded HP’s exacting quality standards, internationalized and localized the product for several languages, trained the sales force, and previewed their product with the press to rave reviews.

Just one problem: No one bought it.

As it turns out, excellent engineering is necessary, but not sufficient, for delivering an excellent product.

“At least as important is discovering a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.”

Cagan committed to never again spend so much time working on something that would never be used. And so began his storied career in product management, which took him from HP to Netscape to eBay, where he served as senior VP of Product Management and Design. He is now a partner at Silicon Valley Product Group, advising a large roster of companies (including many you’d recognize) on how to improve their product processes.

Making products customers love

It’s hard to find a resource for new product managers that doesn’t reference Inspired. Yet if you expected the book to launch straight into an exhaustive breakdown of product management vs. project management vs. program management vs. product marketing you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Likewise, no Venn diagrams of Design/Business/Technology here!

Cagan does touch on these topics in due time, but first lays the foundations for what’s to come by outlining the distinct challenges faced by startups, scaling companies, and enterprises. He also introduces what he considers the root cause of failed product efforts. (Hint: It rhymes with “shmotterfall”.)

Stepping back, it’s clear that Cagan’s goal is not to define product management. It’s to describe good product management. Any readers who happen to be new to the field will pick up the fundamentals along the way.

Key takeaways

To kick things off, Cagan introduces a few of the inherent problems that exist in organizations with dysfunctional product organizations, or no dedicated product managers at all:

  1. Half of our ideas are just not going to work
  2. Even those that do will require several iterations to get right

Marty Cagan's two inconvenient truths

As if the two inconvenient truths of product weren’t bad enough, Cagan goes on to describe 10 serious issues that product teams face, any of which could derail a team’s efforts. In the span of four pages worth the cost of the book alone, he covers everything from the pitfalls of sales-driven product teams and shipping “specials” to making assumptions about things we can’t possibly know, like exactly which features we’ll be working on six months from now.

For Cagan, there are no silver bullets and he acknowledges the frustrations many of us have had adopting Lean and Agile methodologies in our organizations: Some spend months developing their “MVPs”, while others paralyze themselves by testing and validating every little feature.

“The way Agile is practiced in most organizations is hardly Agile in any meaningful sense… The best teams I know are leveraging the core principles of Lean and Agile, but are raising the bar on what they’re trying to achieve and how they work.”

On the other hand, the best teams tackle risks upfront, rather than at the end, they define and design products collaboratively, not by tossing specs or designs over the wall, and they focus on solving problems, not implementing features. Cagan returns to these principles throughout as he covers how the best product organizations are structured, and how responsibilities are best divided between design, engineering, product, and marketing.

The best product teams tackle risks upfront, rather than at the end, they define and design products collaboratively, not by tossing specs or designs over the wall, and they focus on solving problems, not implementing features.

Later he identifies problems with traditional roadmaps–containing features, dates, and unrealistic commitments–and proposes an alternative roadmap that focuses on vision, objectives, and outcomes.

Over 100 pages are devoted to describing product discovery as a process for ensuring you’re solving the right user need in the right way, packed with descriptions of concrete techniques for startup canvases, story mapping, customer interviews, prototyping, and solution testing.

Who’s the book for?

If there’s an ideal readership for Cagan’s book, I’d say it’s someone with three months to thirty years of experience working in some capacity with a product team. While I would recommend Inspired to complete newcomers to tech or to product, there are other books out there better suited for PM101. While it’s possible the breadth of Cagan’s subject matter, and the macro-level view of product’s role within the entire organization, would be helpful in your first months as an associate PM, there’s a lot of detail that won’t be relevant until you master the basics. That’s in part because Cagan writes in the abstract, through principles and techniques, not examples and stories. (Apart from the cautionary tale from HP, the only other exception is a set of six brief vignettes on outstanding product managers–all of whom are women!–that describe the outsized impact they had on their organizations.) If you’re still early in your career, you’ll want to return to Inspired often as it’s mainly by having experienced the dynamics and scenarios Cagan describes that you’ll truly appreciate his message.

Should I buy the second edition?

So if you already own the original, should you buy Inspired 2?

I’d highly recommend it.

This is not the typical second edition that fixes a typo and quietly removes a prediction that aged poorly (this iPhone thing is totally gonna flop, amirite?). Despite his original intention to only make minor updates, Cagan soon realized the second edition would require a complete rewrite and I think it was the right call. The first edition was released in 2008 before Agile was well established, and before terms like Customer Development and Lean Startup were popularized. If the first edition focused on these as trending topics, specifically in the context of startups, the second edition offers a vantage point for analyzing how these techniques have fared over the years, how they’ve been misunderstood, where they shine, and most importantly, what’s next — particularly for scaling organizations and the enterprise.

As Cagan notes, Inspired 2 is not intended to provide a recipe for success. But it is a helpful guide for “creating the right product culture for success,” and understanding the array of product discovery and delivery techniques at your disposal for making inspired products.

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