Six Takeaways from ‘Inspired’ by Marty Cagan

Posted by in Business Strategy, Software Development

Julian recaps a product management classic, explaining where to find inspiration for great products and what it takes to bring them to life.

I recently read the product management classic, “Inspired” by Marty Cagan, and wanted to share my official recap, with six product-oriented takeaways for Mightyblog readers. If you’re working on product development or innovation in your organization, these tips should prove useful.

1. Focus on Misery, not on Technology

Cagan features this Jeff Bonforte quote in his book to illustrate a core concept that should resonate with every product team:

I like my product managers to focus on the most miserable thing people have to deal with everyday. If you can solve that problem, that actually changes behavior, and that can lead to the truly big product wins.

Instead of talking about technologies and solutions, you should spend your time focusing on the people you’re trying to help, and the problems they have. It’s here that the great ideas will reveal themselves.

image of Leonardo DaVinci drawing for his Flying Machine design, c. 1488
Leonardo DaVinci, Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1488

2. Enlist your Developers Early

Marty Cagan makes it clear that to create incredible products you need to pull your developers into your  product development endeavors early and often. This means putting your developers in front of customers, having them help lead discovery, and allowing research time so they can put foresight into the technological possibilities for your project. When put in front of customers, the developers will learn from seeing users struggle firsthand and will gain a better appreciation for existing product issues.

Also, by involving your product engineers from the very beginning of the discovery process, they can give early assessments of how much time and effort it will take to implement different ideas and can help you identify feasible solutions. One common mistake that product teams make is to design a product in a vacuum without any insight from the developers who will be building the product. By having your development stakeholders involved up front you can start the negotiation of the product’s principle features earlier rather than later.

3. Use Prototypes over Product Requirement Documents

Cagan recommends using a high-fidelity prototype, as your mechanism for communicating the product specifications as well as product changes. The term high-fidelity means it should be a close-to-realistic representation of the proposed user experience. This prototype can also help overcome language barriers if you’re working internationally, and can eliminate problems with varied interpretations that lengthy product requirements elicit. Since it’s now easier than ever to create a working prototype, there is little reason not to do so.

image of Leonardo DaVinci drawing of a flying machine, c. 1488
Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1488

4. Lead by Objective, Not Instruction

Cagan quotes General George S. Patton, Jr. when making a cae for managing by objective, and not by direction:

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

His theory is that if you tell people what to do or what you’re looking for and not how to do it, it’s more likely they will surprise you and exceed your expectations. I personally call this the “back pocket” theory. If I have a personal opinion on how to execute a specific design, I’ll stuff it in my back pocket and let the designers and developers run with the ball. If my idea becomes needed at a certain point I’ll pull it out, but 9 times out of 10 their execution is better than what was in my back pocket.

5. Manage by Wandering Around

Cagan advocates that team leaders need to get out of their departement or cubicle and spend time with the people from across the company, informally. He also advocates strong listening to everyday dialog in daily conversations. This is something I’m working on myself, and I recommend that you check out this TED talk on listening by Julian Treasure. Lastly, Cagan insists you keep your door open and welcome people to drop in with product suggestions, thoughts and ideas.

image of drawing done by Leonardo DaVinci, Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1487
Leonardo DaVinci, Design for a Flying Machine, c. 1487

6. Build a Team With a Core of Passion, Integrity, Empathy

Cagan lists twelve traits that are desirable for product leaders, ranging from work ethic to confidence and communication skills. Out of all these, I’ve picked the three that have resonated most with me throughout my career.

Product Passion

Cagan says “Some people… just love products—they live, eat, and breathe them,” and I couldn’t agree more. There are people who respect craftsmanship and intelligent design, and they wear it on their sleeve. You can tell when you meet one of these people because they have such a deep-rooted love for great products and will happily run down a list of products they use and own. This is the kind of passion you’ll need in a product manager so he or she can motivate the team, overcome challenges, and motor through  long nights when building your product.

Customer Empathy

Great product managers do not necessarily have to come from your target market but they absolutely should be able to empathize with your target market. For example, someone who bikes to work and has never driven a car might struggle to identify with users of a parking-spot app, or may not care to. Make sure when staffing your product team that their values and interests align somewhat with what you’re building, or at least ensure that they can empathize and try to understand your target customers.


In most organizations, product leaders are less-likely direct people managers, and more likely people-influencers. For this reason, it is important that a product manager possess integrity. Trust and respect are built over time by demonstrating the traits and skills of a leader. If your team lead isn’t perceived to have integrity, honesty and fairness when dealing with his or her teammates then they will never elicit the degree of collaboration and effectiveness needed to succeed.

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