3 Empowerment Levels in Product Management

Roman Pichler
8 min readFeb 20, 2024
Photo by Nikhita Singhal on Unsplash

Being empowered can make all the difference in doing a great job. Sadly, not all product people have the authority they need. This observation is hardly new, though, and just wishing for more empowerment isn’t enough. In this article, I explain what empowerment in product management really means. I help you determine how empowered you are, and I share specific tips to increase your empowerment.

🎧 Listen to the audio version of this article on my podcast: https://www.romanpichler.com/podcast/empowerment-levels-in-product-management/

Introduction

To discuss empowerment in product management, I find it helpful to distinguish three main levels of decision-making authority, product delivery, product discovery, and product strategy, as the model in Figure 1 shows.[1]

3 Empowerment Levels in Product Management

Level one represents the authority to decide how features are detailed and guide their implementation. Level two increases empowerment by adding the authority to determine the features and user experience the product should offer. Level three, finally, allows product people and teams to develop the product strategy including the value proposition and business goals.

Before I discuss the three levels in more detail, let me briefly explain why I wrote this article. My intention is to help you better understand your current level of empowerment, decide if it is appropriate, and determine how you might strengthen your authority. If you manage a group of product people, for example, as the head of product, I hope that the article will help you determine if the group’s empowerment is sufficient.

I certainly don’t intend to make anyone feel bad. At the same time, I believe that it is important to look at things the way they are. It’s the first step to bring about positive change.

Level 1: Product Delivery

If your job is to decide how features are implemented and if you work with one or two development teams to deliver them, then you are at level one. Here are four signs that this is the case:

  • Stakeholders, management, or another, more strategic product role determine which features have to be provided and communicate them to you, for example, during a sprint review meeting or in the form of feature requests.[2]
  • The product backlog, or one of its subsets, and the release plan are the main artefacts you work with.
  • You spend a significant amount of your time refining product backlog items, writing user stories, tracking the development progress, and talking to development team members.
  • You are not in a position to decline feature requests.

While the work you do at level one is valuable, your role is similar to a project or delivery manager. As you are not empowered to determine the product features, you are not in a position to manage the product and significantly impact the value it creates. To put it differently, level-one empowerment is not sufficient for being an effective product manager or Scrum product owner.[3]

Level 2: Product Discovery

Level-two empowerment means that you determine the product features and user experience. You are usually at this level if the following five criteria apply:

  • You carry out product discovery activities including talking to users, detailing user needs, and deriving the right product features.
  • You use an outcome-based product roadmap and/or an opportunity solution tree, personas, user journey maps, and the product backlog to capture and validate your decisions and guide the product delivery effort.
  • You manage the stakeholders, for example, by inviting them to roadmapping workshops and sprint review meetingsor by having regular one-on-ones with them.
  • You work towards an overarching product strategy, which states the value the product should create for the users, customers, and business. The strategy may be developed by the head of product or another senior manager.
  • You are empowered to decline a feature request if it does not meet the agreed strategic objectives.

At level two, you can actually manage the product and influence the value it creates. Consequently, this is the minimum level of empowerment product managers and Scrum product owners as well as product teams require.[4]

Level 3: Product Strategy

If you are authorised to determine not only the product features but also the product strategy, you experience level-three empowerment. Here are three signs that you are at this level:

If you’re at this level, you have full-stack empowerment: You are authorised to make strategic decisions in addition to solution-focused ones. I generally recommend that product people and product teams have level-three empowerment. This allows them to innovate fast and maximise value creation.

If you are familiar with my work, this recommendation won’t be a surprise. I’ve advocated level-three empowerment for product managers and Scrum product owners for many years. For example, I write in my book Strategize: “As the person in charge of the product, you should own the product strategy (…), and you should be empowered to have the final say on strategic decisions.”[5]

It’s not uncommon, though, that the head of product — also referred to as Director of Product Management, VP of Product, and Chief Product Officer — determines the product strategy. Unfortunately, this can cause the head to be overworked, become a bottleneck, and slow down decision-making. Proactively developing the product strategy and carrying out continuous strategizing work requires a significant effort. Additionally, it prevents the contributors from adding as much value as possible, and it can lead to lower morale and productivity.

Instead of creating and evolving the strategies of individual products, the head of product should help the contributors make the right strategic decisions, for example, by mentoring and coaching them or by asking them to attend my strategy and roadmap training. Additionally, the individual should ensure that the overall product portfolio is effectively managed, as I explain in more detail in the article Should a Head of Product Make Strategic Product Decisions.

Levelling Up

It’s all good and well to understand your current level of empowerment. But how can you increase your empowerment and move up from level one to levels two and three? The brief answer is: By increasing your referent and expert power and by bringing about some organisational change, as Figure 2 shows.

Empowerment Factors

Referent and expert power refer to your ability to influence others including management, stakeholders, and development teams.[6] The former is based on the respect and trust people have in you; the latter is founded on your expertise. The more people trust you and the more knowledgeable you are, the more they will listen to your advice and let you determine the product features and make strategic product decisions. It’s therefore desirable to grow both powers.

Developing Your Referent and Expert Power

A great way to develop your referent power is to empathise with people, practise active listening, speak and act with integrity, be accountable, and involve people in product decisions, as I explain in more detail in the video below.

https://youtu.be/mFsp_D92axc

To strengthen your expert power, acquire the necessary product management skills and the relevant knowledge about your product and its market. For example, developing your ability to understand user needs, create an effective product roadmap, determine the right product features, and prioritise the product backlog will help you step up to level two. Being able to do market and competitor research, perform competitive analysis, create, validate, and evolve a product strategy, carry out business modelling and come up with a financial forecast, as well as use the right KPIs will enable you to move up to level three.

Affecting Organisational Change

But as Figure 2 illustrates, growing expert and referent power may not be enough. Say that you find yourself at level one. You are then unlikely to achieve level-two empowerment without your role being adjusted and its authority and responsibility being changed. These changes will most certainly require the support of your boss. If there is a larger impact, however, for instance, on career paths, development programs, and employee selection criteria, then you are likely to require the involvement of HR and the backing of senior management.

To bring about the necessary changes, try to influence the decision-makers and help them understand why product people require at least level-two empowerment — preferably after you have worked on your referent and expert power.[7] But if this fails, you are faced with two options: accept the status quo or look elsewhere for a product management job that offers the right level of empowerment.

Learn More

To learn more about the empowerment product people need and how you can increase your decision-making authority attend my Product Leadership Training and read my book How to Lead in Product Management.

Contact me if you want me to teach the course for your team or if you need help empowering the product people in your organisation.

Notes

[1] The model in Figure 1 takes advantage of the strategy, discovery, and delivery distinction described in Marty Cagan’s book Inspired, 2nd ed. Note that the model defines empowerment as having the necessary decision-making authority and having ownership of the product or at least some aspects of it.

[2] I use the term feature to refer to a product capability, for example, commenting on this article.

[3] In an agile, Scrum-based process, the project management work is collaboratively performed by the Scrum product owner and the development team with the latter taking on most of the work. In the scaling framework SAFe, however, the SAFe product owner has level-one empowerment, as far as I can tell.

[4] Marty Cagan calls teams, which lack level-two empowerment, “feature teams”.

[5] I continue by saying: “But this does not mean that you should create the strategy and roadmap on your own, hand the finished plans to the stakeholders and development teams, and expect them to put them into action. No matter how well thought-out your product strategy and roadmap are, they are worthless if the stakeholders and development teams do not buy into them. You should therefore involve them in creating and updating the plans, preferably in the form of collaborative workshops.” Strategize, 2nd ed., p. 20.

[6] Referent and expert power were first described by French and Raven in their paper The Basis of Social Power. They are also referred to as personal power to distinguish them from positional power, which is derived from a position in the org chart. See also my article Decoding Product Leadership for more information.

[7] If you have qualified coaches in your organisation, ask them to support you. A Scrum Master, for example, is meant to address organisational impediments and help bring about the changes necessary to establish an effective way of working. This includes increasing the empowerment of the product people.

This article was first published on my blog at www.romanpichler.com.

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Roman Pichler

Product management expert. Author of “Strategize,” “How to Lead in Product Management” and “Agile Product Management with Scrum.” www.romanpichler.com