The recent wave of layoffs reveals something tricky about the notion of "empowered" product teams. There's a missing ingredient that seems to separate the teams who get cut from the teams who survive.
In the last ten years of easy money, many product teams were "empowered" in the sense that they had a broad mandate and the latitude to pursue it. That mandate often took the form of a metric: "make this number go up" or "make that number go down."
If you've followed the product management trends, you might think this setup is desirable or even ideal. What could be better than a broad mandate and the freedom to use your own judgement to attain it?
What's playing out looks like a different story. It seems that being "empowered" isn't enough. Executives give their most trusted product teams something else: a mission. Their goal isn't to monotonically increase or decrease a number. It’s to get something out the door. To solve a longstanding problem. To build something that the company wants to bet on.
In quiet times and times of plenty, there will always be room for incremental optimizations. But when the pressure's on and the business needs to move from A to B, what's needed is a step change. The most valued product teams show their worth by aligning with execs, targeting an objective, and achieving it.