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Product Management – Are We Kidding Ourselves?

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I’ve spent much of my professional career defending the strategic role of Product Management. In fact, I’ve built a whole business around it.

I’ve argued that Product Managers should reduce the day to day tactical activities and instead, spend what limited time they have focusing on the value they can deliver to their constituents.

My view has always been that Product Managers should be leaders of change.

Product Managers should be the ones listening for and analyzing market trends, understanding the complexity between competitors, suppliers, buyers and users and finding lucrative opportunities within that mix.

Product Managers should share market information with their internal teams to generate new ideas and derive ‘better’ solutions.

They should be accountable for parts of the product’s P&L, reporting on and improving the product’s performance.

They should be ‘at the table’ where product strategy is seen and heard.

But… I now come to think that my view on the role of Product Management may not or must not be correct.

If it is, why does a whole professional group continue to defend its right to be strategic? No one else seems to think that Product Management is the rightful owner of Product Strategy except Product Management.

Are we willing ourselves to be something we shouldn’t be?

Are we simply kidding ourselves?


Please add your feedback in the comments below.

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  • Mary Lojkine says:

    You say, “No one else seems to think that Product Management is the rightful owner of Product Strategy except Product Management.”

    If something is important, people don’t concede ownership of it lightly. Depending on the product, there may be several other business stakeholders who can and should contribute to the overall strategy.

    ‘Ownership’ is an emotive term and can make people think you’re drawing battle lines. Maybe it’s more productive to argue that product management should have a seat at the table when discussing business strategy.

  • Olaf Kowalik says:

    We’re not kidding ourselves. What many people don’t realize is that “product management is the business”. Product management isn’t a service or a design role. The power of product management is the ability to transform business and operating models. Product management is often equated to technical design, but that is pretty limiting. When properly supported, product management is a business driver.

    The challenge happens when product management isn’t integrated into the business and appears as an add-on. That creates a situation where a business unit sets itself in opposition to product management and justification battle begins.

    Enjoyed your post!

  • Some good points, and it rolls back to the perennial discussion of tactical morass or strategic focus.

    I suspect that the battle is largely because of how product management is originally introduced to an organization. All too often, Product Management is instituted to be a one man/woman group that handles all the odds and ends associated with a product. This can start with being a point contact for support issues. Or it can be a super specialist to help close orders (particularly if there is no sales engineering role). In organizations such as this, the product manager is seen as a catch all role, and inherently tactical. Hence if you find yourself in one of these roles, you actively need to prove that you are the strategic leader.

    On the other hand, if product management is brought in because a business leader is told that it is needed (but doesn’t understand the role), then you get a situation of an ill defined role. Often times, the person recruited will be more of a business development or business analyst bent, and will fail miserably at the day to day. They will be used to a single thread of activity, and unable to handle the deluge that will be thrown at them.

    I have never experienced bliss in product management, a role where there was a definite balance between the priorities, and executive sponsorship to ensure that your time is properly guarded so that you can handle the fires, as well as the long term planning. I find that I have to fight to keep it balanced.

    One thing that is troubling, is the recent trend (promoted by the Blackblot (and in the US by the 280 Group)that the product management role is best split into two functions, the Product Planner (whatever that means) and the Product Marketer. I read that as a recipe for disaster. A product manager MUST have market authority, MUST have deep product knowledge, MUST know how to define segments, verticals, programs, and execute Voice of the Customer exercises. Splitting that role into two distinct, and non-overlapping staff members will get you to where Microsoft appears to be. Product managers are marketing people, pretty far from the technology, and the product planners are jumped up engineers. Often these two people will not talk more than a couple times a year (slight exaggeration, but not too far off the mark).

    The cliche of the Product Manager being the CEO of the product is a bit tired, but has more than a thread of truth. It is just that they often have neither the experience, nor the internal authority to act as such that torpedoes the process.

  • nick coster says:

    Hi Geoffrey,
    What we, at brainmates, have observed in our consulting and training is that the attempt to balance the tactical aspects (eg, operational support, project delivery, etc) and the strategic aspects (eg market focus and business decisions) of the product management domain by a single person invariably results in compromised performance of both.

    So I would strongly argue that you need at least 2 people to effectively manage a product. These 2 people must work closely together to effectively map the day to day and operational activities to the strategic objectives as well as provide feedback and information that may help guide future product innovation.

    At the strategic level it also makes sense to consider the overlapping experiences of both buyers AND users of your product. The Blackblot model recognises these focus areas with the strategic roles of Product Marketer (buyer focus) and Product Planner (user focus) and while it may be beneficial to have these as two separate people it is not as important as having the strategic and tactical roles separately staffed.
    [Disclosure: brainmates offers the Blackblot Strategic Product Management training course under license in Australia – ]

    So the clarification to your comment above is that these 2 strategic roles MUST be overlapping to deliver successful outcomes.

    In any scenario where the product management staff are not working in ways that overlap the product, the market and the business will suffer.

    –nick coster

  • Nick,

    Thanks for the expansion. I completely agree. As a product becomes more mature, and (hopefully) less chaotic, there clearly is a point where two staff is clearly indicated (and contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a magic revenue/unit sales number that marks this transition).

    That said, I have seen a trend of complete isolation of the two roles, to the point even of putting them in different buildings/states/countries, and erecting barriers (either compensation or communication) to prevent them from collaboration. They absolutely must be attached at the hip, and while their incentives might be different, they need to have common goals, and achievements that key off one another to be successful.

    Once again though, too often product management has seeped into a company to handle the tactical short term items, and never given a chance to evolve to a strategic/tactical blend. Be it a strong founder who has trouble letting go of their vision, or a reporting structure that hampers the transition (i.e. reporting to dev or engineering).

    Sometimes I feel like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and every tier of the swim is fraught with bears waiting to eat me.

  • nick coster says:

    “Geoffrey Anderson: Sometimes I feel like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and every tier of the swim is fraught with bears waiting to eat me.”

    This challenge was the seed for this post by Adrienne. When something is very hard to do and you are spending a lot of resource trying to do it, you have to take stock and make sure that the goal is worth it or that you are in fact working on the right problem.

    The question that this post raises is whether it is better to acknowledge product management as a mainly tactical activity and try to better influence the areas of the business who are actually defining the strategy.

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