How to decipher product management roles (part II)

How to decipher product management roles (part II)

In my previous post, I started with the product-market attributes that affect the roles and responsibilities of a product manager. I fleetingly mentioned the second factor, organizational variables, that impacts a product manager role. Below are four organizational variables that shape the product role.

Organizational Variables

1. Market vs engineering centric

An ideal organization is one which sells products fulfilling specific need(s) of the market. This company focuses on reading the market, is inquisitive about customer needs and concentrates its efforts to build and sell the resulting product.  This is turn necessitates a certain way-of-work for product managers. It creates the need for specific processes to bring in external insights & successfully act on them.
The other side of the spectrum is a an engineering-heavy company. Data from Product Management Benchmarks Report 2017 shows that the number one reason for a company not being ‘product management-led’ is that it is ‘technology driven’.
Would you call your company a
Product Management Benchmarks Report 2017
Internal stakeholders ‘think’ they know what the markets need. If these ‘thoughts’ are not validated, they end up building gold-plated products that over-serve customer needs. Alternatively they could build products that under-serve market needs. Either ways, product decisions are not market-driven.
Why does it matter to product managers?
It determines the amount of energy spent by a product manager to get buy-in for product strategy and roadmap. The challenge in engineering centric organizations is that, if product managers see the market evolving in a direction diametrically opposite to the internal technology roadmap, they have to work extra hard navigating through red-tape and wrench control out of architecture teams. Instead of being a team effort, it turns into a counter productive you-vs-me way of working.
Being a product manager in market driven organization increases likelihood of successfully rolling out products – as they spend more time fulfilling customer needs than demonstrating engineering prowess.

2. Product owner vs. Product Manager

With increased adoption of agile practices in product development, there has been increasing confusion about the role of a product manager vs. a product owner. To complicate things a bit more, let’s add a technical product manager and a product marketing manager in the mix.
To avoid reinventing the wheel, I’d point to some really good literature out there on the topic. This post from Marty Cagan clarifies that these roles aren’t the same thing. Dig deeper into the scope of responsibilities and accountability, find out who are the key stakeholders to work with (sales vs. engineering … or both) and lastly, figure out how you will be measured.
Go beyond titles and clarify the specifics for the role. As Marty Cagan asks,  “Are you just administering the backlog, or are you actually tackling and solving difficult problems for your customers and your business?”

3. Size of the organization

The size of an organization defines the structure of product/business units. Larger organizations have multiple product managers looking after a portfolio of products – often resulting in corporate silos. Surprisingly, even with merely six co-located product managers it is not uncommon to see lack of awareness about each other’s product areas.
Yet another flavor is where multiple product managers are responsible for the same product. This complicates accountability and direction-setting. It creates confusion in the rest of the organization. Marketing does not know, who should they seek input from and which one of the two product people has the final say on what matters (the lac of clear decision matrix)?
These are challenges for the Head of Product to solve, and is a topic for some other time and place! Yet it is crucial to dig into these aspects and clarify when considering such a position.
Alternatively in smaller organization, being the only product person has two sides. The side with good news is – there’s only one person accountable! The flip side is, the organization may not know what is a ‘Product Manager’?The extreme is a small startup which hires the first product person to scale the business. Before this person comes in, the co-founder/CxO has been making all product decisions. Co-founders have a hard time relinquishing control on product-decisions. In these cases it is essential to build a common understanding of the expectations on both sides.

Understand that size of the company defines presence or absence of silos. Know more on how it will impact your work collaborating across different functions and with other product units. Assess if the resulting culture fits your ideal environment to achieve peak performance in the product role.

4. Reporting lines / org structure

Organization structure vary across companies, industries and markets. A natural extension is that the resulting reporting structure of product team within the organization also varies. The 2017 Product Management and Marketing survey shows that 10% of the companies had their product teams report in to engineering. This impact the kind of daily activities involved in the company.
For a team reporting in to sales, the upfront expectation is that product team exists ONLY to support new sales. This hampers future strategic planning. Tactical efforts in new sales opportunities take up all time. Feature requests from individual customers tear the product into all directions, eventually spreading it thin in terms of value – setting you up for failure.
A marketing led product team will have an affiliation to ‘go to market’, not necessarily showing any special love for developers. The product manager will spend lot of time in assisting in demand generation programs, with focus on vetting external messaging.
Ideally a product management led organization should establish product processes,  use market view to prioritize product roadmap, assess implication of business models on product evolution etc.

Know if your personality fits with the part of the role needing heavy weight lifting. Where will you thrive better – working closely with logic driven engineers, or meticulous engineers or target driven sales people? Make an informed choice based on what you understand about the organization

Wrapping up

In combination with the Product & Market attributes, ensure (and ask questions) that you know more about the people you work with and the role you are in. Clarifying questions help understand and confirm the scope of responsibilities and the degree of freedom available. While this is not an exhaustive list of things to know, I consider these among the top few aspects to think hard about when marching towards a product opportunity.

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