“Most product managers are not doing the job their organizations need them to do. And most businesses don’t really know what they want them to do.”
The term “Product Management” covers all aspects of the product life cycle, from long-term business strategy to tactical support for other departments. But the responsibilities of product managers aren’t clear from one organization to another. People across the organization have widely divergent views on the role and title. What are the roles of product professionals?
The title “product manager” is simply too generic. In other words, the product manager seems responsible for anything related to the product—from business planning to determining the SKU in the financial systems; from discovering unsolved problems in the market to delivering product demos at industry conferences. Dealing with customer escalations, sales emergencies, and operational issues.
It’s this “product manager does everything” issue that drove the creators of Scrum to define a new role: “product owner.” But alas, that term has evolved various meanings as well. Is it the representative of the business, as described in Agile Product Management with Scrum? Or is it real-time support for the developers, as it is commonly implemented?
In truth, whatever the title, product management spans the life-cycle of the product, from idea definition to product creation to market growth and ultimately to retirement (or end-of-life).
Each phase requires a different skillset and primary focus for the product professional.
The least effective implementation of the product manager role is to provide product and technical support to other (internal) departments. Yet, because of their experience, many product managers have deep knowledge of the product and its capabilities as well as the near-term plans. This expertise makes product managers valued resources for other departments.
Common requests include providing technical answers for a customer proposal (such as an RFP or ITT), operational support for finance and IT, dealing with customer escalations, demonstrating the product to a client or at an industry conference, or visiting a customer simply to build credibility for the sales person. (Yes, it happens. Frequently.)
Of course, we cannot just say, “We’re not supporting you anymore.” So how do we continue to support our colleagues the business? Look for ways to empower them—supporting teams, not individuals; representing markets, not customers. Formalize the transfer of knowledge from product management to development and marketing. Provide them personas and problems so they can use their expertise in defining effective solutions.
Become an advocate for sales engineering in your sales teams. Work with sales management to determine the right ratio of sales engineers to sales people—for complex products, you probably need one sales engineer to support two sales people. (In fact, highly complex products often have one sales engineer per sales rep.) It’s the sales engineers who should be demoing the product, answering RFPs, and configuring the technical solutions for statements of work. Without the sales engineering role, product managers will be pulled into each deal.
When identifying problems in product strategy, planning, and growth, consider your internal stakeholders as well. How can product management support them systematically? If we don’t facilitate information transfer, the sales, marketing, and development teams will rely on product management for tactical product support.
Rather than being “the Wikipedia of the product” or “the source of all product information,” there are better ways to support the business.
How can product professionals support the field instead of helping them one-at-a-time? Consider the Product Growth Manager. This role takes a systematic approach to identifying and correcting problems that are hampering product growth. It involves profiling the sales funnel to identify areas to optimize the buyer’s journey. It includes analyzing customer wins and losses to identify areas for improvement in promotion and selling. It involves working with the marketing team to determine the best programs and campaigns to address problems discovered in the go-to-market process.
Sometimes called a product marketing manager, a Product Growth Manager works primarily with the current product. To be effective, he or she must know the product’s strengths and weaknesses, the competitive landscape, and the target market personas.
The Product Growth Manager is measured by increasing adoption—more customers evaluating, acquiring, and recommending the product.
Based on customer feedback from myriad sources, the Product Planning Manager aligns new feature requests against the product strategy and prioritizes the work to be done.
Most closely aligned with the agileproduct ownerrole, the Product Planning Manager is focused on the next set of deliverables—the next release, the next model. This role works closely with development and engineering to guide creation and revisions of the product.
Furthermore, Product Planning Managers are experts in market problems; development and engineering are experts in solutions. As such, Product Planning Managers represent the customer to the development team and guide the team to viable solutions.
The Product Planning Manager is measured on increased customer retention; that is, more customers using and implementing the product.
The Product Strategy Manager (sometimes called a Portfolio Strategy Manager) defines the portfolio roadmap, evaluates the overall success of products in his or her portfolio, and determines which products are failing to achieve their goals and should be retired.
Product Strategy Managers are typically seasoned product professionals with experience in the business of product management. They will likely rely on others in the organization for domain expertise.
The Product Strategy Manager is measured by completed business plans. That means identifying new product opportunities, validating those opportunities in the market place, and defining the necessary business documents to get commitment and funding to proceed with the idea.
The Three Roles of Product Professionals
What are the jobs that an organization needs product management to do? Defining a multi-year portfolio strategy, planning the next generation of existing products, and guiding growth of today’s product. It’s hard for one person to focus on today, tomorrow, and the future. And it’s darn near impossible to do any of these when consumed with product support and operational demands.
Most organizations should hire to these three lifecycle-based profiles. Instead of hiring three generic product managers, one for each of three products, hire a strategy manager, planning manager, and growth manager for the portfolio of products. That is, hire a specialist who can manage all the products in one stage of the lifecycle instead of managing one product through all stages of its lifecycle.
We need a team of product professionals laser-focused on today, tomorrow, and the future.