The Strategic Role of Product Management

Market-driven focus leads companies to build products people want to buy.

Does product management matter?

The Strategic Role of Product Management explains why product management is a critical, strategic role in a technology company. One which guides products to be created based on a market need, not because someone thinks it is a good idea.

The Strategic Role of Product Management

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 Development knows what can be built;
product management knows what should be built.

Marketing knows how to communicate;
product management knows what to communicate.

Sales knows what one customer wants to buy;
product management knows what a market full of customers want to buy.

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Jeff Lash at How to be a Good Product Manager

Delegate Tactical Responsibilities
If you want to be a bad product manager, do everything yourself. You’re the product manager, after all, so you should be the final authority on everything related to the product. You should be the one answering questions from salespeople, drafting press releases for marketing, defining all of the processes for suppliers, and poring over every detail with engineering. Sure it takes a lot of your time, but that’s what a product manager should be spending time on. What other more important things are there to do?

If you want to be a good product manager, delegate tactical activities to allow you to spend time on the strategic aspects of the job. Effective product managers pass on product knowledge and responsibility for tactical decision-making as much as possible to others on the product development team. By leveraging the rest of the team, the product manager can focus on the strategic role of product management.

It is difficult for many product managers — especially new product managers — to effectively balance the strategic and tactical priorities of product management. With so many competing priorities, the minutia and day-to-day tends to take over. To extend a common metaphor, it’s not just that product managers sometimes focus on the trees instead of the forest — they go so far as to end up focusing on a specific piece of bark.

While it is easy to say that product managers should be more strategic and less tactical (see Spend your time in the right places, for example), actually accomplishing that is a significant challenge. Pragmatic Marketing recently released the free ebook “The Strategic Role of Product Management,” by Steve Johnson, which describes why product management is a strategic role and why product managers need to think and act strategically. Buried in the “Final thoughts” section is this beautiful nugget of wisdom (emphasis added):

Product management is a strategic role. Yet as experts in the product and the market, product managers are often pulled into tactical activities. Developers want product managers to prioritize requirements; marketing people want product managers to write copy; sales people want product managers for demo after demo. Product managers are so busy supporting the other departments they have no time remaining for actual product management. But just because the product manager is an expert in the product doesn’t mean no one else needs product expertise.

Product managers should take heed of this last sentence. Think about all of the tactical activities in which you engage — documenting details, answering questions, describing functionality, responding to feedback, tracking down responses, and the like. How much of your time is taken up by these activities? Why are you engaged in them? Is it because

  1. you are the only person in the company who knows how?
  2. everyone else is busy and you are the only one who has free time?
  3. they are so important that they must be done by you and only you?

The answer to these questions is probably an emphatic NO in most cases. The real reason that product managers are engaged in these activities is because they have done them in the past, so others assume they will do them in the future. Every time a product manager writes copy for marketing, or conducts a demo for sales, or investigates some technical issues for development, the product manager creates the expectation that he or she will do that in the future. Obviously, there are some occasions where this may be appropriate, However, the vast majority of the time, the product manager can and should be giving the necessary direction, context, and guidance to allow other people to accomplish these tasks themselves.

Most product managers do not have staff reporting to them, so it is not necessarily as easy as delegating tasks to a direct report. Instead, product managers need to leverage others and teach them to be self-sufficient. This is not to say that product managers should ignore requests or haphazardly push off their responsibilities, of course. Instead, product managers should look to make those around them more effective by providing them with the tools, information, or resources they need.

Every time you as a product manager are presented with a task, ask yourself these questions:

It’s never easy saying “no,” though it may be easier to look at it this way — every time a product manager says “yes” to something that is tactical and routine, they are saying “no” to something that is forward-looking and strategic. Which would you feel more comfortable telling your boss — or the CEO — that you said “no” to?

So what do you do with the tactical activities — those requests for copy writing, operational meetings, responses to customers, and discussions of detailed product minutia? Ask yourself — and others — whether they are really necessary, or at least whether it is really necessary for you to be included. Going back to the three questions posed earlier, look at why you are engaged in tactical activities:

  1. If you are the only one who knows some vital piece of information, figure out some way to rectify that. Document it, communicate it, teach it to others, pick someone to transfer knowledge — find some way to make sure that someone else has the information. Beyond just providing better use of your time, this can be vital for business continuity and succession planning.
  2. If everyone else is claiming to be busy and is offloading responsibilities, the same can be doubly true for a product manager. Help create ways for people to answer questions or streamline tasks on their own, rather than passing on their additional work for you.
  3. If there really are activities that appear to be vital enough to be performed by you and only by you, analyze those activities closely. Some may seem critical at first glance, though upon review you may notice that they are not as important as originally thought. Also, other people may be turning to you because they think you want to be involved, or because they think you would be offended if you were not consulted. Just because someone else thinks a task is crucial enough that it must only be done by you does not mean that you have to agree with them.

Lastly, if you are involved in these activities only because you have always been — well, then make it a resolution to stop today! The more product managers can think about their role as being strategic and market-focused, the more they can add value to the organization and to customers. Effective product managers help create more product expertise within the company. This gives the product manager as much time as possible to focus on the reason the company created the position — to add value by creating and improving market-focused products.

Michael Ray Hopkin at Lead on Purpose

Though the role of product manager differs from one company to the next, most product managers I know believe they drive the strategy for their products. I suppose in most cases they do. Strategic product managers spend time understanding the market and directing product activities toward meeting those activities. CEOs and other executives don’t always (or often) understand this. Therefore, part of the product manager’s job becomes educating executives on the strategic importance of understanding the market.

I found a great new resource for educating people on the strategic role of product management. Yesterday Steve Johnson released an ebook called The Strategic Role of Product Management. He answers several questions such as who needs product management, what is marketing, and where does product management belong in an organization. It’s written in an easy-to-read format, in Steve’s unique and witty style, with stories that drive home key points. It’s replete with facts and statistics based on the many years of research carried out by Pragmatic Marketing. One of the key takeaways for me is the focus on helping people in other roles understand why product management is strategic. The following quote provides some insight on this:

Instead of talking about the company and its products, the successful product manager talks about customers and their problems. A product manager is the voice of the market full of customers.

One last thought about the importance of leadership. I found a quote by Dee Hock (founder of Visa) that provides good advice for product managers who need help convincing executives of their strategic role:

Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50% of your time in leading yourself—your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct. Invest at least 20% leading those with authority over you and 15% leading your peers.

Roger Cauvin at Cauvin

Pragmatic Marketing's Steve Johnson has written an e-book, The Strategic Role of Product Management. In it, Steve argues that strong product management is key to the success of a company when it is strategic and focuses on identifying and solving market problems.

A key graph from the book is

 Increasingly we see companies creating a VP of Product Management, a department at the same level in the company as the other major departments. This VP focuses the product management group on the business of the product. The product management group interviews existing and potential customers, articulates and quantifies market problems in the business case and market requirements, defines standard procedures for product delivery and launch, supports the creation of collateral and sales tools by Marketing Communications, and trains the sales teams on the market and product. Product Management looks at the needs of the entire business and the entire market.

What can you, as a corporate executive, do to enable the strategic product management that will contribute to your company's success?

  1. Create a product management department in your company.
  2. Ask your product managers to lead the company's positioning efforts.
  3. Hire interaction designers and user interface designers that free your product managers to focus on documenting market requirements.
  4. Support your product managers' efforts to call and visit both prospective and existing customers.
  5. Make sure your QA team tests not just against technical specifications, but also tests that your products solve the problems your product managers identify in the market.
  6. Make sure your product managers are experts in the principles governing positioning, pricing, and naming.

Above all, stand up for the strategic recommendations of your product managers. In the face of interdepartmental paralysis, effective product management requires strong executive support.