The role of a product manager is challenging, complex and often misunderstood.
Across the high-tech industry, the "product manager" title is used in many ways to describe drastically different duties and responsibilities. Diverse interpretations regarding the role of the product manager have created an untenable situation for some, who therefore struggle to define their own role.
Properly defining and structuring the roles and responsibilities of the product management team would enable the team members to be more efficient and productive, leading to better revenues and higher-quality products that meet customer needs.
This article explores the challenges faced by modern high-tech product managers and proposes a solution to formalize and structure the responsibilities and makeup of the product management team.
What's Your Role?
Job titles are important, and the role one plays in an organization is often identified by one's job title. But often this is not the case in the world of product management. The myriad interpretations of product management job titles, especially the product manager title, make it very difficult to ascertain what roles and responsibilities are associated with a specific product management job title.
Ask several product managers what their responsibilities are, and you will get a variety of answers and descriptions. Even if working in the same company and department, they may provide very different perspectives on their position.
Most people accept that "product management" is a term used to describe the sum of diverse activities performed in the interest of delivering a particular product to market. Such a broad definition, used by many companies today, is the root of much grief because it dilutes the professional focus necessary to achieve successful results and allows virtually any product-related task to be assigned to the product manager.
Jack of All Roles, Master of None
Multitasking is challenging for humans, who prefer to focus on performing one task or sequentially performing a few select tasks. The inherent difficulty of multitasking hinges principally on humans' limited ability to maintain a high level of intellectual focus when confronted with a multitude of dynamic issues. To a lesser degree, fatigue and a lack of resources (primarily time) are also contributing factors.
Performing the diverse product management activities outlined above is the epitome of multitasking. Product management assignments are particularly challenging because they require a multitude of complimentary or differing skills. In addition, when product managers have several products to manage, the multitasking becomes profoundly more complex.
Such a broad definition of the product management profession is the culmination of individual and industry interpretations. They, in turn, have invariably led to the ever-familiar challenges that the majority of product managers now encounter daily, caused by ambiguous role definition, imbalanced relationships with other departments, an overwhelming volume of activities, a lack of or poorly defined processes, no definitive methodology and a shortage of uniform work tools in the profession.
The overall perceived obstacle that the typical product manager encounters is the pervasive lack of professional focus. One can be adequate at many things, but it is difficult to excel at many. Many product managers therefore view themselves as trapped in a never-ending juggling routine. Having too many tasks to juggle eventually leads to tasks being dropped; the outcome is poor overall performance by the product manager, which is detrimental for the company.
The title of product manager has proven more harmful than helpful. Other official and unofficial product management title variations (such as Product CEO or Product Champion or Product Executive) have failed. The reason is that they are often accompanied by a blurred, wide-scoped job description that defines or implies the product manager as owner—and, as a result, responsible for the product's commercial success. Being labeled or treated as a "Product CEO" can be daunting, since it nearly always means operating without the authority and resources available to an actual CEO.
When a job title has an overly broad set of diverse activities (roles and responsibilities) associated with it, there is a high probability that the attempt to perform to the expectations of that job title will result in failure.
Obviously, a semantic change is needed, and this change is based on the definition of professional—i.e., focused on a particular domain or discipline.
Breaking It Down
The two main disciplines residing in the product management domain are product planning and product marketing, which are very different from each other. But due to the collaboration between these two disciplines, some companies erroneously perceive them as one discipline—which they call product management.
If done carefully, it is possible to functionally divide the product management domain into product planning and product marketing, yet retain the required synergy between the two.
Product planning is the ongoing process of identifying and articulating market requirements that define a product's feature set. Product marketing is an outbound activity aimed at generating product awareness, differentiation and demand.
Product planning and product marketing are different and distinct professional disciplines, because they foster different roles and different quality goals.
With such a conceptualization, it is easy to address the respective tasks of product planning and product marketing as belonging to the roles of a product planner and a product marketer.
Whether these two roles are handled by two individuals or performed by one person is actually irrelevant. Indeed, there are cases where both disciplines are assumed by one person, or by two people sitting in one room, or by different departments that collaborate.
The point is that there must be a clear and unambiguous link between the job title and the job responsibilities.
It should also be clear that the disciplines of product planning and product marketing are inextricably linked, because companies design product functionality for the user and market the product's value to the buyer.
To clarify: an intuitive example of this is a child's toy. The parent is the buyer and has an interest in whether the toy is safe to use, will help the child grow smarter, will keep the child occupied and is reasonably priced. Product value is therefore marketed to the buyer, the parent.
The child cares only about product functionality, such as whether the toy is fun, engaging and visually pleasing, and whether it will do what he/she wants. The toy's functionality is designed for the user—the child—and not for the buyer.
The same approach is necessary with high-tech products, where buyers are often not the users; and this approach means distinct product management roles that separately analyze and address buyer and user needs.
The recent fast-paced growth of high-tech industries and the shifting interpretations of product management created skewed responsibility sets for product managers. The already-problematic, broad definition of product management was further complicated when tactical activities were added to a product manager's job definition.
Tactical activities are assignments, usually self-contained and specific, that fulfill short-term business needs. Those assignments—such as delivering a presentation, writing collateral material or assisting a salesperson—are time-consuming and demand a disproportionate allocation of individual resources (mental focus, time and physical effort) in relation to their overall importance.
By monopolizing the scope of work, tactical activities detract from the product managers' ability to fulfill the strategic responsibilities assigned to them.
A strategy aims to establish and plan the overall and long-term course of action a company should engage in to achieve corporate objectives.
The strategic mission for the product marketer would primarily involve evaluating market opportunities and writing marketing plans/programs that address those opportunities. For the product planner, the mission is to identify market needs so as to deliver winning products that help a company become a market leader, market follower or an innovator.
Roles and Goals
Executive managers have very clear work goals that primarily center on achieving corporate profitability. Software developers, for example, also know what they aim for—usually, generating lean and efficient programming code.
However, many product managers provide widely different answers when asked what their job goal is. They also find it difficult to provide a definitive answer. Obviously, this situation stems from an overly broad and task-oriented (not goal-oriented) job description.
By breaking down the product management domain into its two disciplines, it becomes feasible to clearly define the roles and goals of each.
The product planner determines and defines product functionality, and therefore the prime goal is to have product buyers and users who are satisfied with the product. This means (1) contentment with the product's ability to solve business or consumer problems and satisfy needs and (2) satisfaction with the intangible aspects of product ownership, such as service, price, warrantee, status or prestige.
The product marketer's goal is to have a satisfied sales force. This goal is somewhat indirect to the marketing actions being performed, but it is an excellent predictor of how effective the product marketer's actions are in generating awareness, differentiation and demand for the product.
Salespeople have a relatively easy job when product marketers perform their roles well. The market environment created by the product marketer leads to a favorable situation in which the market actively buys the product rather than the salespeople having to actively sell the product. Salespeople are very happy when "the product sells itself," which really means that the sale cycle is minimal or reduced because of quality marketing by product marketers.
In short, product planning's quality goal is satisfied customers, and product marketing's quality goal is a satisfied sales force. After defining the strategic roles of the key disciplines within the product management domain, there is a need for a cooperative scheme—a team concept—to maximize the effectiveness of these strategic roles through collaboration and complement them with outbound tactical support functions.
Product management is not accomplished successfully by only one person but by a product management team, the members of which fulfill various roles and functions.
The Product Management Team Model
The product management team is a task group that organizationally resides in the Product Management department and has four distinct roles: product planner, product marketer, sales engineer and marketing communications (marcom) manager.
These four roles are the basic providers of the planning, deliverables and actions that guide the inbound-oriented product definition and the outbound marketing efforts:
- The primary responsibility of the product planner is to constantly research the market and identify market needs, which are later translated into market requirements that will foster new products or new features to existing products. The product planner prepares the documents that profoundly impact the product's success. These documents include the Market Requirements Document (MRD), product use cases, product road map and the pricing model.
- The primary responsibility of the product marketer is to analyze product-oriented business opportunities, formulate plans that evaluate those business opportunities, and plan and guide the subsequent marketing efforts. For example, the product marketer prepares the product business case and following approval, writes the marketing plan, launch plan and communications plan.
- The sales engineer is primarily responsible for outbound product-centric activities, such as presale support and product demonstrations. Relying on their technical skills, sales engineers help customers understand how the product delivers the necessary value and functionality that address the customers' business or consumer problem. The sales engineer's other objective is to provide critical input to product planners on customer needs and problems.
Sales engineers often operate under titles such as product evangelist, technical evangelist, technical sales support, presale engineer, outbound product manager or technical product manager; yet, regardless of title, all perform a relatively similar set of tasks.
- The marcom manager is primarily responsible for creating interest and demand for products through the conception and copywriting of all collateral material, advertising, direct response mail, Web and other types of communications media. This person is also tasked with maintaining a consistent company image and positioning in the marketplace, according to messages and directives provided by the product marketer.
The product management team is managed by the director of product management, or vice president of product management, who provides overall product vision, product line strategy and team management. Other titles are sometimes used to designate this leadership position, such as director of products or vice-president of products, in order to indicate the encompassing nature of this role.
This person provides guidance to team members and is responsible for furnishing them with resources, tools and uniform processes to do their jobs. On the strategic level, this role is responsible for formulating the company's product line strategy and driving its implementation, while balancing corporate goals with long-term market trends and opportunities.
Product planner (strategic role)
Identify and articulate market requirements
Satisfied product buyers and users
Product marketer (strategic role)
Generate awareness, differentiation and demand
Satisfied sales force
Sales engineer (tactical role)
Outbound product-centric activities: i.e., presale support and product demos
Customer knowledge of product value and functionality
Marcom manager (tactical role)
Conception and copywriting of all collateral material
Consistent company image and positioning in the marketplace
Director of products (strategic role)
Balancing corporate goals with long-term market trends and opportunities
Successful corporate product line strategy
The Odd Couple(s)
In startups, it is common to see one individual assume all four roles listed in the product management team model. That person will do market planning, deliver product demonstrations, formulate market requirements and write collateral material.
Clearly, Product Manager is a title assigned to a person who performs a single role or a combination of the four roles listed in the product management team model. At some point, usually as the company grows, the roles are delegated to other individuals who specialize in the role assigned to them.
However, for a variety of reasons and reasoning, two roles are often coupled together and entrusted to one person.
Frequently, the product planner and sales engineer roles are combined into one position, in which the person is charged with doing product demonstrations and providing presale support because he/she is also defining the product and thus has more expertise and in-depth product knowledge than the average salesperson.
Another possibility is the product marketer and marcom manager combination: one individual does all tasks that upper management may perceive as "marketing." This usually consists of actual market planning, writing copy and managing advertising.
A prevalent situation in high-tech industries, such as the software development industry, is the combining of the product marketer and product planner roles. Corporate job descriptions for open positions that prefer candidates with a technical undergraduate degree and an MBA with an emphasis in marketing are a clear indication that the company views the position as a combination of the two roles.
It does make sense, to a certain degree, to have these two roles cooperate with each other. Product success hinges on understanding customer behavior and the business aspects of the industry in order to build value into a product. Complementing that ability is in-depth product knowledge, which is used to plan marketing actions that deliver meaningful messages about the product.
The problem is that both of these roles (or capabilities) are strategic and demand expertise that can only be achieved by professional focus.
In addition, people come from different educational or professional backgrounds and therefore naturally gravitate toward their "comfort zone," eventually causing one of two roles to receive more attention than the other. Underperforming, or in the worst case, not performing some of the product management team roles, may dramatically impede the product's chances of marketplace success.
Roles and Activities
Any of the various couplings of roles, outlined above, can create workflow obstacles for the following reasons, which are conceptual.
Having one person simultaneously perform both strategic and tactical roles and activities, such as with the product marketer and marcom manager combination, is highly inefficient because tactical activities will always monopolize the person's time, and they will demand increasingly more effort.
On the other hand, having one individual perform two strategic roles, as with the product marketer and product planner combination, can be equally debilitating since each role demands an acute learning curve and full devotion.
Admittedly, the joining of roles is justifiable under various circumstances—such as budget limitations, personnel quotas, company or department formulation, and product complexity. However, role coupling should always be regarded as a temporary or evolutionary measure—not as a permanent arrangement.
Product management is a domain that encompasses various disciplines. Accordingly, it is extremely difficult, often impossible, to specialize in and excel at all the tasks that product management entails, because the attempt often results in a lack of professional focus.
Adding to the situational difficulty is the product manager's expansive job description, which leads to being assigned various tactical activities, often simply because others do not want to do them. Tactical activities significantly impair the product manager's ability to perform crucial strategic tasks.
In some companies, the product marketing manager and product manager are interchangeable titles as they both relate to the same function and individual. This inconsistency further causes functional problems within companies and across industries.
This problematic reality is not planned and is seldom the result of malicious intent. It is just that some companies believe in the laissez-faire approach, with internal politics and forces shaping corporate processes, responsibilities and even organizational structure.
There is some advantage to having role ambiguity, because it allows individuals to be proactive and define their role as they want it to be. People can work within the ambiguity and chart their way to a desired job description. Unfortunately, more often than not, the fast-paced world of high-tech is not supportive of this approach because there is just too much inherent ambiguity or variance associated with the title of product manager.
Therefore, the solution is to abolish the title product manager from the corporate lexicon and use the clearer, more understandable and uniform titles of product planner and product marketer. And, accordingly, a different organizational approach would be required:
- Under the charge of the vice-president or director of product management would be the corporate product management department that holds product management teams. Each team, whether real or virtual, holds four roles (as described in the product management team model), with the intent of having these roles eventually assigned to four individuals.
- Tactical activities and logistics formerly imposed on the product manager now go to the program manager or release manager, thus relieving those in product management from the tactical overload they routinely experience.
- The program manager, a role outside Product Management, is essentially the project manager for the entire product delivery project and is tasked with applying a suitable product delivery process that ensures deliverables from all contributing corporate functions.
- The release manager, also a role outside Product Management, is responsible for handling all logistical and operational matters that pertain to the delivery of the product.
Properly defining and structuring the roles and responsibilities of the product management team would enable the team members to be more efficient and productive. The result? Better products, better marketing and higher revenues.
Product management is a domain, not a role, and it changes and evolves with the organization. It is a multifaceted and multi-disciplined domain; therefore, there will always be some ambiguity involved, but it can be significantly mitigated by applying a proper product management team concept and structure, with well-defined roles and responsibilities. Doing so is crucial—whether the company is building or rebuilding the corporate product management function.
As a result of the team restructuring and the redefinition of roles, the newly attained occupational focus helps build professional expertise.
The product planner can now devote time and effort to excel as a market expert and problem-teller whose role is to perform customer advocacy better than everyone else in the company, while backing assertions with quantitative market/customer data.
The product marketer is now focused on becoming a process expert, perfecting corporate competency in using tools and executing techniques, processes and tasks; that promotes winning products in the marketplace.
All this decreases departmental rivalry and allows the engineers to develop their professional expertise as technology experts and problem solvers.
Doing the right things and doing things right, especially in the early stages of company inception, will help those in product management to professionally grow and contribute fully according to their potential. Undoubtedly, companies will also benefit because members of the product management team would be able to generate long-term value for their company by focusing more on strategy formulation.
The final inference is that those involved in product management must be provided with clear job descriptions (roles, responsibilities and goals) as well as focused goals and objectives. All talk and effort can prove quite futile without this basic premise.