Challenges to the Product Management role

Boxcars of ink has been spilled over the years as to how poorly defined the Product Management role is, and how this ambiguity can severely impact the consistency of performance. From confusion of what the role is, and what it is not, spill over from other areas, and even the tendency of the tactical to do list crowding out the high level, high value strategic work that a well-qualified product manager should be delivering to the organization.

I personally can vouch for this, having seen a wide range of expectations, and a mismatch of these expectations with on the ground reality of the implementation of the role, from Semiconductor Capital Equipment to Enterprise Communications software. Each organization has its own expectations and realities of the “product manager” role, and your product manager adapts to what is expected.

While the excellent Pragmatic Marketing Framework lays out the common tasks and responsibilities of the product management function, as well as responsibilities for Product Marketing, technical marketing, and even the product owner roles, it is clear that putting this into practice isn’t as straightforward as just handing this to your product manager and sending them on their way.

What can you do about it?

As a senior leader in the organization, it is incumbent upon you to define the responsibilities and scope of the role. Often, years of “trickle down” scope creep has burdened your product manager with an abundance of tactical duties that either belong to another group, or should not be done at all. Yet, all too often, your product manager will fall into the product janitor trap, and be unable to climb out without your help.

In a prior post I talked about how this often happens, as the poorly defined product manager role is the garbage collector of unwanted, or un-owned tasks, and particularly when an organization is growing, understaffed, they just “pick it up”. Yet when the organization matures, often these tactical tasks continue to fall to the product manager.

  • Identify what is currently in scope – you need to honestly catalog the current tasks that product management is performing. You will be surprised by how much out of scope work is being done by your product manager. Yet, the first step in improving the mix is to know how bad you are.
  • Rank the list – the idea is to pull to the top what is a product management responsibility, and shuffle to the bottom the tactical tasks that do not belong. Use the Pragmatic framework as a handy guide to map roles to (note: you might have a different terminology, map as best you can, and consider naming conventions later.)
  • Draw a clear-cut line – your ranked list will (hopefully) have near the top the big, strategic, or crucial product management functions near the top, and the tactical, often belonging to other groups responsibilities at the bottom. Decide clearly, definitively, what your product manager should be doing of the current tasks, and then work with the other leaders to apportion the leftovers. (Note: There should be some tactical items. Be sure they are the ones that matter.)
  • Evaluate the quantity of work in remaining tasks – do a real workflow analysis, and understand how much time is required to effectively accomplish the tasks that remain on the list. This is to understand if you are properly staffed for the product management role. If you find 65 hours a week worth of work, and one full time equivalent product manager, you know that you have a labor imbalance to rectify.
  • Compare the tasks on the list to find what you are missing – once again, refer to the Pragmatic Framework, and map the role to the boxes. You will find gaps, that is identified responsibilities that aren’t currently being done. Be careful to consider work that is done in the marketing (or marketing communications group, particularly around the outbound messaging and launch activities). Anything that is important, add it to the list you made above. Repeat the resource analysis.

At the end of this exercise, you should have a largely complete list of responsibilities for the product management role, ready to formally document, and to put in place. You will also have a list of tasks that truly do not belong in the product management organization, and now can discuss with the other leaders how to apportion these tasks, or to acknowledge that they aren’t important to do.

Then, and only then will you be ready to properly document the role, and set organizational expectations. Chances are, your current product manager(s) are stretched too thin, multitask until they break, and try to get as much done as possible, but never truly keeping up with the deluge.

It is your responsibility to change this for the better.

Executive Summary

  • To save the sanity of your product managers, do make an honest appraisal of the current task load
  • Prepare to document a formal description, and scope of work for the role
  • Anything that is truly not value add either stop doing, or assign to a more suitable group
  • Set expectations for the role with the other leaders of the organization (engineering, finance, marketing, sales) to prevent scope creep
  • Recognize that what works for your organization will not fit every organization

Doran Erickson

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Product Manager, physics educated, avid cyclist, dog rescuer, guitar noodler.
San Jose, Callifornia Website
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