Stop whinging about "Tactical" vs. "Strategic"

Ask ten product managers what their life is like, and you will get ten different answers. However, there will be one constant. They will complain that they do too much “Tactical” work.

It is a complaint, and one that people both inside and outside of product management will make, but it ought to be a cause for thought.

First, Tactical is not a great term. Most people use it to describe the day to day barrage of tasks that product managers just do. Often they are undocumented, or technically outside of the realm of what is product management. Sometimes they are tasks that fall to product management as a last resort (as in, it should be done by operations) instead of a primary responsibility.

For these tasks, I find the term “Tactical” to be a misnomer. A better description is “run the business.” As in, the business needs this done, and while it might not seem like it should be in the product manager’s wheelhouse, for some reason it is. It needs to get done. If it doesn’t get done, then money, orders, demand doesn’t come in, and we all lose our jobs.

In my world, these tasks have come from a wide range of sources. Perhaps a new product is shipping, and the early production units need to be shipped to your offices for demonstration purposes. The product manager was responsible for generating the documentation and paperwork for shipping.

Or, the product has a tricky sales cycle, and a segment of the market has an expectation that the “factory” will be involved (semiconductor equipment is notoriously like this, and I literally spent months on the road to help sales close deals.)

Or your product is a niche within the Business Unit, and marketing focusses their resources on the major components of the portfolio, and you find yourself doing messaging, positioning, and content creation/curation for collateral. Or attending trade shows to get the word out.

You get the idea. They are tasks that must get done, that may or may not better be done elsewhere in the org, but for one reason or another they fall to product management.

Just about every leader I have worked for (a product management director/VP, or in marketing, or to the VP/GM of the business unit) has railed that they didn’t want their Product Managers burdened with these tangential tasks, complaining that they pay their product managers to be strategic, not to do tactical items.

Of course, these leaders are also often the ones who are the gatekeepers to the strategy, who set the tone, and the parameters of what planning and execution occurs. Product management may or may not have a seat at the table, and even when they are, they are the “do-ers” not the “planners”. Interjecting with what is and is not possible.

If you don’t have the authority to adjust the businesses priorities, or direction, you aren’t a “strategy” leader. You are an execution specialist.

Like the fallacy of the belief that the product manager is the CEO of their product, this desire to have your product team be strategic just won’t hunt. Of course they are strategic, and perhaps you really let them contribute to product/product line/business unit/division/corporate strategy.

But the odds are good that while they may participate in the planning, they are rarely leading the strategic planning process.

And a side note: Assigning product managers to lead OKRs doesn’t mean they are strategic. In fact you are just appointing them to be focused and tactical to further one of the organization’s goals. Not the same thing as strategy. Not even close.

What to do?

First, don’t whine that you aren’t being strategic enough. The deck is stacked against it, and while you can apply some leverage to the strategic planning processes, you will always be a cog in the wheel. Oh the stories I could tell, the brilliant presentations I have made, the C-level executives who have been impressed by what I had to say. But did I move the needle? Hardly.

Second, being tactical or “running the business” IS valuable. Make sure that you tout what you do, and to raise awareness. Suffering in silence will not get you anywhere. Embrace it, relish it, own it, and take control. Only you, as a product manager, can impact this.

Third, beware of shifting too far the other direction. If you are successful in dumping all the tactical morass, the tedium, the tasks that run the business and bring revenue in, you run the real risk of nobody in the organization seeing the value that you do, that you bring to the table. Then you will be seen as aloof, disconnected, and irrelevant. A bad place to be when it is time to identify who stays and who goes in the next round of staff retrenchment. (But don’t go too far in raising the visible churn of your day to day efforts, because that will alienate your leadership chain.)

Final thought: Yes, often being the product manager comes with baggage and tasks that feel wrong to be in your purview, but realize that they fell to product management for a reason. Figure that out, and keep the tactical bits that help you maintain control of the product/team/group.

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