I’ve heard them all! “The marketing guy”, “feature creeper”, “she is really just sales”, and some other more derogatory that I will spare from readers. Let’s face it, Product Managers not always have the best reputations. The problem is, more often than not, that some Product Managers do not really behave like they should. In my humble opinion, the function has had an identity crisis and nothing seems to describe what a Product Manager really is. This post and this one, both from authorities in the matter, seem to contradict each other starting with the title. This group on LinkedIn is dedicated to the topic and several experts contribute to it frequently. I’ve read lots of articles where it seems that Product Managers’ value is questioned or at least unclear. A problem may be in the designator “manager”. Product Leader is a common term now, and this article nicely highlights the distinction. The Agile world has the Product Owner designation, which is eloquently explained here. But, regardless of the actual name, the function is critical for any business.
Business, in particular Product Development, is a team sport. Product Managers ought to be the captain of the team. They have to play and play hard too, but when it comes to driving the ship, the team looks at them as the tie breakers, decision makers, and true leaders. Product Managers need to be present at every step. Product Managers are strong salespeople, evangelists, marketers, visionaries, strategists, innovators, developers, challengers, non-conformists. Product Managers make a business out of solving real world problems.
It really doesn’t matter what a Product Manager is. What matters is what they do or what they should do. I will contend that behind every successful product there was a great Product Manager involved, with or without the title. Someone that is ultimately responsible for the success of the product and passionate about it. Even if there was none assigned, someone filled the role; an engineer, a designer, a project manager, a sales rep, or a supervisor.
Product Managers have a key role to play in the 5D’s of Product Realization. They are expected to:
- Define the product. And I don’t mean writing an MRD or a few user stories. Product Managers are ambassadors of the customer. They represent the customer in every way and every step. Customers define the product attributes: features, functions, design, user details. Product Managers represent them as they define price, distribution channels, competitive advantage, positioning, and marketing strategies. All centered on the problem the product solves for the customer.
- Decide on the product trade-offs. Product Managers know what customers need and when they need them. They are the best equipped to drive the team to decide on the best development methodology to use. They need to approve sprints, documents, and schedules. They need to challenge technical implementation of all functions, decide what the minimal viable product is, how is it going to be field tested, what constitutes quality. And yes, features will creep.
- Be a cornerstone of the development process. Product Managers need a team to develop products. They may not be designing, doing CAD, writing code, approving schematics, managing schedules, or budgets, but they are a key input to the development process. Stuff happens during development, and without the right customer centric trade-offs, things can go awry. Decisions need to be made based on what is good for the customer. Everyone in the team wants the product to be successful, but each unique role will tend drive the product in the direction of what they do; professional bias if you will. Product Managers need to steer the ship back onto course by making trade-offs and keeping functional accountability and the team focus on customer success.
- Deliver the product to the market. Yes, it is more than just flipping a flag on the ERP. Product Managers make sure, absolutely sure, that the entire team is ready to release. When they do, customers get the product! Exciting times. The efforts of the team get delivered. Good Product Managers do not worry about the product T-Shirt. Instead, they take the entire team to see the product in action so they all get to see the success of their hard work.
- Drive the product’s business. Product Managers do sell, the good ones are really good at it. They are so convinced about their product, that they can’t imagine anyone buying from the competition. They are so passionate about it that they will jump on a plane to try to understand why a customer bought a competitive product. They look for ways to penetrate new markets, new regions, and new channels. They make sure the product business grows. And when it’s time to fold, good Product Managers know it. They make customers aware, and manage a smooth end-of-life.
Simply put, Product Managers are the owners of the business from beginning to end. They drive Vision, Mission, Strategy, and Goals for their product, every step of the way.
Product Managers are a necessary function in any organization and when empowered, they can be a competitive advantage. Good ones don’t need titles or recognition. They need to exercise their passion for the product and customer success. They do that by being present, being true leaders, pushing boundaries, and by rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty.