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What Happened to All Those Strategic Product Managers We Hired?

NOTE: The following is a guest post by John Mansour. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information

The words “strategy” and “strategic” are draped all over most B2B product management job descriptions like a cheap suit.  But many organizations don’t realize the consequences of hiring product managers with skills, talents and experience to be strategic, setting expectations accordingly, and then placing them in situations that require nearly 100% focus on execution.  It’s a reality for many product managers and it’s as counterproductive for organizations as it is for the individuals.

On the bright side, the fix is relatively simple.  The key is to recognize the difference between hiring a team of “strategic product managers” and structuring a product management team that’s strategic to the organization.

The Strategy Dilemma

Every organization needs its product management function to be strategic for obvious reasons. Ironically, the manner in which most product managers are directed, evaluated and compensated has little if anything to do with strategy.  Worse yet, too many people believe “the lack of strategy” is a systemic problem within the product management discipline when it’s really an organizational problem that’s amplified in product management.  Unfortunately, it goes largely unnoticed because no one thing seems to be horribly wrong.

Most organizations build a team of product managers with individual goals instead of creating a unified product management team that’s a strategic asset with a single organizational mission, and therein lies the problem. To that end, companies over-treat the symptoms – people, processes, skills, tools, etc. instead of the root cause – the fundamental structure of the product management function.  With a proper structure in place, the right people, processes, skills and tools accelerate and improve desired outcomes exponentially.

A Unified Team Structured for Outcomes

A product management team that’s strategic to an organization consistently meets two criteria that go hand-in-hand. They deliver solutions that help your target buyers/customers advance their strategic agenda in measurable ways, which in turn helps your company advance its market position in measurable ways.

For example, financial services organizations and U.S. healthcare providers have been inundated with regulatory requirements that drive up the cost of doing business and eat into profit margins that are already on the decline.  Strategic value arrives in the form of products and services that help organizations in these markets meet compliance requirements at a significantly lower cost.  Alternatively, solutions that offset those costs in a measurable fashion have equal value.  A strategic product management team attacks the compliance challenge from one or both angles and leverages multiple products and services for maximum impact!

If you consider how incredibly difficult it is for industry issues of this magnitude to be addressed by any one organization, imagine trying to do it with a product or two.  But this is what organizations expect product managers to do when they’re hired to be “strategic” without realizing it’s difficult if not impossible within the confines of an individual product manager.

The Complexion of a Strategic Product Management Function

A B2B product management team that’s a true strategic asset to an organization consists of two complementary areas of focus, markets and products, integrated within a single product organization.  Both elements make significant contributions to a single overarching market & portfolio strategy and both elements own execution of that strategy at a market or product level.  The results of those efforts deliver strategic value to the organization.

The Strategic Part

The market function, 10-20% of the team, uses comprehensive quantitative, qualitative and competitive industry data to “set the table” for the organization’s market strategy by painting a single consensus picture of target markets at a level that transcends all products. Team members in these roles have a full-time focus on markets with no product responsibilities.

The product function, 80-90% of the team, combines horizontal business-practice expertise (e.g. new methods for driving add-on sales via customer service) and product knowledge to “set the table” for the organization’s product investment strategy in each target market.  Individuals in these roles have a full-time focus on aligning new/emerging business practices to product solutions in markets that are strategic to the organization.

It’s a unified team that combines both elements to form the ideal market and portfolio strategy most suited to helping the organization meet its short and long term goals on an ongoing basis.  Senior executives ultimately make the decisions, but they’re doing so with a holistic integrated view of target markets and high-value opportunities mapped to proposed product investments across the entire portfolio instead of many competing versions for each product.

The Execution Part

The market function repurposes the same quantitative, qualitative and competitive information to ensure the organization’s differentiating value is communicated relative to each target market via marketing and sales.

The product function, now armed with comprehensive market data and guided by a single overarching portfolio strategy, no longer has to stress over “finding time to be strategic for my products.” They can more easily budget their time between product initiatives related to high-value market solutions (from the portfolio strategy) and the daily care and feeding of products that keep the squeaky wheels at bay.

As product management goes, so goes the rest of the organization.  When product management is structured with many individuals, each expected to be “strategic”, it results in an organization going in many different directions with competing influences, spreading its resources too thin to achieve a leadership position in any one area of strength.

The burden is on the organization to rethink the manner in which it structures product management if it wants an asset that has real strategic value to the organization. Most anyone who’s talented enough to be hired into a product management role is capable of being strategic.  They just need an environment that recognizes the key difference between a team of “strategic product managers” and a product management team that’s strategic to the organization.  Setting appropriate expectations during the hiring process can only help the cause.

Tweet this: What happened to all those strategic Product Managers we hired?  http://wp.me/pXBON-3g2 #prodmgmt #strategy #innovation

John Mansour is the founder and president of Proficientz, a company that specializes in B2B product  portfolio management. This article was originally published on the Proficientz blog in January 2012.