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The 3 biggest problems in Product Management today – Part 1 – Roles

by Saeed Khan

RolesResponsibilitiesAs Product Managers, part of our job is to observe, understand and correlate information about our customers, prospects, markets, competitors and organizations. We then take the insight and apply it as needed.

Over the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot people working in technology companies, either via the blog, in various online discussion forums, at various ProductCamps (Toronto, New York, Boston, Austin, Silicon Valley) or other events I’ve attended.

And as part of my observe, understand, correlate process, I’ve concluded there are still some major Product Management issues that seem endemic in companies, both small and large.  The problems I’ve seen are:

  • poor definition of roles and responsibilities
  • significant gaps in repeatable product processes
  • problems in intra- and extra-company communication and alignment

These are big problems. Not every company has all of these problems, and certainly some companies do some of these better than others. But many companies seem to be unable or unwilling  to think through and solve these problems, or are simply oblivious to the fact that these problems exist.

I’ll cover the first item in this post and the others in subsequent posts.

Poor definition of roles and responsibilities

This is by far the biggest and most fundamental problem I see. When you can’t get the roles and responsibilities right, how can the the activities and deliverables be done effectively.

With titles like Product Manager, Product Marketing Manager, Program Manager, Technical Product Manager, Associate Product Manager, and Solution Marketing Manager to name a few, confusion reigns. One of the core problems here is that Product Management is a true cross-functional role and most management teams don’t understand how to structure that.

Companies are very good at organizing and operating in silos. This lends itself to a traditional command and control, top down management model.  Cross-functional product management throws a wrench into this mindset by being completely orthogonal to this model. Yes, Product Management “belongs” somewhere, but where? There is a  correct answer, though I won’t go into it here.

Additionally, once the “where” question is answered, the harder “what”, “how” and “who” questions need answering. i.e. What are their responsibilities? How should they be organized to effective? Who do we hire for these roles? It’s not difficult to answer these questions if they are thought through, but most companies don’t and thus try to force fit a role into their existing, far from optimal, org structure.

In came Agile

And then the Agilists come marching in with Product Owner and several variants thereof and really messed things up. Suddenly development groups were going “agile” and demanded that the Product Manager become embedded with the Development team, attend standup meetings and be on-hand at all times to help make decisions.  As if somehow the Development teams suddenly had no responsibility in making development related decisions.

I’m absolutely convinced that the whole Agile movement has done a lot more harm than good for the role of Product Management in companies. I’m not an Agile-hater, and there are benefits to “being Agile” (or agile) but there is also growing dissension in Agile ranks. Some sanity is returning to the mix, and Product Managers are slowly extricating themselves from the mess created by Agile.

Product Manager vs. Product Marketer

But even without the Agilists and their misnamed, improperly defined role of Product Owner (see some of my thoughts on that topic here), simply defining and delineating Product Manager and Product Marketer caused confusion for many companies.

What part of the company do they report into? Are they both reporting into the same org or different orgs? When should we hire these roles? Who takes care of what and when?  I wrote this pair of articles for OpenView Labs to help delineate Product Management and Product Marketing.

User Experience rises

Now add UX to the mix — Experience Designer, Interaction/Interface Engineer etc. — and the role confusion increases. Where is the overlap between the two? Some people wonder whether Product Managers are needed now that UX is present. Clearly those people don’t understand what Product Management is if they are asking that question. Heather Searl’s first post on this site helps clarify some of these issues.

To a certain extent, some of these problems look eerily similar to what happened with Agile, but there are some differences. UX is a new area of expertise that didn’t exist previously in  most companies. Development and Engineering were long established and influential groups in every company. Additionally, I have found UX teams more reasonable than many Engineering teams. A generalization of course, but true in reality.

Jeff Lash of Serious Decisions wrote a good post on UX and Product Management, and makes valid, logical points.

The organizational problem is not that difficult. Really. Why do so many companies have so much trouble sorting this out? It’s pretty clear to me. 🙂

What are your thoughts?


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Saeed Khan is a founder and Managing Editor of On Product Management, and has worked for the last 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He also speaks regularly at events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page on this blog.