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Product Management by Committee?

committeeI came across an interesting blog post entitled “Product management by committee. How sustainable is it?“.

The topic is a very good one as many early stage technology companies are founded and launched without a dedicated Product Management function. They’ll likely have R&D, Sales, Marketing, Finance and maybe HR at an early stage, but no dedicated Product Management headcount.

The blog post argues that:

…as companies approach and move through the $1.5M to $3.0M annual revenue milestone and/or the 20-25 employee threshold, they will see the breakdown of the product management by committee methodology. Most notably, committee members find it a challenge to attend meetings and to focus on the details of what needs to go into the product.

In very general terms, the above makes sense, but I don’t believe there is anything specific or magical about the $1.5M-$3.0M revenue range or the 20-25 employee range that necessitates dedicated Product Management.

The questions really should be:

  1. What are the goals of Product Management?
  2. When is the best time to bring  an experienced Product Management professional into the company?

Product Management Goals

The goals of Product Management, particularly in early stage companies is to bring a deep understanding of market problems and needs into the company and help direct internal efforts to optimally address those needs.

Notice that I didn’t simply say “define product requirements”, or “work with Development” or anything like that.

Product Management is a core BUSINESS function.

  1. It’s about ensuring that the limited resources of the fledgling company are focused on the right activities, problems, domains etc.
  2. It’s about maximizing the business opportunity by aligning product strategy with business objectives.
  3. It’s about minimizing the thrashing that goes on when products are brought to market that don’t truly address market needs in a clear, valuable and differentiated way.

How many times have you seen companies bring a new product to market, only to have to go and rework significant parts of it for Version 2 or even Version 3?

If Product Management has done it’s job, then V1 will have value for a specific target audience. Version 2 can build on that as can Version 3, but that’s a very different scenario than having to retool or rework product in later versions.

When is Product Management needed?

The best time to bring experienced Product Management in depends on the nature of the company, the market(s) the company is in, and the experience and background of the management team.

There is no right answer here, but when thinking about dedicated Product Management, the earlier the better. For an enterprise software company, given the amount of upfront investment that is usually required, as well as the types of long evaluation and sales cycles needed, Product Management should be there from day 1!

Why? Because the function is that important! Given the complexities of enterprise software, both from a technical and business perspective, who better to focus on minimizing time-to-revenue than experienced Product Management?

A misunderstood business function

It’s too bad that most people, even technology veterans place Product Management as a nice to have and something that others can do part-time as a committee.

Anyone who’s worked in a startup knows that there are always 100 things to do, and time to do only a fraction of them. So how focused will a committee of people be, who have full-time positions doing other things?

There are no absolutes here. Companies have succeeded without dedicated Product Management early on. Others have failed even with Product Management. But, from a macro level,  for any reasonably complex market domain — enterprise software being one example — someone — whether it’s the CEO or CTO or some other executive —  has to be focused on ensuring several things:

  • there is clear alignment throughout the company on the key business issues the company’s offerings will address
  • that a market segment sees (or will see)  the offering as valuable enough to pay for it
  • that the offering has a clear competitive advantage over other potential solutions
  • that the competitive advantage is sustainable for some reasonable period in the future
  • how the offering will evolve in the future to grow revenue and/or market share

These are not simple questions to answer, and certainly not in dynamic markets with complex market needs, buying cycles, technological evolution and many other variable factors. Given the critical nature of finding the best answers to these questions, does it make sense to split this up across several people who will do this “part-time”?