When is a Product Manager Not a Product Manager?

When is a Product Manager Not a Product Manager?

The title of “Product Manager” seems to be a rather vague descriptor in the current world of technology.  It’s become so useless, in fact, that some companies have decided to make things even more convoluted by creating even more useless titles such as “Product Editor” (how, exactly does one “edit” a product?).  Because of this level of randomization, it’s difficult to know when a role is a “real” Product Management role and when it’s just a glorified project manager or a strategic marketing position.  Never fear, though…the Clever PM is here to shine some light on the warning signs that you might be looking at a role that’s not really the one you want.

So, What IS Product Management, Anyway?

The root cause of these problems is the fact that there’s not really any specific or reliable description of what it really means to be a Product Manager — the role has traditionally been one that’s more of a “Jack of All Trades” role, being whatever it needs to be to get the job done.  Thus, people at all levels of most organizations have a variety of mental models for what a Product Manager is and what they do.  Having been around the block a few times, here are my thoughts on the key facets of a “real” Product Management role:

  • Product Managers represent the end user, the market, and the customer within an organization.
  • Product Managers identify valuable problems to solve for a target market.
  • Product Managers describe problems in a way that stakeholders, management, and development can understand and act on.
  • Product Managers validate proposed solutions with the end user, the market, or the customer.
  • Product Managers have influence over strategic and tactical decisions made at all levels.

Awhile back, I coined a definition for Product Management that I think is actually useful — unlike what you’ll find in many training programs or the godforsaken definition given by Wikipedia:

“Product Management is a multi-disciplinary role that guides the strategic and tactical efforts of a product to ensure that, in the end, a marketable product is delivered to the end user. Their primary purpose is to gather market intelligence, perform customer research, translate customer ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ into requirements, and occasionally to shepherd those requirements through to delivery.”

It’s not perfect (it’s too long, for one), but it helps to clarify my personal view of the role.

Okay, but What ISN’T Product Management

While that’s a great list of things that Product Management is, the biggest problem that someone looking at a Product Management role faces is knowing what Product Management isn’t.

To wit, Product Management is not:

  • Managing time, scope, and resources on a team or department basis.
  • Creating market-ready messaging, positioning, or collateral.
  • Graphic design, visual design, or deep interaction design.
  • Managing external agencies unrelated to identifying valuable market problems.

All of those things belong to other disciplines: Project Management, Marketing, and UX to be precise.

This isn’t to say that Product Managers shouldn’t have some capability in these areas, nor that they shouldn’t be contributors to those goals, only that these things should not be the primary responsibility of a “true” Product Manager.  All of these things are important and must be done; but to be done right and to the best of a person’s ability, companies need to ensure that the people doing these things have the proper training, background, and skill set to excel at them, not just do their best job with limited understanding or resources.

If you have those skills, you should certainly leverage them in your day-to-day work as a Product Manager, but you shouldn’t let yourself get sucked into performing these tasks on a regular basis in lieu of strong team members specifically assigned them — the exception, of course, is in a small startup, in which case all of this goes right out the window.

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