Brad Allen bio photo

Brad Allen

Absent-minded, but always learning.

Email Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Instagram Github

Challenging launches. Product supply visibility. Prioritizing design reviews, market feedback, the project burn rate, and developing compelling value propositions. For recent MBAs, the role of the Product Manager can be very attractive – the opportunity to think about a product’s success from end to end, and (if successful) the excitement of seeing users appreciating in and engaging with your hard work.

Another reason for this buzz is the variation and uncertainty between companies as to what “Product” represents. PM roles change based on company needs, culture, size, and even values. PMs may come into a company with a “Product Manager” title, but find themselves doing more complimentary roles that are generally defined as a “Program Manager”, “Project Coordinator”, or “Product Marketing Manager.”

Having had these discussions with colleagues and having been a part of the Product Management function for two companies, I have seen how misaligned expectations for responsibilities can create winners and losers – for both the organization and an individual’s career progress. I decided to research if there were any patterns that highlight how “Product” is successfully grown within a company, and how the function evolves as an organization scales.

Throughout Fall 2014, I conducted interviews to learn about the PM function at 11 different US technology companies. The full sample needed to represent a breadth of sizes and growth stages (our sample has current sizes from ~30 to ~1,000) and meet 2 of 3 criteria: have an analytic or “data product” capability, have a hardware component and team, and have the primary value delivered through software. The interviewee needed to have direct experience with their organization’s “Product” activities.

In having these conversations, three key considerations emerged for how to balance Product success and Product Manager expectations:

  • Is there a practical framework for thinking about Product Management (PM) talent? (Answer, yes.)
  • How might a CEO or HR executive think about matching PM talent to a company’s needs?
  • How can a Product Manager enter a new organization and quickly establish effectiveness?

This article will explore the second question here; the first and third question can be found in separate posts.

Company fit precedes product-market fit.

“Every organization is a unique organism. There are principles that can be applied, but the needs of the organization that evolve over time is hard to generalize.” – Director of Innovation, Multibillion Medical Device Company

For any CEO or HR executive that is hiring (or for a PM looking for a new position), a great place to start when shaping a new PM role is to think about the organizational structure – where a Product function would fit, and how the structure might change over time, if at all. Similar to how new businesses will prototype and iterate on their products, companies can practice different styles and organizational structures to make the most effective use of their resources against organizational risk.

The organizational structure in itself is an insightful tool – it highlights what the company feels are a combination of its most important and most disparate activities. The goal of an organizational structure is to minimize managerial and bureaucratic layers while trying to effectively coordinate between strategy development and execution. As a result, the functions within an organization, and the sub-functions and responsibilities within Product (if it exists), can be telling.

As an example, the Product Manager responsibilities in a startup are different than in a larger organization. Early in a company’s life, founders will hire for generalists – whose roles will center around coordination activities – and the team dynamic will be highly matrixed. As the company grows, sustained profit streams develop and specialization takes place: creating more focused roles and differentiated types of responsibility and management needs. The same person would not (necessarily) make sense in either role.

When thinking about developing these job descriptions, it is helpful to consider three “ASKS”:

  • ASK: Functionally, what does the company value? In a Lightweight PM? In a Heavyweight PM?
  • ASK: How can we build trust, and communicate that it is an ongoing process?
  • ASK: What relationships do we want to establish throughout the organization? Will that change over time?

ASK: Functionally, what does the company value? In a Lightweight PM? In a Heavyweight PM?

The distribution of decision-making (and the areas in which this can take place) will be a function of the CEO’s perception of his or her role in the team. This can lead to different representations of “Product Manager” responsibilities, and can help executives and new PMs gauge the potential growth they can achieve within any given company.

For example, some companies will have Product Managers, but no Product function. In these situations, Product Managers are a horizontal capability, and are placed in the HW, Engineering, or Operations teams. These are Lightweight PMs – they act primarily in a coordinating function, integrating hardware, software, and mobile applications. These roles will seldom result in the opportunities required to migrate to a Heavyweight-type role.

In another situation, the design-oriented CEO of a consumer technology company was adamant about owning the UX/UI of the company’s first product – and retained these decisions from the company’s first PMs (who were “Lightweight” in nature). But when the CEO was ready to hire a new Director of Product Management, he looked for someone with the design capabilities that he personally valued. Here, Lightweight and Heavyweight PMs were asked to hold different roles within the team.

ASK: How can we build trust, and communicate that it is an ongoing process?

It is important to set an early goal for PM responsibilities and a hypothesis for a successful Executive Team/Product Manager dynamic. Many PMs may hope to be the executor of a set vision, and to double as a strategic advisor and thought partner to leadership. Executive teams likely have the same desire – at the same time, it is important to consider that trust is something that is built over time, and to develop a plan that allows for that to occur.

One strategy for setting a dynamic early is to have all new hires enter as contractors. This way, there are clear objectives to perform and a structured opportunity to part ways if it does not work out. One company we spoke with mentioned, “Many of the good full time contractors we have ended up being full time in the long run. Some have worked on specific problems. Some have worked on contract and left.”

Another strategy can be to outline a few “quick wins” for the PM and the organization. In small and growing companies, there is generally a lot of opportunity for improved coordination and knowledge capture. Coordination challenges are a large reason for early PM (Lightweight) hires. One company mentioned: “We hired a PM at around 80 FT and 110 contracted folks. With the number of contracts we hired, we knew we needed someone to manage this.”

Early PMs can establish a reputation as a focal-point for company activities, and organize the work in a way that builds long-term assets. Helping the existing team feel like it is more productive, successful, and building a foundation for the future sets a tone for the trust required to work through challenging projects. Knowing the benefit of this perception, it is also important for the leadership team to create the environment that allows for PM success.

ASK: What relationships do we want to establish throughout the organization? Will that change over time?

Both Lightweight and Heavyweight positions are exercises in soft influence: PMs will take time and resources from Engineering, Design, and Marketing teams, but will not have a “direct-line” reporting relationships with their team members. As a result, PMs can obtain influence through motivation. Another way (which can be supported by the leadership team) is to give the PM ownership for the product vision. Two considerations when establishing this are to:

  • Understand the flexibility the leadership team has in the corporate vision
  • Articulate the relationship of the PM and the leadership team in managing “holistic risk”

Current space startups have very clear technical visions – two popular examples are “to colonize Mars” or “to democratize satellite imagery” – which provide much agency in product development. These visions give more autonomy to their organization’s Product teams early – once there is confidence in the roadmap. For companies in which the path for execution is less clear or uncertain, navigating this risk may be too great or personally uncomfortable for leadership to pass to a PM, and a more “Lightweight” role may be appropriate.

Product Managers and senior leadership should learn how they perceive the “holistic risk” of the business and use this measure to prioritize and shape projects for the company. As a CEO (or “CEO substitute”), there is both functional risk and orthogonal risk – that is, the ability to appropriately identify and prioritize risk across competencies. Executives and PMs should understand how, together, they can mitigate this to increase the probability of a project’s success.