Demystifying product for non-product professionals
What other functional leaders should understand about this discipline
This is the second part of an ongoing series exploring the functional roles of the modern enterprise. While most people may be familiar with how their own functions are defined and evaluated, they may not have a clear view of how their functional peers are assessed, measured, or held accountable. In our first installment, we examined the marketing function.
In 1931, Procter & Gamble junior ad executive Neil H. McElroy wrote a famous memo that laid the foundation for modern brand management. Among the new roles he envisioned that would take individual product lines to market was that of a “product manager.” Over the past several decades this role has become critical to overall business success in multiple industries from CPG to healthcare. In the sphere of software development, it's a relatively newish concept; when companies first started building software, they needed to first spec everything out perfectly before building the tool, with fairly lengthy cycles required to get the software to consumers and receive feedback, although this has shortened significantly and can today be near instantaneous (for better or worse!). In digitally native technology companies in particular, product management has evolved significantly into an independent and well-established discipline. However, it can all seem like mumbo jumbo to those looking in from the outside who lack a product management background.
Product management tends to be, well, a product of its unique environment. The role at Google, for example, will look much different than at a smaller company or a large organization with a different focus and client mix. This can affect one’s perspective of what product management should look like and contributes to the proliferation of popular myths about the role. While the most basic and widely accepted definition of a product manager is someone who connects and manages strategy and execution across different functions, for example, it is often erroneously described as “mini CEO.” This framing is usually offered to assuage prospective candidates that even though they won’t necessarily have a budget or a team, they’ll have a lot of influence. Yet this framing fails to convey that the PM’s most significant contribution is more narrowly focused on connection and communication between customers, internal teams, and other various stakeholders than it is about making key executive decisions on a daily basis. Product has also in certain circles developed a reputation as a highly technical role, but the attributes most needed to be successful — empathy, communication, and diplomacy — would be considered more classic “soft” skills. Whether you’re a product manager or a peer in another part of the organization, what are the key things to keep in mind about this role and function?
When people say “product,” they’re usually referring to some combination of three distinct disciplines: 1) product management, 2) product development, or 3) product marketing.
Product management is the discipline that represents customer requirements in product design. The product manager is the critical link between the company’s customers — or whoever’s using the product, which could be an internal team using a homegrown tool — on one side and its in-house development team — or whoever's actually building the product — on the other side.
Product development is the internal or external group that actually develops the product. These are typically the more technical engineering folks who are tasked with designing, building, and releasing products that customers want.
Product marketing is tasked with communicating what a product does to a wider set of audiences, which could be investors, customers, potential partners, or anyone else in the value chain who might be interested.
In different organizations, a product function may lean more toward product development than management, with product marketing falling under the purview of the marketing organization, rather than the product team. These are all signals for company structure that can point to how and how well a particular company executes. Deciphering these signals is the first step that somebody looking in needs to understand about product.
Finding the right fit
It’s a challenge when people without product backgrounds are asked to recruit talent for the product team. If you’re part of a team interviewing a candidate, what are the skills you should be looking for and how can you evaluate them? It can be helpful to consider where your candidates’ job descriptions would fall on the following framework:
When evaluating different candidates, it can also be difficult to understand the difference in experience based on the time horizons that they’re accustomed to. Many companies will, for example, want to poach somebody who's built products in a very mature organization such as a Fortune 500 company — which has long-time horizons and tons of resources and support — and make them the key product hire in a much, much younger and more dynamic company. In the framework below, this would be Candidate #1, who has only ever worked at large multinationals. But mature and young companies represent two very different languages and different muscles that need to be exercised.
There is also a myth that a chief product officer is a hands-on tactician overseeing the day-to-day operations, when instead, the CPO should ideally be a visionary, charting out the company’s product roadmap for the next 18 months to several years. This may manifest in a chief product officer job listing that specifies the right candidate will “roll up their sleeves” and “write product requirements,” which is the equivalent of “looking for a CTO who codes daily” or “need a CRO with a thick rolodex.” These are the reddest red flags for unrealistic expectations.
It would be like if you wanted to hire a CEO who can also clean the office and take out the garbage. Yes, you could do that, and there are reasons that a CEO might take on basic office cleanup, but is that the wisest use of the company’s money and time? No. Maybe you think you want a chief product officer, but a junior or senior product manager is a better fit.
Most product management teams are tasked with the vision and the road map for the product, but their time horizons vary greatly depending on company stage. For example, a younger, less mature company will likely have development and release cycles that are very short as they work toward product market fit. In contrast, Fortune 500 companies on the other end of the spectrum will be operating on much longer timelines of one to three years.
That time horizon also connects to seniority. How far in advance a product team looks also maps back to the seniority of those on the product management team. The more junior the team members, the more tactical their roles; they don't look past the next several product releases, which may only be three to six months out. More senior people will concentrate on what needs to be built six to 18 months out. And a C-level product executive should be someone who can envision what the product or set of products should look like 18 months to several years later. Companies can also create more specialized roles depending on their needs, such as product roles that are more technical or those that are more heavily client-focused.
In the very best scenarios, the product role acts as a critical connective glue that can combine strategy and execution for a company’s products. Having the right product team in place can make the difference in a company’s effectiveness, speed, and, ultimately, success.
All companies are not created equal, and the same applies to product management roles. Since they are quite dependent on each company’s unique needs, knowing what the organization wants to prioritize and at what stage can help to increase the odds of a successful hire — instead of a mismatch. This is one functional area where copying someone else’s org chart or homework may do more harm than good.
What flavor of product management does your current company practice and how is that different from clients, partners, and other companies you’ve worked with?
Thanks for reading,
Ana, Maja, and the Sparrow team
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