Product Managers – Who Needs Them Anyway?

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As a telecom product manager, I dreaded haircuts. It’s not that I wanted to grow luxuriant locks of untamed hair. Rather, it was the awkward conversation. That seemingly innocuous question: “so, what do you do?” followed by the conversation killer: “I’m a product manager”.  The ensuing “Oh…” speaks volumes to how little understood the role can be. And so, in the interest of pleasant chit chat, I’ve often been tempted to take-on a different persona whilst having my ears lengthened (mountain explorer, goat herder, long haul truck driver, astronaut… more relatable roles).

While you expect the concept of product management to elude the average service industry worker, I find confusion about the role is surprisingly prevalent. Even leaders at technology and communications companies, folks who should “get it”, often don’t get it. I’ve seen product managers who don’t understand their role. Heck, I’ve even seen entire product management departments laid-off as part of (arguably misguided) cost-cutting efforts.

So, who’s to blame for the confusion? The answer, like the role itself, is complicated.

Blame the person.

I’ve been around product managers who felt they added little value. Their days would be spent on endless calls where someone drug them into the meeting because of their title. One such product manager once said to me “I don’t understand how the company can hold us accountable for our product’s sales and revenue when we have no control over that lever”. My response: “but we do”. The connection may not always be obvious but product management absolutely controls or influences all the inputs that lead to sales and revenue growth. Product management requires an empowered mindset –and not everyone is cut-out for it.

Blame the company.

Product management means different things at different companies. At some companies, PMs are marketers, communicators or evangelists. This view limits their scope to packaging capabilities and creating messaging for sales. Other companies limit the role to an operational liaison or subject matter expert. At these companies, PMs serve as glorified sales engineers, helping resolve issues and answer questions about their product. Then there are those companies that confuse product management with product development, using the PM title to describe the PD role. It goes without saying, but a properly conceived product management role encompasses all of the preceding. Marketers, specialists and developers (in addition to being cross-functional objective-driven leaders who hold themselves, and their influence sphere, accountable for the results they deliver.)

Blame the role.

A big part of the problem is the fact product management doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional siloed view of the organization. Whether they care to admit it or not, organizations with product managers are matrixed. On one axis you have functional silos (sales, marketing, finance, billing, IT, operations, service delivery, service management), reporting into their functional leadership. On the other axis you have a virtual product organization where product management is accountable for all functional areas as they pertain to that product. She is the CEO of her product although her entire organization reports to someone else (with dotted line accountability to her).

Don’t play the blame game!

Product management is complex, spanning the customer lifecycle. It’s a function, not necessarily an enormously talented and well-rounded individual. The role is useful to grow revenue, improve the customer experience and hold the organization accountable. Product management helps products thrive. It’s a discipline, using financial and operational KPIs to measure product performance, resolve areas of weakness and continuously improve the offer. It holds sales accountable, creates and executes plans to grow services. PMs understand the market, set the roadmap and work on end-to-end CX improvement. They partner with every functional group that touches their product, fine tuning, adding and scaling their offering. They act as the voice of their “patch” to the company’s executive leadership and lead their peers to successful outcomes.

So, who needs product management? A better question might be “who doesn’t?” Each company’s interpretation of the role may differ based on product lifecycle stage, division of labor and key focus areas. It may not always be practical or desirable to try to find one person to do it all. Instead, by viewing it as a functional discipline with a specific mandate, innovative companies can effectively manage their products with a combination of resources working as a team. Rather than paying the premium that comes with a superstar, carving-out the tactical from the strategic gives up and coming service providers the opportunity to hire affordable resources and contract strategic projects to solve infrequent needs.

At Ronin Technology Advisors, we’re proud to be “product people” –even if we sometimes get blank stares when we say it. Are you ready to take your product portfolio to the next level? Whether you need help guiding your product strategy, aligning your portfolio to market demands or ensuring your platform supports your product’s growth needs, Ronin Technology Advisors can help. Let’s talk!

JP González, VP Strategic Marketing
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