In part 1, I talked about the challenges of introducing product management into an established organization. Here I share hard-learned lessons on how to avoid common pitfalls and start laying the foundation for long-term success.
Start with why
If you’re looking to bring Product Management into your organization, start with this simple, but fundamental question:
Seriously, why do you really need product management? What problem are you expecting it to solve?
Improved product development processes?
Better requirements writing? (Ick.)
Maintaining feature lists? (C’mon, seriously?)
Being the demo guy? (Groan…)
The ‘why’ question is critical because it sets the expectation for the value Product Management is expected to bring to the organization.
It also crystallizes whether there are ways to solve the problems the organization faces through its current structure. For instance, perhaps the existing departments could take on various product Management functions? Or could be re-structured and appropriate processes could be developed around them to ensure continuous innovation.
If these are not possible, and centralized product focus is needed, then perhaps introducing Product Management does make sense.
Pro Tip: If you’re hiring a product manager because you’re developing a software and simply need someone to provide requirements to engineering and project manage delivery, don’t hire a product manager. Hire a project manager who can double up as a business systems analyst.
Prepare the organization
You must understand that Product Management is a disruptive force, a radical change to the way the organization has been conducting its business thus far. The introduction of a product management function will centralize many functions that were previously diversified. (Fragmented?) Senior leadership MUST think carefully if this is something they want to take the organization through, and must prepare to shepherd each of the other departments through their change curves.
Who is your first hire? And where do they sit?
A more senior individual will bring the experience and know-how to take on a more leadership type role, quickly formulate the product strategy and develop a roadmap and, when the time comes, leverage their personal network to bring in additional product management talent.
For a growing company, taking over many of the product strategy execution aspects off of the CEO, CIO/CTO, founder, etc. is exactly what the first formal Product Management leader would do. As such, you’ll be better off making your first hire at a more senior level, at least VP or Director. Ensuring sustainable success for the position — and, thus, for the product strategy — in an ideal manner means setting it up in terms of stature and position with respect to the other departments.
A common push back I hear from organizations that have never hired a product manager is they worry a more senior person may not be willing to be as “hands on” and handle the necessary tactical activities that need to be done.
First, frankly, that’s silly. Just make sure in your hiring process you look for a leader who’s willing to and has demonstrable experience operating getting their hands dirty.
Second, product management is a unique discipline that necessarily requires one to execute tactically while thinking strategically. It’s the thing that sets it apart from many other disciplines.
Now, it’s possible the company may simply not have the budget to hire a senior level person, since such an individual will naturally command a higher compensation. And waiting to have the right budget may not be an option if the company is in crisis mode where it needs someone to step in to pick up activities that are getting dropped. So the company may be forced to opt for a more ‘junior’ product manager.
Regardless of the experience level of the individual and the title of the role, one of the biggest risks here is where to place this individual in the organization. I would still advocate having this person report directly to the senior most executive in charge of product strategy, including the CEO.
Unfortunately, what often happens is the individual is put under Marketing, Sales or Engineering. (Or, worse, “IT”.) The dangers with this approach are well documented.1 In effect, the product manager becomes a support role for the primary function of that department, providing content for marketing materials, doing product demos for sales, or writing requirements and project managing deliverables for engineering. No time to do the critical work of understanding market problems and formulating the product strategy.
Who to hire and where they sit are critical decisions to ensure long term success. I once worked for a company that rotated through five directors and seventeen product managers in just six years. A total of twenty-two. Twenty-two!
Ensure senior sponsorship
Ensure there is someone in a senior executive position who is willing to be the champion for Product Management.
This has the greatest impact on Product Management’s long-term success.
You need someone at that level to evangelize the value that product management brings to the organization, and provide the necessary air support when political attacks threaten to disrupt it in its formative stages.
Do you feel lucky? Well… do ya?
So far I’ve talked from the organization’s point of view. What if you’re the first product manager in the company?
Here’s what you should do:
Clarify your role
Because expectations may vary widely, it’s important to clarify your role upfront.
If you’re joining a startup, an enterprise with a visionary CEO, or a company with established lines of business, the CEO or line of business may want to continue to act as the product visionary and retain control over the product direction. In this case, Product Management may play a more tactical role, working more closely with engineering on product releases, perhaps supporting marketing and sales activities. Your role with respect to setting the product strategy will be strictly as an influencer.
You must ask yourself, are you cool with that? Because I can tell you, it may be a great gig, but it’s not product management. If you’re still cool with it, more power to ya. If not, the role is simply not a fit. Move on.
You need to have a mutually agreed upon definition of success, clarify how your performance will be judged, and reconcile these with the scope of the role.
If you’re expected to play a more tactical role, yet deliver product innovation; or if you’re measured on the number of defects and customer complaints; yet the role is about market insight and setting the product direction; or you’re told they want you to be strategic, but you’ll be measured on tactical things like “on-time” delivery, these are signs of expectations being incongruous with the role.
(To put it bluntly, the role is set up for failure. My advice: run away.)
As stated earlier, Product Management is an agent of change, because it changes existing business processes, and takes decision making and responsibilities away from current owners. This creates uncertainty. To the extent reasonable, talk to everyone. Understand their expectations. Share these findings with your hiring bosses to clarify expectations and the role, and ensure they are congruous. Doing this has the added benefit of helping you establish key relationships and building your credibility. (Important!)
Ensure senior sponsorship
As discussed above. Regardless of whether you’re coming in with the title of Product Manager or Vice President, make sure there is a true believer at the senior executive level who will go to bat for you, give you the space to establish yourself into the role, and support your efforts to be targeted and focused.
Which brings us to:
Look, you simply can’t do everything. If you’ve done your homework on the role and expectations fronts, identify what you think are the most pressing problems, share them with your stakeholders, gain their buy-in, and focus relentlessly on the top priorities.
Lower level priorities and new problems will crop up, of course, but at least you’ll either be able to fall back on the agreement you reached or have a constructive conversation on re-assessing priorities based on new realities. This gives you a much greater chance to get things done while keeping your credibility intact.
Introducing Product Management into an organization can be fraught with ambiguity, unreasonable expectations, and threats from every corner. But with foresight and planning, it’s possible to set it up for long-term success. Either way, it’s going to be roller coaster. So saddle up, buckle in, and get ready for a wild ride!