Product management

What does a product manager do?


In any product oriented company the product manager takes a central role. But with no industry wide definition available, a very common subject of discussion is “what is a product manager?” or “what does a product manager do?”. In this article we will try to define product management and the product manager role.

Be the CEO of your product

“Be the CEO of your product” is a description that resonates well with me and that serves as a good definition of what a product manager is, or at least should be. But how others view the role of the product manager differs dramatically from how they view the CEO. While everyone expects the CEO to be on top of the business, no one expects him or her to pay bills, install new servers, write code, run tests, create brochures or update the website. There are definitely companies where the CEO does one or a few of those things. But generally speaking the expectation is not that the CEO executes on the small things, but rather sets the direction and takes the lead. So why do we over and over again experience that others expect the product manager to not only to set the direction of the product, but also fight fires and get neck deep in every single product related issue? Handling such expectations come down to agreeing on what the product managers primary goal is, and to manage the expectations of those interacting with the product manager.

Be the CEO of your product! - The role of the product manager. Click To Tweet

How others see the product manager

But in order to set the scene, picture your self as the product manager when one of the sales reps come by. What will they be asking? Probably something about when that new product or function they’ve asked for will be available. Or if you can provide technical product details to one of their customers. Or if they can reduce the price in an ongoing bid and still make a profit. Or if you have an updated presentation they can use for their next meeting. Or how to beat that competitor they are up against. If you ask someone in sales what they expect from the product manager, they will most likely say things like “be the product expert” and provide technical as well as commercial sales support. They may also expect the product manager to provide product value propositions, in some cases even tailored to their markets and customers. Finally other expectations may include a clear strategic direction and roadmap, information about market trends and how they affect the products future, as well as clear ideas of how to win against competition.

How about when the support engineer comes by? It’s probably gonna be about that latest support request they cannot solve on their own. Or about prioritizing the fix for that bug they found. Or perhaps about that improvement idea they had to ease trouble shooting. If you ask someone in the support organization what they expect from the product manager they will probably say a second/third line of support. They will often expect the product manager to know the ins and outs of the product, down to the detail. And they will expect the product manager to help them push R&D to implement bug fixes asap.

So how about when someone in R&D walks by? They will probably be looking for guidance, asking which of two alternatives the customer would prefer. They might ask if it really is important that they implement a function in the specified way. R&D will typically expect the product manager to know the overall market situation as well as individual customer needs. This includes use cases and detailed descriptions of how the users will interact with the product. In extreme cases a general direction will not be enough; there are cases where they will be asking not for insight but for decisions.

Finding the product-market fit

So what to make out of this? There’s obviously a lot of expectations on the product manager. This have lead some to describe the product managers role with the following graph, which originated in “The Product Managers Handbook” by Linda Gorchels.

Role of the Product Manager - Wheel

But describing the role of the product manager by what interfaces the person has is neither a fair description, or one that helps a company get the most out of the product managers and their products. It doesn’t help the product manager prioritize and it does not help manage expectations of what the product manager should be doing. Back to the analogy of being the CEO of the product, no one would describe the role of the CEO by what people or organizations the CEO interacts with. So why describe the product manager this way?

A better definition is one that takes into consideration the primary goal of the product manager, which is to find a product-market fit. You do this in the intersection of the market and the development of your product.

Role of the Product Manager - Intersection of Market and Development

Finding a product-market fit requires identifying a problem to be solved. But also understanding who experience this problem and the overall market, as well as engaging with potential users to understand who they are and their specific needs. Properly addressing this problem requires the product manager to ensure that the product is developed to solve it in a way suitable for the target market. And if the value of solving the identified problem is not obvious to everyone from sales to the customer, the product manager also needs to help everyone understand that value. This is done by articulating a strong value proposition. So yes, the product manager needs to be involved in all steps from identifying a problem to selling and delivering a solution to the customer. But the key here is to always focus on the product-market fit. The product manager does not need to be involved in each and every customer engagement. And the product manager does not need to be involved in every support request and every customer delivery project.

When Steve Johnson held a session for my team he showed a simple yet powerful diagram to specify the role of the product manager. As said above the focus of the product manager needs to be on what helps “many” customers, rather than a single one. And on top of what was said above this diagram from Steven highlights the need to focus on the future and avoid spending time on the “now”.
Role of the Product Manager - Focus on the future

Become a true leader!

So to sum up and answer the question “what does a product manager do?”. Make sure you don’t get sucked into fighting daily support fires, providing sales support in each and every case, micromanaging R&D or into becoming the technical or commercial expert of your product. Focus on the long term, on what the market really needs, find that product-market fit and make sure you become a true leader!

Focus on the long term, find that product-market fit and become a true product leader! Click To Tweet

By Alexander Sandstrom

Passionate product manager with a love for technology and innovation. More about me.

2 replies on “What does a product manager do?”

First of all, great post!
I would be really curious on your views on where you draw the line on many of these items. We all know there is a great deal of expectations from everyone on the product manager, but where does one draw the line? My experience tells me this is vastly different depending on the maturity & scope of the product.

What’s your view?

Thanks again!

Thanks! Where to draw the line is tricky, and it will have to be a case-by-case discussion. I definitely agree that it depends on the maturity of the product, as well as the type of product. A product that has just been launched will most likely require more sales support type activities, and there’s definitely going to be some hand-holding required when it is rolled out to the first few customers. After all it is in the best interest of the product manager that the product is successful on the market. Otherwise there is no way to know if you missed to product-market fit when defining the product, or if your organization is simply not successful in bringing it to the identified market.

But I would claim that beyond the first couple of months after launch, where there will be a lot of exceptions to the rules, the product manager should be forward looking. Focus should be on future products and functionality, and 95% of the work done on existing products should be to enable others to do their job. Create sales tools and presentations, technical material and solution descriptions, input to product marketing material etc.

So no silver bullet answer I guess, but even though it will depend I still strongly believe in a long term focus on the future.

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