The Midior Mailbox Midior
Volume 2 Issue 1
A Product Manager's Playbook
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The Plays
Cover the functions
Define the roles
Pick the players
Play the positions
Coach the team 
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The Midior Team
Team MIDIOR
With 20 years of experience and leadership from Susan Loconto Penta and Michael Goldberger, the MIDIOR team is focused on  the discipline of product development and management, helping clients seize new opportunities and respond to changing markets.  
 
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Changing the way you think about products

Tuning Your Product Organization: Functions First, Jobs Second
 
Background:  Samantha heads up R&D for a software company and wonders if there is a "best practice" organization model for product management in a high tech company.  In her situation, product managers report to her as part of the research and development group.  Samantha is concerned that their time is too consumed with development and operations tasks such as writing requirements documentation to meet the gates in their product development process or doing what it takes to get products out the door.  Spending time on commercially oriented activities such as interfacing with customers, supporting sales and working on new product initiatives often takes a back seat to project managing through the crisis du jour or achieving the next development milestone.
Question
Is there a best practice model for the product management organization?  Would it make sense to change the organizational structure to have product managers report to a different department (i.e. to a business unit or marketing) or even to stand on its own?  Is there a better way to cover the key responsibilities of product management and, at the same time, bring technical managers closer to the customer?
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Dear Samantha,
To answer your question, let's first take the focus off of where product management sits in the organization and talk about the functions and roles that need to be covered.  We can't give you one "best practice" model but we do know that as long as the core product management functions are covered and that the jobs mapped against those functions are logically organized and staffed, you will have a high-performance team.
But where do I start? When you talk about the core product management functions, how do I know that I have them covered?
coverCover the Functions: A good place to start is to separate the people from the functions. Take a look around the company and see where the core product management functions are being executed.  You may be surprised to discover that some of the key product management functions are being covered by individuals outside of your product management group or that they aren't being covered at all.  Separating the functions into two distinct categories is a useful way to think about the key activities: "development/operations" and "commercial." In most companies, "development and operations" covers the building, testing, and deployment of the product while "commercial" activities include the business aspects of the product such as launch, adoption, and sales enablement.  There are also supporting activities such as product finance and talent management that play a role across all stages of the product lifecycle.  For a more complete view of the core product development and management functions, click here.
So, once I identify where the key functions are happening, how do I get my product managers focused on all of aspects of managing the product?
defineDefine the roles:  Before you can think about re-focusing the product managers' activities, you need to define the role correctly within the context of your organization.   The product manager's role will vary according to the type of industry you're in, maturity of your company and your products, scope of international operations, and other factors.  A good place to start is to align the role with your corporate objectives, keeping in mind that these will change over time.  Then, you need to think about the tactics for meeting the objective (e.g. supporting revenue growth through through in-house development or external acquisition), and how that choice will impact the product management role. Do you need a full time "job" associated with partnering activities or is that a rare occurence in your approach?  Will a global product manager provide sufficient expertise or do you need regional support?
Tracking the product management role against the larger corporate objectives makes sense, but how do I get the people in the jobs focused on doing the right thing?
pickPick the players: There is a big difference in the characteristics of product managers championing the early stages of innovative products and their counterparts who are harvesting more mature product portfolios where development is incremental.  These roles can be equally important to an organization but they demand different skill sets and personality types.  If you are doing something new in the emerging technology space and trying to get a product initiative off the ground, that activity has to be championed by an evangelist. Contrast that with the task of optimizing a mature product where looking for new opportunities in an established space and reducing costs may be the keys to success.
Are there any specific attributes you look for in strong leaders for the product management organization?
playPlay the positions: To focus your product managers on doing the right thing, we suggest that you de-construct what they actually do day-to-day and assess whether that is truly product management. Whenever product managers protest that they "don't have the time" to talk to customers or address new product development, that's a sign of trouble and you need to find the root cause.  For example, their lack of time may be attributed to the overhead burden of a rigroous product development process which was originally intended to address quality challenges.
 
If your product managers spend their days writing requirements to satisfy a process rather than a purpose, it's a symptom that the original intent of the process may have been lost. In that case, it is time to revisit the process and question how product management time is allocated.
  
coachCoach the team:  You may be surprised to hear that we believe the best product managers are not always the best leaders of the same function, because their tendency is to dive into the details and do the work, rather than coach the team to success.  There is nothing more de-motivating for a great product manager than to have someone micro-manage the details of their work.  Strong leaders of product management teams have the ability to choose the right players, translate the corporate vision into tangible objectives and provide air cover, so the product managers have the autonomy to do their jobs.
 
In the end:  Fine-tuning the product management organization and looking for the right organizational fit, isn't a one-shot deal.  Most "best-practice" product management teams go through this exercise every few years and ask the same types of questions that are on your mind.  There's no one model that works best for every organization but we hope that our responses point you in the right direction.
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