Product Manager – Strategic or Not?

Are product managers really involved in strategic discussions, or are we just order takers?  Adrienne Tan has poked the beehive and started a great discussion with this article.  Joining in from here, hopefully adding folks to the conversation.  Check it out, and chime in here or on the brainmates blog.

Product Managers Taking Orders

Adrienne kicks off the discussion with a great post, including the following question : “why does a whole professional group continue to defend its right to be strategic? No one else seems to think that Product Management is the rightful owner of Product Strategy except Product Management.”

As I write this, there are half a dozen great comments on her post, including some powerful ideas:

  • People don’t want to relinquish power – and “owning strategy” is powerful.  Of course other people want to say that they “own” it.
  • Product management is the business – we run into problems when the role is “tacked on” organizationally and not deeply integrated.
  • There are two distinct roles – strategic planning and tactical support – and both have the same title (product manager), but if they are different people, you have problems.
  • There’s too much for one person to do, but the responsibilities of people sharing the work must overlap, or they will become disconnected.

As Nick points out in the comments – Adrienne’s post is a productive one, not just a rant – since getting a “seat at the table” for strategic decision making is so hard, is it worth doing?

Product Strategy

Product strategy happens.  It may be implicit, but it is probably explicit and intentional.  Product strategy, however, is just a business tactic.  Your company has a strategy, and someone makes the decision that “product” will play a role in that strategy.  The definition of that role constrains what someone else should do with the product, in order to realize the product’s portion of the business strategy.

Most of the product management roles that I’ve seen fall into this model.  There’s a “glass ceiling” for product managers – who are only given freedom to make decisions within this context.  Those product managers are “doers” within these constraints – occasionally allowed to, but generally not encouraged to, and certainly not required to provide recommendations to change the business strategy.

Go Where I Tell You

If the CEO (the actual CEO, not the “CEO of the product”) is the rider, then the product manager is the horse – constrained to “go where I tell you.”  The product manager is watching where he’s running to make sure he steps sure-footedly, looking around to see where the other horses (or wolves) are – basically responsible for the “running.”  The CEO is responsible for knowing where to go, not how to get there.  As long as the product manager doesn’t get the bit in his teeth, the CEO can make sure the horse goes where she wants.

What Does “Strategy” Mean to You?

The problem with words like strategy is that they carry a lot of symbolic baggage.  Wikipedia tells us that a strategy is a “plan of action, designed to achieve a vision.”  The question is one of scope – what level of “vision” are you trying to achieve?  Google’s vision is so big that they don’t really articulate it – instead, they share the philosophy that shapes their vision and guides their actions.  You have to pick one of the products, like Google Wallet, before you get an articulation of vision.

Product management (as a “named entity” in the organization), in the teams that I’ve been a part of, has “owned” the definition of the product strategy that enables the product vision – but not been invited to participate in the business strategy that enables the company’s vision.  That strategy is primarily embodied in a product roadmap that articulates how (and when) the product vision will be achieved.

The product strategy and vision are components of a portfolio of strategies and visions that collectively make up the business strategy.


Command and Control

The weakness of this old-school command-and-control model is that the commander (CEO) only gets limited inputs from the commanders in the field (product managers).  With this top-down model of decomposition of business strategy into products with specific roles, each product manager has specific responsibilities (take the town), often being expected to succeed with limited context (we’re sweeping around the enemy’s flank, but it is a feint).  The product manager is only providing progress reports and possibly market information back to the overall commander.  The product manager is not tasked with providing recommendations to change the business strategy.

The strength of this approach is that it enables a company to execute their business strategy.

As product managers, we know there is always “more to be done” – and like the metaphor of boiling the ocean, if one person tries to do everything, they won’t succeed.

In his recent series on product management roles, Rich Mironov calls out that the VP of Product Management is “making sure that the company as a whole is building and shipping and supporting the right products.” Not defining the business strategy, but rather determining which products should be components of that strategy, and what roles those products should have as members of that strategy.

Each product manager is responsible for defining the roadmap for their product, articulating how it will fulfill its role in the comprehensive strategy.

The Eye of the Beholder

Given this definition, is product management still a “strategic” role?  It depends on where you’re standing in the organization.  The CEO probably sees us as horses.  But the teams that are building, testing, and supporting our products are operating on a shorter time horizon, with an even narrower scope.  From that point of view, having a multi-release point of view about the product, and a deep understanding of the market (needed to make the right product decisions) is definitely strategic.

Should We Be Pushing the Strategic Product Manager Agenda?

Getting back to Adrienne’s original point, and a fantasic image from Geoffrey Anderson, “Sometimes I feel like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and every tier of the swim is fraught with bears waiting to eat me.” – is it worth investing our time and energy in pushing the “product managers are strategic” message?

If any of these apply to you, then yes – push:

  • I’m told what features to build, and I’m expected to just translate for the technical folks on the product team, so that they build it correctly.
  • I’m not given the (business strategy) context that defines the role my product plays, so have no way to know if my product is succeeding.
  • When I provide feedback about the feasibility or effectiveness of my product in its role as part of the business strategy, it is not valued and nothing changes.

If none of those apply to you, they do apply to some of your peers – so push.

In the past 10 years, I’ve seen each of the above situations multiple times, and they are in order of increasing frequency.  What I see even more frequently these days is product managers getting pulled more and more into the operational, product owner role – shepherding teams through daily stand-ups and validating acceptance criteria – purely tactical execution roles.  Those product managers are still somehow responsible for doing product management, even when not given enough time to do it.  If that’s the position you find yourself in today, start winding the klaxon.


Thanks for the bridle image.

Thanks Bryan for the wargame image.

72 thoughts on “Product Manager – Strategic or Not?

  1. In many cases (particularly with startups), the business vision and strategy are tightly coupled to the product vision and strategy.

    I’ve felt for quite a while that the driving force for a business and product should in most cases be the brand or intended position of the brand in the marketplace. When the business is centered around one product, the business and the product are typically synonymous from a brand perspective.

    The problem in most organizations is that no one who understands marketing principles is driving vision and strategy. Almost everyone thinks they are experts on marketing, since every person is a consumer and thinks she knows how people respond to marketing messages.

    1. Roger makes a good point. I had an old boss, an MIT graduate (if you know any, you now what I am getting at), who was convinced that he knew marketing because he worked at a 3 person start up.

      Alas, he would micromanage, and interfere at a level that was maddening. I ended up leaving because of that. In the trenches, we used to say: “John didn’t get a degree in marketing, but he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express(tm) last night…” Not so funny when you live it though.

    2. Good point Roger!

      It does introduce a chicken-and-egg problem. Does the company emerge as “we have a great product, let’s build a business around it?”

      If so, what happens when it is time for that second product (or second brand, or second market)?

  2. Wow, I got a quote by Scott. I feel honored. I had to look up the Brainmates post to see what the context was.

    I am becoming disillusioned for a different reason. I am in a large organization (a business unit of a much larger company), and my bos, the VP/GM tells me to “come up with the strategy”. Unfortunately, I am not privy to the corporate “business” strategy, so I am truly flying blind.

    Furthermore, tangential and orthogonal development strategies need to be carefully communicated so as to not draw undue attention to our organization (which I fear has been marked for “milk it, and ride it to 0”). It is almost as if the corporate leadership team wants us to go away.

    Do I stay and fight the battle? Or do I take the offer that is expected any day, and move to a company/BU that has support from the corporate leaders.

    Thanks for the mention, and the impetus to go back and reread the original thread!

    1. Pfft. Was a great comment, couldn’t resist quoting you!

      I think flying blind is another aspect of this problem. I’ve also been there multiple times when entering a product management role. I’ve worked with teams that said “wow, no one ever asked before – here’s the context….” and worked for bosses who said “I don’t know either, just do your best…”

      In my experience, you can be effective, in the short term, helping teams move forward (more tactically) with developing capabilities that are likely to be valuable once the over-arching strategy “emerges from hiding.”

      I don’t believe you can be effective for any period of time without an understanding of the context, the role your product needs to play, and the definition of success for your product.

      Can you get your boss to define what success and failure (for your product) would look like? You can use that to define your strategy. Think of it as a requirements elicitation exercise.

      Do you stay? Only if you want to “fight the battle” – because you enjoy it, or because your loyalty to the company (or your boss) justifies the pain of doing it, or some other reason. Your call.

      Thanks for continuing the conversation here too!

    2. Geoffrey:

      I’m an MIT graduate, but I don’t take offense… Marketing is one of those things that many people think they know, or think is easy to know.

      On your company situation: Go. Now. Be a leader that leaves when they don’t have the environment to do great work, not one of the hangers-on.


  3. It really depends on the size of the company, and how many products it has.

    If it’s a large company with many products, then the Product Manager might have some say over the strategy of the products they manager within the strategy of the overall company, but of course, it’s limited. A company wouldn’t and shouldn’t change its overall strategy for one product, unless of course it was thee major product of the company. Of course as I write this, exceptions to the rule exist that turned out to be successes, makes me wonder how many more were failures.

    Whilst in a small company (very small), with a start-up mentality, that has a couple or even just one product, then the product manager albeit CEO who might actually be the product manager in this size of company, has little choice but to interlink the product and the strategy, as they feed off one another.

    Strategy directly impacts the product, and product directly impacts the strategy, as customer feedback comes in. Having been through the ultra-small start-up where I wore many hats, major changes are made to the product of the company as customer exploration and product testing and adaption is made. This always impacts things even to the point the customer itself might change or price point, or even the whole product itself. This can have drastic ramifications on the company strategy. Of course, if harnessed right, the product becomes honed, and the strategy becomes honed.

    1. Thanks Mark!

      I agree, the tail shouldn’t wag the dog, and have a (locally optimal, good for the product) product strategy overwhelm the company’s (globally optimal, good for the business) strategy.

      However, there is still a missing link – the product managers, who are responsible for knowing the market(s) in which their products compete, should have a way to share those insights and observations such that they inform the business strategy.

      Using a football analogy, the quarterback (QB) coach (product manager for the quarterback) should not be limited to training the most effective QB-skills for a given offensive set-up. The QB coach should be able to say “I’m seeing the following coverage from the defense, which makes it hard for the QB to score (and therefore hard for the team to win), given the current offensive strategy. What do you think about a change to a different offense, that would allow the QB to be more effective – thus (possibly) making the team more effective?”

      The more the single-product product manager knows about the overall offensive strategy, the more she can apply the insights she gains (in the single-product analysis) to the broader company-strategy perspective. Most product managers I’ve worked with at best get to “send it up the chain” with little encouragement, acknowledgement, or adoption of ideas.

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  34. This is a great question, and unfortunately the truth about the matter is that many people use the title product manager when in fact they are not. Think about that simple statement – would you go to a doctor and expect them not to know biology, anatomy and other core principles? They make life and death choices every day, from the medicine they prescribe to the surgeries they perform. When you go to a hospital, and ask for a doctor, you get similar skills sets no matter where you go (yes there are good and bad doctors, but we punish the bad ones because we know what they SHOULD be doing).

    Now take product management – take any collection of 5 companies and you’ll get 5 very different definitions of product management, and the most fundamental problem? Each company will think they are doing product management right, and they aren’t necessarily wrong! That’s because we lump together so many responsibilities across such a wide spectrum.

    My advice for a product manager? Know your role, know your responsibilities. Sometimes this covers strategy, and sometimes it does not. But don’t assume “Product Manager” means what you think it means. As an industry, we really do need to better define this. AIPMM, Pragmatic,PDMA and others try to make this happen, but we have yet to standardize on a single description of a product manager.

    1. Thanks, Hakan!

      As you point out, the ways in which product managers contribute to organizations really vary. I wonder if you could define a standard product manager description that would be broad enough to cover these different responsibilities, while being narrow enough to be relevant to individual product managers. When I was a mechanical engineer, that was definitely a limitation of the professional engineering certification. At least half of what was covered on the exam had no bearing on my role, and I imagine that the half that mattered for me would have been irrelevant for the engineers who were doing other jobs.

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