Unravelling Product Management.

Tim Johnson, SVP Product Management
12 June 2018

Product is still a relatively new discipline, finding its way in the professional world. It’s far from reaching maturity in the sense of being a stable, consistently understood skill set.

Its origins date back to the first half of the 20th century, but it’s taken on a huge new significance in the world of software products, in particular with the evolution of agile development as a contemporary norm. And yet I often see organisations struggling to provide Product Leadership within their teams effectively.

Product is often understood in a vague, muddled way, varying enormously between organisations and with slippery terminology for job roles. This is a shame, as it’s one of the most crucial disciplines for creating success. Getting the right skills in the right places at a practical level really matters. A Product Manager is absolutely not just a busy person with strong opinions, and while it can be a great career step for people with very different backgrounds, it shouldn’t be used as an arbitrary promotion without thought for the real capabilities needed.

I’ll say a little below about where the complexity and confusion comes from, and try to unpick the distinction between Product Manager and Product Owner, but first let’s look at the common heart of all Product work.

Fundamentally it’s about value. About working out and communicating clearly what needs to be done in order to bring value. At Somo we often shortcut this by describing the Product role as being about the ‘What’. You’re very interested in the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’, but your core focus is on defining the ‘What’.

Product people can (and should) be diverse, but some of their core characteristics are:

  • Logical analysis;

    the ability to break down a problem and come up with solutions

  • Respect for evidence;

    creating a sound rational basis for decisions

  • User empathy;

    a feeling for what is useful and helpful for people

  • Business judgement;

    sensible choices about what will drive commercial value

  • Cross functional leadership;

    balancing the input of different specialists

  • Passion for quality;

    standing up for what good looks like in your context

  • Communication;

    giving people real clarity as to what needs to be done    

These qualities can be expressed in very different ways depending on the business context and individual personalities. Let’s talk a little about the main polarities within the overall Product skill set. 

Firstly, Product Manager and Product Owner, two terms which are now very widely used and abused. These roles are often combined, but when an organisation or team is big enough to separate them it works roughly like this: 

Somo Product Manager Graphic — Unravelling Product Management

These two roles are often muddled up and sometimes even reversed in meaning, partly because the terms can sound quite contentious in some organisations (‘owner’ sounds terribly senior and powerful). Product Management and Product Ownership are not necessarily hierarchical; they’re just different slices of the overall Product skill set, and can be done by one person, two or many (as long as they collaborate superbly).

Ultimately the words don’t matter, but it’s crucial that Product Management and Product Ownership duties are understood and placed in the hands of people with the right skills. Here are the two classic mistakes:

  • Putting a strategic visionary in charge of writing down all the detail developers so badly need

  • Expecting a careful analytical thinker with highly refined data analysis skills to knock senior stakeholders’ heads together

Secondly, there’s an important range of nuance in the different background skills feeding into the Product mix. Product people tend to have different levels of expertise in and affinity for business, technology and design (especially UX), often reflecting their career backgrounds.

Somo Business Technology Design graphic — Unravelling Product Management

Product people typically need some expertise in all three to be effective, but the balance can vary widely, and across a team it can be helpful to have people with particular strengths in these different areas.

This is a crucial point, because Product Leadership means getting the right balance between deferring to the wisdom of domain experts (Technical Architects, UX Designers etc.) and knowing when to step in with your own judgement for the overall good of the product. This can be tough, and requires a working level of expertise across very broad disciplines. In some ways a Product Manager has to be a jack of all trades, but a thoughtful, effective one.

Ultimately what an organisation needs in its Product team in terms of balancing Product Management / Product Ownership and business / technology / design perspectives will depend on the focus of its products, their particular challenges, and the skills blend available in other teams.

This brings me to my final topic. I’ve run several Product teams over the years, and in response to tensions and contradictions like these I’ve come up with a few overall principles that I try to work by, to keep everything in overall balance across an effective Product team:

  • Evidence and professional judgement go hand in hand.

      Study the data, do the research, but ultimately a Product Manager needs to make decisions based on their experience and judgement.

  • Business value comes from user value.

      A Product Manager needs empathy for what’s actually useful to people, and needs to find ways to align that with business value. That’s the heart of the job.

  • Work for the spirit of agile, not the letter.

      Always learning, always iterating, always looking for what can be done better, and how we can validate our hypotheses.

  • Above all, keep asking difficult questions.

      The Product Manager is in the wonderful position of being licensed, even required, to challenge all the experts and stakeholders and disrupt conventional wisdom.

In summary, Product is a rich, nuanced, fast evolving discipline that’s crucial to business success. It’s at the heart of value creation. But to reap the benefits it’s important to assess the particular blend of Product skills that are needed in your business context, and ensure that the right people are deployed in the right roles, collaborating superbly with the teams around them. Getting this right is part of the Product Leadership Somo provides.