How to Lose Your Head
I had to let a product manager go once because he just did not have the influencing skills necessary to do the job. He was intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, hard-working and motivated, but he never quite understood that he was supposed to provide direction, rather than receive it.
Repeatedly, I found this product manager asking engineers what new features would do and documenting whatever they told him. I told him that his job was to understand the needs of a market and work with Engineering to devise a product that could (profitably) meet that need.
His interactions with Marketing and Sales echoed those with Engineering. He got the answers to their questions (mostly by asking engineers), but he never provided guidance on which markets the product was best suited for, what needs it met, or how to position it.
I had to let him go because he was not an influencer; he was really little more than a scribe.
Influence Without Authority
One of the key hidden superpowers of good product people is influence. Few if any people report to your average product manager, but they have (or should have) an outsized influence on their organization. They provide direction on what to build to Engineering; they provide direction on target markets and messaging to Marketing; they recommend possible alliances and acquisitions to Business Development. The list goes on and on.
When it's working well, a product person's influence brings multiple departments together behind a plan (called a product roadmap) that drives the company toward the vision set out by top management.
When it is not working, the product manager finds him or herself tossed about on a sea of strong opinions, has difficulty in setting or sticking to priorities, and becomes the whipping boy (or girl) for everyone's frustrations with poor business results.
I was having coffee recently with David Sprogis, a friend, entrepreneur and experienced product manager. David is fantastic with visualizations of complex topics and he sketched this diagram in his notebook to illustrate the spectrum of influence a product manager can have in an organization.
On either side of the diagram are the two chief groups a product manager interacts with. The PM's role is to balance the concerns of each and produce a plan that results in the Engineering team delivering something that meets business goals.
The PM's position on the vertical arrow in the middle represents their level of influence over the process. If the PM does nothing more than bring people to the table and write down what they come up with, that puts them at the bottom of the influence spectrum, acting as the company scribe for other people's decisions.
On the other hand, if the PM sets out goals and collaborates with both groups to devise a plan that Engineering can meet and that serves the needs of the business, they are acting in a much more strategic role. This role has often been described as the "CEO of the product" (though here is a cogent dissenting opinion). I have sometimes called this role "The Hand of the King," as it reflects the way a good product manager makes the day-to-day decisions that the king -- er, CEO -- doesn't have time for.
Another thing it reflects is that the Hand serves at the pleasure of the king and, like any employee, can be, um, dismissed easily.
Is this how you see it? Have you seen product people succeed or fail based on where they fall on this spectrum? Let me hear your stories in the comments below.