Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

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Court Scribe or Hand of the King?

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.

An Illustration

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.


Reader Comments (9)

Did the PM with lacking influencing skills have an office in the same building as the engineers?

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPM4Ever

Hi PM4Ever, an excellent question. It can be very difficult to use your influencing skills with people in remote locations. I've worked with teams as far apart as Seattle and Minsk, and regular in-person visits make a huge difference in the daily productivity of relationships.

In this case, yes, the PM was in the same building, in fact just a few cubes over from the engineers. Still, it might just have been a personality clash, so I swapped him with another engineering group, but things just went from bad to worse. Some people are just not suited to the job.

September 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy

I agree with what you're saying here as a Product Manager . That said, I also think a lot is shared by executive leadership in terms of enabling the Product Manager -- not with formal power per se, but with the information to make intelligent strategic directions. I've had experiences where executive management across the board was not aligned, which caused lots of strife for managing expectations and fluidly monitoring P&L, or financial revenue/costs information were not shared for a product.

The PM should definitely have a strong idea of where things are going and how things should be, but if management also has other products, company vision and information to help support/measure, these need to be recognized and adequate support and dialog needs to be available. In other words, there are definitely elements outside of the control of the PM that need to be understood. It would be much easier if there is "one king" -- which may be true in startups -- but in larger corporations, there are often many princes/princesses involved. <g>

In addition, with the remote aspect -- I'm actually a remote PM myself. There are many different aspects of Product Management, as we all know, so I agree that in a Product Owner (scrum, sprint driving) role, it makes more sense to be near engineering directly -- or if taking both technical/tactical and strategic roles.

For more strategic driving, regular visits still make sense -- but bidirectional communication is the most important and can still be achieved through the close alignment between a Product Manager and Product Owner role. That can allow the Product Manager to stay more aligned with management and operations (which isn't always in or next to engineering locations), IMHO. But admittedly, it does take a lot of leg work and for both sides and a committed willingness to be open about hurdles. That's the nature of the beast though with many remote development locations these days.

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

@Tim, yes, you've nailed the critical aspects to influence:

#1: get aligned with your executive team (which, as you say, is sometimes harder than others and can be the biggest influencing challenge)

#2: create a good working relationship with the engineering team. In smaller orgs, the PM may work directly with Engineering. In Agile shops, there may be a product owner in between. In larger more traditional shops, that role may be played by a business analyst.

In all cases, it's about good communication. That's why communications skill is my #1 hiring criterion for PMs.

September 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy

Was the Product Manager you let go lacking in influencing skills or was he just a poor decision maker? Sounds like he tried to be a friend believing that to be the way to influence when in actual fact he should have made some decisions.

October 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne

@Adrienne He was too afraid to make decision on his own, really. As you say, he was less interested in making the right decision than he was in just being liked.

October 3, 2013 | Registered CommenterBruce McCarthy

I'm agree with your post, and maybe is the theoretical idea over How to be a good PM. But sometimes the reality is a little different, and the enterprise not always give to the PM, all tools and the power to take a decision as you describe "The Hand of the King" I think all depend of the enterprise, the market, the country and other factors. The idea is adapt to the reality of your enterprise, always be proactive and listen the needs of the costumers, of the market, and translate that need, in a work plan to share to the engineering team, sell that project to them and to the CEO too.
In our age, the distance of the buildings is not to much relevant, as soon you know how communicate with all areas of the organization, and create the right communication chanels.
Best regards

October 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMauricio Basaure

@Adrienne - I'd say the problem here is more than just decision-making or influence. The product manager is not there to transcribe, and then decide amongst the things he/she wrote down, but to transform - to transform the ideas and suggestions and needs of customers, and the capabilities of engineering, into something new and more valuable. It sounds like your poor PM wasn't very innovative, so he didn't have anything to influence the developers to do.

October 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNils Davis

A couple of things I'll add:

1. Whether or not the "CEO of the product" comparison legitimately applies to product managers, it's important to recognize that product managers should not even attempt to "own" the product. By providing market information, applying marketing principles, and using an organic model of leadership, product managers should empower the product team to own it.
2. Influence takes many forms, and people often neglect the most critical one: facilitation. Sometimes influence isn't so much about credibility or expertise, but about facilitating internal stakeholders to discover for themselves what each of them needs to consider and accept change. To be influential and exhibit leadership, product managers should employ many of the change management techniques in Buying Facilitation(R).

I like your use of the word "influence" on a spectrum of tactical (scribe) to strategic. It's a bit like the difference between a tactical business analyst and a strategic product manager.

October 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoger L. Cauvin

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