How do you Define a Product Manager?

A “Product Manager” role often describes a perfect person who will solve all your problems! It’s a broad term that can encompass a range of skills and responsibilities…and so is often misunderstood, or badly implemented. In the worst case, it becomes the person who does everything that no-one else is doing.

I have worked with Product Managers (PMs) in a variety of industries and company types, and in general, there are three main areas that the role will impact. Depending on the situation, the PM may focus exclusively on one, or bring together elements of them all.

Since I’m currently interviewing candidates to manage our SaaS product line (Dittman Incentives provides software for employee engagement programs), I’ve been reflecting on the various roles:

Product Roadmap/Development

As the owner of the Product Roadmap, the PM must be comfortable managing the development process, most likely a Stage Gate approach for hardware products or the Agile methodology for software.

Often seen as the core function of a Product Manager, this requires discipline, an ability to pull together diverse information, and a touch of diplomacy to ensure all stakeholders feel that their input is valued. A high level of trust with the sales team is vital, to allow frequent customer interaction for Voice of the Customer meetings, focus groups, and beta testing.

Project Management

A product roadmap doesn’t get you far without executing on the development plan. The second part of product management deals with defining the project, creating BRDs (Business Requirement Documents), keeping deliverables within the original scope, and managing the resources and timelines.

Definition, Deadlines and Deliverables – a Gantt chart is a project manager’s best friend. The skills needed to succeed in this role include attention to detail, persistence and knowing when to be flexible.

Product Marketing

Here, the PM is primarily outwardly focused. How can we bring the product to market most effectively – who are the targets, what channels will we use, how do we structure pricing…? This is where Product Management meets the traditional 4Ps of Marketing.

The PM needs to interact well with the sales team, be comfortable presenting to customers, and have an understanding of how to go beyond simple “features and benefits”. If the products are technical, some level of technology or engineering background makes it much easier to translate the complex explanations of the design team into simple, impactful messaging. A creative flair, or at least an ability to work closely with a creative team, is a plus, to be able to generate engaging sales tools and promotional materials.

3,2,1…..

So, should your Product Manager handle all three roles, or focus on just one? As you can see from the descriptions, they encompass a broad skillset, and it’s likely to be difficult to find someone who excels in every area.

Your approach may depend on the industry, or on existing resources. When I was at Veeco, a capital equipment manufacturer, the products were complex and a dedicated product development and design team was already in place. In that case, PMs focused primarily on the top-level roadmap and product marketing areas. At Panasonic, component products were developed in Japan, and the local PMs were responsible for feeding Voice of Customer input to the central design team, and for promoting the products in the regional markets.

Large organizations tend to form Product Teams, with individual players taking the specific roles, and working closely together. So long as one of them is the true product Champion, who brings it all together and makes the big decisions, this can work well. You can hire people with the best match of experience and skills for each part of the role, and they can focus their energy at each stage.

If you choose instead to go with a single PM, then decide which is the most important of the three roles. At Dittman , much of our development work is for custom software projects. So as much as the roadmap is important to us, the skills required to support the sales process, define customer requirements and manage client projects is the priority. Of course, an ability to plot the overall product evolution is part of the interview process as well.

Define the Definition

There is no single answer to “what is a Product Manager”. Take the time to identify the gaps in your existing resource pool; evaluate how important the three areas – Roadmap, Project Management and Marketing – are to your organization; and make sure the role does not become a catchall for anything product related that isn’t handled by someone else.

Over time, if properly defined, the Product Manager will become the most critical member of the team. Doesn’t that just make sense?!

[This post was originally published on Linkedin]

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