Industry pundits claim that 9 out of 10 product releases are failures in that they don’t meet their goals. I don’t know if that’s the exact stat or not, but I bet it’s not far off. I do believe strongly that most releases are ill-conceived. Countless release cycles are wasted on products that are either not useful or not usable. There are many reasons for these bad products, and each article I write is intended to address some aspect, but I have long argued that the root cause of these wasted releases can most often be traced to how the role of product manager is defined at your company, and the capabilities of the people you choose for this role.

I have been meaning to write this article for over a year now. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but one that I consider critically important as it gets to the core of what the job of the product manager truly needs to be. It is hard to write because I know how tough it is to try to get an industry to change the way it thinks of roles, and even to change the nomenclature it uses in talking about these roles.

Before we get started, to explain this issue I will have to define some terms, fully aware that these definitions will contradict their use in many companies. I define the role of the product manager first and foremost as the person responsible for defining – in detail – the product that the engineering team will build. I define the role of product marketing as responsible for telling the world about this product.

More about each role below, but as you can see, these are extremely different jobs.

To be clear right from the start, I argue that every product needs a single, accountable product manager, responsible for the product definition (the combination of product requirements and user experience that describe the product to be built).

However, unfortunately, all too often when I begin working with a company I encounter one of three different situations:

1) there is a product marketing or product manager titled person responsible for the high-level product requirements, and then the product goes straight to engineering – bypassing detailed product requirements and the many tough decisions that go along with that (and also very often bypassing user experience design, but that’s the topic of an earlier set of articles)

2) the product definition role is split between a product marketing person responsible for the high-level business/product requirements, and a product manager person responsible for the low-level product requirements

3) a product marketing person is asked to cover both roles (and the company sometimes calls these people product managers and sometimes product marketing)

Let’s discuss each of these three problem situations:

– Marketing-driven Product

This situation is pretty easy to spot. The rest of the product team views this person as “the marketing resource” that might be useful for creating data sheets, training the sales force, and coming up with the naming and pricing, but in terms of defining the product, this person is largely discounted and ignored. There are plenty of Dilbert cartoons portraying this person, and we’ve all known this type of product manager. While these people might be great at marketing, they are in way over their heads in trying to define in detail a useful and usable product. In this situation, hopefully someone else on the product team steps in and performs the true product management function, sometimes a lead engineer, sometimes a designer, and sometimes a manager. If that person has the skills, and also the bandwidth, the product may still succeed. More often, however, the product is in trouble right from the start.

My first exposure to product management was with this situation, and it initially kept me from wanting to have any association at all with this role, but then I met a guy that showed me what product management was really all about. So then my reaction was to rename the role to something different, but that’s a battle I soon realized had its own problems, so instead I’ve worked to highlight the successful product managers and work to redefine the role around these people.

– Two People, One Role

This situation is also easy to spot, as there is no single product owner. A product marketing person (sometimes in this model called the “business owner”) is responsible for the high-level business requirements, and a product manager is responsible for the low-level product requirements. The problem is that neither person truly owns the product, and more importantly, neither person feels and behaves like they are the one ultimately responsible for the product. Further, this model is based on a flawed view of software that believes that you can define high-level product requirements independent of detailed requirements and especially the user experience. When you have this model, the product managers become essentially a spec-generation service. It is a frustrating job that tends to stifle innovation, and rarely produces winning products.

Many larger companies with multiple business units evolve into this situation and then wonder why they can no longer come up with innovative products that their customers love.

– One Person, Two Roles

The problem with combining the product manager role with product marketing is that it is very hard to find someone who can do both types of jobs well. Each of these roles is critical, and each requires special skills and talents. Creating a product is much different than telling the world about that product. I have known some truly exceptional people that can excel in both roles, but these people are very rare and as an organizational model it doesn’t scale. Further, for all but the simplest of products, the role of product manager as defined here is an all-consuming, full-time job, requiring a dedicated person. If you ask the product marketing person to cover the product management role, even if the person has the skills and talents required for both, it is unlikely he will have the bandwidth to do both jobs well.

This is most frequently a problem at enterprise software companies where supporting the sales force is a big job in itself, and there is a strong tendency for the product managers simply to pass along (perceived) requirements from the big customers, to the sales reps, to the product managers, and then to the engineers. Almost never results in useful and usable products.
It is important to recognize that there are reasons for each of the organizational models described above, but I argue that the companies are sacrificing far more than they realize. They are wasting entire product release cycles. They are creating products that customers don’t want, or must struggle with to use.

The way out is to clearly define the distinct roles of product manager and product marketing in your company. The product manager is responsible for defining – in detail – the product to be built, and validate that product with real customers and users. The product marketing person is responsible for telling the world about that product, managing the product launch, providing tools for the sales channel to market and sell the product, and for leading key programs such as online marketing and influencer marketing programs.

Please note that nothing in this article should be construed as claiming that the product marketing role is unimportant. I have learned that it is, and great product marketing is extremely valuable. But it has little to do with the product manager role that I have described here.

In general the product manager and product marketing person will communicate often and collaborate occasionally on specific topics, but there are two main interactions. First, the product marketing person will be one of the several sources of input to product requirements owned by the product manager. Second, the product manager will be one of the several sources of input to marketing messages owned by product marketing.

By whatever title or organizational model, behind every great product, I promise you that you will find someone responsible for the definition of that product. Remember that it doesn’t matter how great your engineering organization is if you don’t give them something useful and usable to build.

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