Recently I was asked by a very smart CTO: “I understand the need for a great user experience designer, but if we have a strong designer, and that person is paired with a strong technology lead, do we really still need a product manager?”

For many teams, the contribution of the product manager is not at all clear.  Either because they simply don’t see the contribution because it’s not happening, or because they don’t understand the significance of what is being done.

In this article I’d like to spell out very clearly what the product manager needs to contribute if they are to carry their weight on a product team.

But first I need to provide a couple caveats:

First, It is absolutely possible that the technology lead or the user experience designer is sometimes capable of covering the role of the product manager as well, and there are some real advantages to this, but most people, once they understand what’s really required, usually back off of trying to cover two roles themselves.

Second, in an early stage startup, the product manager role is most appropriately played by the CEO or one of the founders (see https://svpg.com/the-ceo-as-head-of-product).

That said, most teams know and acknowledge that the product manager is the product owner in the Agile sense, and as such the main deliverable they are responsible for is the backlog (what the team will build).  However, to some the backlog may just appear as a simple list of user stories.  It can look like just a few minutes work, where the hard part is in designing and building out the stories.

Sadly, in many teams, they are right.  The backlog is generated by someone that is ill-equipped to succeed.  So how is it that the product manager can make the many choices necessary to come up with a strong, prioritized backlog?

Let’s look at what goes on when the product manager is skilled and doing the job the team needs and deserves.

The product manager must contribute five essential ingredients:

1. Deep Knowledge of the Customer

The foundation of product is deep knowledge of the actual users and customers – qualitative and quantitative knowledge.  The product manager needs to be the acknowledged expert on the customer.  This is what informs the many decisions that must be made.  Without this deep customer knowledge, the product manager is just guessing.  This means both quantitative learning (to understand what they are actually doing), and qualitative learning (to understand why our users and customers behave the way they do).  See https://svpg.com/product-manager-vs-product-owner/.

2. Deep Knowledge of the Business

The second critical contribution is a deep understanding of your business.  This means understanding the needs of your various stakeholders (how your business works); your business model (how you make money); the dynamics of the ecosystem you operate in; and certainly the economics of your product.  The product manager does not usually have P&L responsibility, but they absolutely are responsible for understanding the financials.  See https://svpg.com/make-a-friend-in-finance/.

3. Deep Knowledge of the Industry

The third critical contribution is deep knowledge of the industry you are competing in.  This not only includes competitors, but also key trends in terms of technology, customer behaviors and expectations.  Your industry is constantly moving, and we must create products for where the market will be tomorrow, not where it used to be yesterday.

4. Reference Customers

The above three contributions are what allows the product manager to make informed decisions.  But it’s not enough.  The product manager needs to take personal responsibility for delivering the initial set of reference customers.  This means knowing them personally, and getting them to the point where they don’t just like the product concept in theory, but they love it and use it in practice.  See https://svpg.com/charter-customer-programs/.

5. Motivation

Finally, because product teams are comprised of people, and because the motivation level of those people can easily make or break the product (especially the quality of the product, and the velocity of the team), the product manager must contribute a genuine passion and enthusiasm for the product.  This means sharing customer’s pain and sharing knowledge of the customers, the business and the industry so that the team is both able to help, and inspired to help.  See https://svpg.com/product-evangelism/.

Certainly product managers need other skills and knowledge to do their job well (see https://svpg.com/developing-strong-product-owners), but these five contributions are what you absolutely need to bring to the team.

If you are a designer or a technology lead, and you’ve been asked to cover the product owner role as well, then this is what you need to sign up for.

One final note.  In certain companies, there is so much in terms of business and industry knowledge, the product manager may be supplemented with what are called “domain experts” or “subject matter experts.”  Examples of this would be companies building tax software, or creating things like medical devices.  In these cases, you can’t expect the product managers to have the necessary level of depth in addition to everything else.  But these cases are fairly rare.  The normal case is that the product manager needs to have the necessary domain expertise.

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