Redefining the Product Manager Role

Adrienne Tan

The Product Manager role is evolving. We use to manage products in relatively static marketplaces.  Now, “Product-Market Fit” is a moving target as customer needs change, new competitors enter markets with better solutions, and technology rapidly advances

As a result, we’ve created better definitions of the role of Product Manager.

Perhaps the most well-known is that offered by Marty Cagan in the book Inspired (2009). He says that the “job of a Product Manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.”

Martin Eriksson extended Marty’s Product Manager role definition and provided us with a Venn diagram showing Product Managers work within the realm of Business, Technology and UX.

These descriptions are great and they make sense, but they are difficult to apply in situations when Product Managers work:

  • In non-Product led organisations,
  • On products, other than software,
  • On products that are part of a broader value chain where the end user is so far removed,
  • In organisations where stakeholder management takes up most of a Product Manager’s time

I present an alternative perspective on the Product Manager role. A broader, more accessible definition that encompasses different types of Product Managers.

In many respects the delivery of a product is like the creation of a piece of music.

To create music that people love requires a creative spark, the conversion of an idea into a tangible piece of music and the coordination of  musicians to realise the music in practice.

I imagine the Product Manager as part composer, part translator and part conductor.

 

Product Manager role
The Product Manager role encapsulates the composer, the translator and the conductor.

The Composer

A composer is someone who writes and directs original music used to produce various types of media entertainment.”

Just like a composer, the Product Manager writes and directs a story that becomes the Product Vision. The Product Vision consists of integrated pieces of information from multiple sources such as user research, data analytics and market analysis.

At the heart of this story is a customer and the problem they are trying to overcome. Without a customer and their problem, the music or the product has no meaning and no impact.

The body of the story describes the compelling solution that solves the problem so well that customers are prepared to exchange value to use it.

Once the Product Vision is created, the Product Manager shift jobs from composer to translator.

The Translator

A translator converts information from one language into another language.

Even with a clear Product Vision, the story still needs to be translated so that the different parts of the business can relate and understand.

To do this, the Product Manager speaks fluent finance, customer and technical languages and acts as a translator between the company’s departments.

Without the Product Manager, people that make the product may not know how to measure its success.

Without the Product Manager, people who measure success may not know how to deliver or extract success through the product.

The Product Manager strings together the different languages, to make meaning for people in the business that work on the product in some way.

The Conductor

As a conductor, the Product Manager sets the tempo for teams to deliver, market and sell products through the development and communication of a Product Plan.

The Product Plan provides direction and delivers the Product Vision. It outlines where the product is heading, how fast the team will move and all the other activities that are required to accomplish product goals. As part of the conductor role, Product Managers are lightning rods for feedback, listening to teams to maintain the right tempo, ensuring that they are not derailed or distracted.

Product Managers unify teams. And just like an orchestra, a Delivery and an Operations team without a Product Manager is potentially rudderless, making and servicing parts of product that don’t contribute to a cohesive story.

Product Managers are figure heads for the product, representing the product well after the concert.  The Product Manager sees beyond the delivery of the product, making sure that the Vision is nurtured through the product’s life-cycle, updating the Vision in line with changes in the market.

Yet, like an orchestra conductor the Product Manager does not seek praise for their own work but instead redirects rewards to the team that delivers the music, and takes the blame when the team plays out of tune.

 

The skills required to compose, conduct and translate are challenging individually and require practice and patience. Yet the key skill required to master all three, is the ability to interact meaningfully with people.

Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

More than 20 years building Products. Ask Adrienne about customer research, or reviewing Product Management process and structure.