Product Manager – Strategic or Not?

This content is syndicated from Tyner Blain by Scott Sehlhorst. To view the original post in full, click here.

Are product managers really involved in strategic discussions, or are we just order takers?  Adrienne Tan has poked the beehive and started a great discussion with this article.  Joining in from here, hopefully adding folks to the conversation.  Check it out, and chime in here or on the brainmates blog.

Product Managers Taking Orders

Adrienne kicks off the discussion with a great post, including the following question : “why does a whole professional group continue to defend its right to be strategic? No one else seems to think that Product Management is the rightful owner of Product Strategy except Product Management.”

As I write this, there are half a dozen great comments on her post, including some powerful ideas:

  • People don’t want to relinquish power – and “owning strategy” is powerful.  Of course other people want to say that they “own” it.
  • Product management is the business – we run into problems when the role is “tacked on” organizationally and not deeply integrated.
  • There are two distinct roles – strategic planning and tactical support – and both have the same title (product manager), but if they are different people, you have problems.
  • There’s too much for one person to do, but the responsibilities of people sharing the work must overlap, or they will become disconnected.

As Nick points out in the comments – Adrienne’s post is a productive one, not just a rant – since getting a “seat at the table” for strategic decision making is so hard, is it worth doing?

Product Strategy

Product strategy happens.  It may be implicit, but it is probably explicit and intentional.  Product strategy, however, is just a business tactic.  Your company has a strategy, and someone makes the decision that “product” will play a role in that strategy.  The definition of that role constrains what someone else should do with the product, in order to realize the product’s portion of the business strategy.

Most of the product management roles that I’ve seen fall into this model.  There’s a “glass ceiling” for product managers – who are only given freedom to make decisions within this context.  Those product managers are “doers” within these constraints – occasionally allowed to, but generally not encouraged to, and certainly not required to provide recommendations to change the business strategy.

Go Where I Tell You

If the CEO (the actual CEO, not the “CEO of the product”) is the rider, then the product manager is the horse – constrained to “go where I tell you.”  The product manager is watching where he’s running to make sure he steps sure-footedly, looking around to see where the other horses (or wolves) are – basically responsible for the “running.”  The CEO is responsible for knowing where to go, not how to get there.  As long as the product manager doesn’t get the bit in his teeth, the CEO can make sure the horse goes where she wants.

What Does “Strategy” Mean to You?

The problem with words like strategy is that they carry a lot of symbolic baggage.  Wikipedia tells us that a strategy is a “plan of action, designed to achieve a vision.”  The question is one of scope – what level of “vision” are you trying to achieve?  Google’s vision is so big that they don’t really articulate it – instead, they share the philosophy that shapes their vision and guides their actions.  You have to pick one of the products, like Google Wallet, before you get an articulation of vision.

Product management (as a “named entity” in the organization), in the teams that I’ve been a part of, has “owned” the definition of the product strategy that enables the product vision – but not been invited to participate in the business strategy that enables the company’s vision.  That strategy is primarily embodied in a product roadmap that articulates how (and when) the product vision will be achieved.

The product strategy and vision are components of a portfolio of strategies and visions that collectively make up the business strategy.


Command and Control

The weakness of this old-school command-and-control model is that the commander (CEO) only gets limited inputs from the commanders in the field (product managers).  With this top-down model of decomposition of business strategy into products with specific roles, each product manager has specific responsibilities (take the town), often being expected to succeed with limited context (we’re sweeping around the enemy’s flank, but it is a feint).  The product manager is only providing progress reports and possibly market information back to the overall commander.  The product manager is not tasked with providing recommendations to change the business strategy.

The strength of this approach is that it enables a company to execute their business strategy.

As product managers, we know there is always “more to be done” – and like the metaphor of boiling the ocean, if one person tries to do everything, they won’t succeed.

In his recent series on product management roles, Rich Mironov calls out that the VP of Product Management is “making sure that the company as a whole is building and shipping and supporting the right products.” Not defining the business strategy, but rather determining which products should be components of that strategy, and what roles those products should have as members of that strategy.

Each product manager is responsible for defining the roadmap for their product, articulating how it will fulfill its role in the comprehensive strategy.

The Eye of the Beholder

Given this definition, is product management still a “strategic” role?  It depends on where you’re standing in the organization.  The CEO probably sees us as horses.  But the teams that are building, testing, and supporting our products are operating on a shorter time horizon, with an even narrower scope.  From that point of view, having a multi-release point of view about the product, and a deep understanding of the market (needed to make the right product decisions) is definitely strategic.

Should We Be Pushing the Strategic Product Manager Agenda?

Getting back to Adrienne’s original point, and a fantasic image from Geoffrey Anderson, “Sometimes I feel like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and every tier of the swim is fraught with bears waiting to eat me.” – is it worth investing our time and energy in pushing the “product managers are strategic” message?

If any of these apply to you, then yes – push:

  • I’m told what features to build, and I’m expected to just translate for the technical folks on the product team, so that they build it correctly.
  • I’m not given the (business strategy) context that defines the role my product plays, so have no way to know if my product is succeeding.
  • When I provide feedback about the feasibility or effectiveness of my product in its role as part of the business strategy, it is not valued and nothing changes.

If none of those apply to you, they do apply to some of your peers – so push.

In the past 10 years, I’ve seen each of the above situations multiple times, and they are in order of increasing frequency.  What I see even more frequently these days is product managers getting pulled more and more into the operational, product owner role – shepherding teams through daily stand-ups and validating acceptance criteria – purely tactical execution roles.  Those product managers are still somehow responsible for doing product management, even when not given enough time to do it.  If that’s the position you find yourself in today, start winding the klaxon.


Thanks for the bridle image.

Thanks Bryan for the wargame image.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

2 Responses to “Product Manager – Strategic or Not?”

  1. Thanks for the link, Kelly!

    One of the challenges I regularly see is the struggle between product “ownership” and product “management.” It is definitely a challenge to juggle the “right now” urgency of product owner responsibilities to the team, and the “long view” product management responsibilities to our customers (or the product, or the business).

    I have a visual from my days of AI programming and optimization algorithms. Imagine a two-dimensional space, X-Y, with a bunch of hills making it 3-dimensional (hill-height = Z). Now imagine you’re randomly dropped somewhere in the X-Y space. You’re on the side of one of the hills, but not necessarily the highest hill.

    Imagine hill-height is reflective of customer-value. The higher you climb, the better your product is for your customers. Different hills represent different customers (personas) and / or different problems that they want to solve, and / or different approaches they want to use to solve those problems.

    The incremental improvements / evolutionary changes we deal with sprint-to-sprint are the things that help us climb whichever hill we happen to be on. By incorporating customer (existing customers, users, prospective customers) feedback, and focusing on valuable improvements in shippable product, we can climb the current hill. This is where product ownership lives. Over time, we will get to the top of this hill.

    The challenge is how to discover that there is a better hill to be climbing, and how to affect change in the organization, to enable our team to move to, and start climbing, the taller hill. That’s where product management plays.

    To extend the analogy, the entire space is foggy – from one hill, you cannot see the other hills. And you don’t _know_ how tall any of the hills are (including the one you’re on). Customer & user feedback, competitive analysis, and market research give you insights into how tall particular hills might be, and where they might be found. Just as incremental development adds value incrementally, incremental research adds insights (or reduces uncertainty) incrementally.

    I liked Adrienne’s discussion point – should product managers only be responsible for climbing the current hill, or should they be responsible for also finding a better (or next) hill to climb?

    Thanks again,


  2. Kelly Waters says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write that Scott, I think it’s a fascinating debate and I too have encountered that discussion many times before.

    My personal view is that one person can take a reasonable level of responsibility for product ownership as you describe it, but more strategic decisions and innovations are likely to require more people involved, either to get more perspectives, or to get approval, or probably both. In which case the product owner would still ideally be responsible in my view, but maybe be even more collaborative about the longer term horizon as it’s harder for any one person to predict. I’d like to think they are responsible but play a role of facilitation with input.

    I also think the question is a grey area because it depends on the time horizon. For example, if each hill is just a user story, then the product owner is certainly responsible for prioritising and therefore deciding which hill to climb next. Maybe even the next hundred hills ahead. However, if the decision is about going to a new valley entirely and climbing a different set of hills altogether, that’s where it is a more interesting debate and questionable whether someone with the skills and role of a product owner is likely to have the skills and the authority to make that kind of decision.

    Where companies have a Product Owner role from the business unit and a Product Manager within the delivery team – as most of my teams have always had – then I think it’s a case of thinking of these two people as a pair and trying not to differentiate too much on these kinds of things. Clearly in this situation one is more focused on direction and customer acceptance, and the other is more focused on product details and delivery, but future-looking decisions can be a collaboration between the two.


Leave a Reply

What is 8 + 4 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
Please do this simple sum so I know you are human:)