Agile · Bridge · Product management

The role of product managers

As I mentioned in my most recent blog posting, for the next set of blogs I write I want to talk about the top ten things that effective product owners do.  If you’ve been following this blog you know that (at least from my perspective) there are quite a few things that product owners think about and engage in.  Product owners play a crucial role in an effective product development organization, and knowing what to focus on can make a product owner a more valuable contributor to the process of creating and marketing outstanding products.

My observations on what it takes to be a great product owner over the past couple of months in this blog have come largely from reacting to issues I have faced in my own organization.  If there has been a central point across these entries it has been that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a great source of inspiration for product owners.  Now I want to write in a more focused way on the core responsibilities of product owners, discussing ten things that I think all product owners must do.

But before I start that conversation I want to take this chance to write about the related topic of what effective product managers do.  I know that in some firms these two titles are used interchangeably, with anyone making decisions about product direction usually being called a product manager.  In other companies the roles are not separated; one person plays both parts and carries the full responsibility for product development.  In my current organization as we grow our product expertise, we are consciously differentiating between these two aspects of product development, looking for some people to focus on ‘product manager’ responsibilities and others to carry the burden of ‘product owner’ duties.

In a somewhat simplistic description of the differences between these two roles, some helpful insight comes from talking about a strategic versus tactical emphasis or about an external versus internal focus.  Of course in truth it’s not that simple.  The folks at Pragmatic Marketing teach about the 37 (literally) different areas that product managers need to focus on and they break out a subset of these as the special concern of product owners.  You can see their framework here: In the book Inspired author Marty Cagan writes passionately about the roles of product owners and managers in strong product development organizations (check it out here:

These and other sources provide great information about the responsibilities of effective product managers.  Here I only want to mention seven key things that product managers have to do in order to free product owners to focus on their own responsibilities.

1. Know the market.  I’ve said it before and I expect I’ll say it again – the most important responsibility of the product manager is to gather market intelligence.  Knowing what market problems are pervasive and painful enough that people want to pay for someone to help them solve is the key to launching successful products rather than making cool-looking things that no one really buys or uses.

2. Know your competitors.  Part of the external focus of the product manager involves knowing as much as possible about competitors in the market: what they offer, what they charge, what the perceived strengths and weaknesses of their products and services are.  All of this helps make sure the product you are developing will compete well in an existing market or grab part of a new market that competitors have not entered yet.

3. Know buyers and users.  Sometimes the people who decide to buy your product may not be the same as those who will ultimately use it, so it is important for the product manager to know what influences the decision making for both groups of people.

4. Define the product roadmap.  The product manager must have a vision for how the product will evolve over time – what key features will be added or enhanced when to keep the product strong and relevant in the market.  Many outside pressures can push against this product vision, sometimes improving it and at other times distracting from it.  A good product manager must define and articulate a strategic plan for how the product will grow over time.

5. Market the product.  Plan for launch and support.  During the development of a new product it is vital for the product manager to think proactively about what is required for a smooth and successful launch of the product and what it will take to support the product once it has been launched.  The more planning that the product manager can do before the product launch the better prepared the whole company can be for successfully launch and effectively supporting a new product.

6. Support the sales and marketing teams.  Both as a product is being developed and once it goes to market, a strong product manager will be actively engaged in providing needed support to the sales and marketing teams.  This involves helping the teams to generate ‘buzz’ for the product, assisting in the creation of collateral about the product (brochures, web updates, or other items used to promote the product), providing product demos or training others to do them well, and in other ways helping the sales and marketing folks understand and communicate the key benefits that the product will bring to users and buyers.

7. Work closely with the product owner.  Finally, throughout the lifecycle of any successful product the product manager and product owner must work closely together.  I will dig into this more in my next posting about how product owners can best work with product managers, but here I want to emphasize that true partnership between these two roles yields much more effective product development.  Mutual trust, recognition of the different roles that each plays, and frequent communication are all important components of building solid teamwork between product owners and managers – something absolutely vital for developing, launching, supporting, and enhancing excellent products.  In many ways the bridge role that I have discussed earlier as the heart of being a product owner is really a mutual responsibility for product managers and product owners.  Both must work together to connect engineers (with technical innovation) and clients (with business innovation), and the market intelligence brought to the product owner by the product manager serves as a crucial anchor for one end of this bridge.

When both product managers and product owners know their respective roles and focus on fulfilling their unique and over-lapping responsibilities, companies can make outstanding products in effective ways.  True teamwork – more like this than like this – can produce excellent products that thrill their target markets.  Of course, in truth it’s not that simple.


One thought on “The role of product managers

  1. Stephen,

    Great lead-off post on this topic. Along with the rest of the series, I’m looking forward to reading how you develop the idea and practice of product areas working to connect engineers building the product to the people who will use the product. This can be a huge win when done well, or a huge distraction when not done well.

    -Chris Funck

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