Product Management Implementation: Creating and Developing a True PM Function

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This is the first post in a series about developing an expansion stage product management team. To read the intro to the series, click here.

In the startup phase of most software companies, product development tends to go something like this: ‘X’ company identifies a pain point or need, assembles a small engineering team to build a solution that addresses it, and proceeds to go through a number of quick iterations to tweak the product to better meet the market’s needs.

It’s a system that relies on innovation, flexibility, and customization to fuel growth.  That’s what makes the wondrous startup stage so full of creativity and innovation.  Such creativity tends to thrive in the unstructured early stages of a company’s birth.

But there comes a time when throwing a bunch of ideas against a wall – or on the product development team’s desk – and seeing how innovation might eventually uncover the right solution is no longer efficient or scalable.

The key is to know when to transition your product strategy.

At the expansion stage – when a premium is placed on efficiency and scalability – a software company needs to have a stable set of product requirements that can be carefully allocated to a product development team, and its product strategy needs to be more formally aligned with its overall business strategy.

As a result, there needs to be some sort of buffer between that business strategy and the product development team. So what’s that “buffer?” A true product management function that ensures market and customer focus, and drives the company’s product strategy toward those things.

So, whose job is product management at the expansion stage? Well, as I’ve written before, it’s not the CTO’s or the CEO’s. Companies need to create true product management and product development functions that each have their own leaders.

For more on how to create and structure those departments, check out these posts by Marty Cagan: Product Organizational Structure and The VP of Product Role.

Another great resource is Steve Johnson’s post for Pragmatic Marketing on where product management belongs in your organization. You can also check out my post a year ago about why it might be time for you to build a product management department.

So, what are the key steps to creating and implementing that PM function?

Recruiting an actual senior product manager – rather than having a founding CEO or CTO take on that role – that can represent the customer, own the product, and have the flush to sit at the senior leadership team’s table is a critical first step. I wrote about this kind of transition in a post titled “Mr. CTO, Time to Let Your Baby Go.

The role of the product manager includes:

  • Championing the customer and the needs of the market. Having the external awareness and empathy around the customer.
  • Proactively soliciting input from all stakeholders, within and outside the company. Translating the inputs into product requirements and product development actions.
  • Being the buffer between the stakeholders and the product development group. In turn, ensuring that whatever product development builds will result in the attainment of the business goals of the company.

Clearly the product management role is a highly strategic one within the organization. Therefore, the role and function need to be given their rightful standing within the organization:

  • The product leader (the manager of the product management group) needs to be a senior executive who sits at the senior table as a peer to the product development leader.
  • There needs to be a healthy tension between the leaders of product management and product development. The CEO must ensure that this tension exists, and is healthy.
  • The product leader needs to create and facilitate the meetings of the product leadership group. This is the venue where debates about the product evolution take place, and final decisions on the product roadmap are taken.
  • The product leader is the ultimate owner of the product, and is responsible for the product’s contribution to the strategic goals of the company.

Remember, product management isn’t a replacement for product development, product marketing, or professional services. They’re different, but complementary, functions within a growing software company.

The ultimate objective of product management is to understand business strategy, translate it into a product strategy, tie both to the company’s target market segments, and define the differentiated product solutions that product development needs to build to meet those market segments’ needs.

Over the course of my next couple of posts in this series I’ll share thoughts from the VP of Product for one of our portfolio companies that just went through the PM creation, implementation, and development process. His insight should provide some excellent real world insight into why and how an expansion stage software company needed to develop a product management function.

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