Building a Great Product Management Organization

An organization with a stellar product management group and vision can help navigate the company through market changes, keep the customer front of mind, collaborate and maintain relationships with engineering and stakeholders, and deliver meaningful outcomes. Product management leaders and groups are responsible for discovery and delivery and therefore, significantly impact the organization’s ability to deliver and respond to change.

Due to the cross-functional role of the product management organization, building the discipline early on at a startup or growth company or during an agile transformation of an established organization requires a capable team, effective communication and collaboration, and holistic understanding. Here are three areas to focus on to ensure you’re on the right path to building a great product management organization. 

1. Possess the right capabilities

A strong product leader and product team can rally an organization behind a product vision and deliver meaningful outcomes to customers and to the business. To do that, deep knowledge of the customer and business is needed, combined with drive, empathy, creativity, real leadership, and persistence. As Ben Horowitz suggests in his classic Good Product Manager / Bad Product Manager post (a 20+ year old document, but still a relevant framework): “A good product manager knows the context going in (the company, our revenue funding, competition, etc.), and they take responsibility for devising and executing a winning plan (no excuses).” The product management team laterally leads autonomous, empowered, cross-functional engineering teams and therefore, should be able to critically think and develop a multi-faceted thought process to contribute and lead their product. Look for people that can absorb and embody an ownership mindset to join the product team. 

Without the right capabilities - If there is an influx of a repeated customer pain point or teams are unable to deliver meaningful outcomes for customers and the business, that can be a sign that the product team isn’t focused or developing the right capabilities. Investing in product people and growing their capabilities will develop strategic and tactical contributors, just as you would invest in, grow, and scale engineering or marketing departments within the business.

2. Communication and collaboration

To represent the customer and laterally lead development teams, effective communication is key to develop a shared understanding of the problem to solve, the product vision, and business context. A communication failure can result in misunderstanding the problem, time and investment wasted in developing a solution for the wrong problem, and increasing technical debt due to delivering a product that is not in line with the product vision or business objectives. Communication and collaboration go hand in hand when it comes to building products. The product management team cannot discover problems and deliver solutions alone. Martin Eriksson states, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support.” Therefore, collaborating with and motivating other teams to help solve a customer problem is critical to delivering a data and feedback-driven, brilliantly designed solution. 

Without effective communication and collaboration - When product leaders fail to collaborate, an “us vs. them” mentality can become apparent, resulting in an inability to rally an organization behind a single vision and an inability to work with other departments. The cross-functional aspect of product management’s role is critical, especially in a transforming organization. Changing the way an organization discovers and delivers products should be an organizational-wide approach and therefore, affects more than just the product management and engineering teams. A collaborative environment cannot be understated when working with others to produce products that matter.

Missing the transparency of where other teams are headed, confusion around where the needle should be moved, and missing empathy for customers and other teams are key signs that communication and collaboration can be better developed on the product team.

3. Responsibility and Accountability

A shift has occurred in the last 10 years from discussing under which department product management should fall (Engineering or Marketing?) to discussing how product management is represented at the executive level, often called a Chief Product Officer or VP of Product, and exactly what the product department is responsible for. With a cross-functional approach to building products and different business needs, it’s easy to miscommunicate and misunderstand the responsibility of product discovery and delivery. When a product is not delivered on time or the product metrics reveal that the recent delivery did not make the expected impact, the ability to take responsibility for the failure, identify improvements, and adjust the next discovery approach and delivery details embraces a continuous improvement mindset and fosters a culture that will discuss what happened and move forward. 

Ultimately, the product management organization is responsible for setting product vision and strategy and delivering meaningful business outcomes through product solutions. Representing product management at the executive level and outlining and communicating the boundaries and expectations of the product management function will create the right environment to increase the chances of producing business outcomes and product successes. 

Without clear expectations and responsibility - Unknown expectations and transferring responsibility can foster a blame culture, which can lead to team members to not speak up to pursue creative solutions and teams that are not working on the most impactful problems.

In Summary

Possessing intelligent, creative, multi-faceted team members on the product team to take full responsibility of discovering and delivering against a great product vision will be worth it when you’re meeting and exceeding customer expectations, producing a quality product, and producing meaningful business outcomes.

Are your product teams struggling to focus on one of these areas? For help in developing your product organization or executing your product strategy, reach out to us at Onion River Consulting -