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What Does a Product Manager Do?

19 Nov 2019 in

Many organisations see the benefit from moving away from project delivery to a product-centric approach but there is still is a lack of understanding of what a product manager does. Or if a product owner will do instead. Or even if they are both needed or how they co-exist.

In a nutshell, there is a clear distinction (with some overlaps) but the size of your organisation, skillset and the sheer volume of new features and products will determine what your organisation needs. And if you want to maximise the value of those new or existing features you will need one, a product manager, but more than likely you'll need both.

However, mystery still surrounds both roles. With differing definitions and expectations presented by several frameworks, the misunderstanding continues.

Further confusion arises over the term "manager". Being a product manager isn't a line manager role. A product manager's main remit is to create value and not to manage people from a traditional “management” standpoint; no team directly reports into him or her. The "manager" title often detracts away from the idea that becoming a great product manager requires a particular skill set that is learnt and built up over years of experience. A good product manager sets a vision, a goal and uses their know-how to support and coordinate engineers and developers to refine the feature or product. Just plonking someone into the role that may have a good-to-average understanding of product development won't cut it.

So, what should a product manager do? What are their responsibilities? And how do they differ from a product owner?

Product Manager

  • The main aim is to generate revenue growth.
  • Must be aware of external and influences. Political, Economic, Social, Technology, Environment and Legal (PESTEL) are five main areas that a product manager should concentrate on.
  • Must hold a high level and a holistic view of the product or feature.
  • If there is limited resource, a product manager with a good scrum master or technical lead experience should be able to take on the product owner role.
  • Must be close to the customer to gain the right feedback that drives product and feature development.
  • Crucial in delivering a viable product that offers the most value as possible (Cost of Delay (CD3)).
  • Close to internal stakeholders to understand business objectives and strategy, which is translated into new products and features.

There are three main different phases that a product manager will be involved in, dependent on the stage of the product development cycle. These are:

  1. Discovery

A product manager is tasked with finding the most important problems and defines which of them should be solved first, based around delivering value. Product data and customer feedback (such as feature toggling and A/B testing) play an important role in supplying clues as to where the opportunities may lie. Effective agile collaboration tools to support this discovery phase include Atlassian's Confluence and Jira.

  1. Planning

This is where a product manager prioritises around creating value and decides which products or features are worth pursuing. At this stage, internal stakeholder engagement takes place to gain approval. Prioritising by value is crucial at this stage and with Atlassian's Jira, work can be easily arranged around the CD3 model to align with company objectives.

  1. Execution

This part involves three different stages:

  • Build- a product manager works with dev and design functions to create mock-ups, define dev requirements and run usability tests with customers. This stage never really ends due to constant product development and improvement. By using a collaboration tool such as Atlassian's Confluence and Balsmaiq's Wireframes, product development teams have a transparent, centralised location where any information can be shared.
  • Sell/Market- before a product is built, a product manager should work with marketing and design to get the right level of exposure and awareness to boost revenue.
  • Operations- once a product is launched, a product manager must be close to ops to make sure the product works and has the support it needs. A product manager’s job here is to track outages, crashes and bugs to ensure the customer experience isn’t negatively impacted.

Product Owner

  • The main aim is to support the product manager to deliver value through feature and product development.
  • Takes technical decisions to support product strategy, with a focus in both the short and long term.
  • Create technical requirements to deliver a new feature or product.
  • Organises work based on the product backlog and agreed priorities (CD3).
  • Manages communication back to the product manager.
  • Inward focus

There is a clear misunderstanding of a product manager's role and responsibilities, and numerous frameworks that define the role differently it is little wonder why very few companies implement it correctly. Once a product-centric approach is established, a product manager is essential to understand the customer needs to create the best feature or product that delivers the most value to generate revenue growth. However, depending on the size of your organisation and number of products, you may well need a product owner as well to support value creation but start with a product manager first.