How to Organize an Action-Oriented Product Management Team

This is part 3 in a series on how to convert product management theory into action. We’ll focus on goals, assessing the team and how structure and alignment evolves and should be a priority for each product management leader and contributor. You should also review part 2 where I discussed the planning aspects, determining your market orientation and the executive of influence.

The DISCLAIMER and some CANDID ADVICE: There are no “one size fits all, out-of-the-box, do this and everything will be a sunny day” methods of building an action-oriented product management team. If you are committed to ongoing assessments of people skills, methods, company goals and having the difficult conversations with each person on the team, then please read on. If you’re not, my advice is to find a place where you contribute and allow someone to give it try.

Goals and Objectives

One of the first priorities as a product management leader or a product manager is to understand the goals and objectives of the company and then review the assets, methods and how to make it all work without screwing up. I’m sure most of you are thinking, “The goal of our company is to make money, survive, satisfy investors, grow revenue, market share, bring cool products to market or keep shareholders happy.” Whatever the reason, you have to understand the real goals and objectives and find out if there’s a strategy and how you can influence its success.

In a recent conversation with Steve Johnson, he said, “In smaller companies, the product management roles are focused on executing the strategy defined by the leadership team. In larger companies, a senior product manager or director of product management defines product strategy usually in the context of an overall portfolio of products.”

Whether you are a startup, small, medium-sized or enterprise product management team, strategy comes first. It has too. Remember, if you’re not managing the strategy of your product, product line and portfolio, someone else will.

What happens if your company has no strategy? I have two opinions. First, dive in and work with the influencing factors internally until you have one or update the resumé and exit quickly.

Assessing Your Team

 With an understanding of your strategy, market-orientation and other artifacts, you should assess your team’s capabilities, skills, strengths and alignment. How do you do this? Here are a few simple approaches. If you’ve been to a Pragmatic Marketing or ZigZag Marketing training, break out the laminated card they gave you. Look at the key areas and what you know about your team.

Next, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who best listens to and assesses the market on your team?
  • Who has the business acumen to discover markets while researching emerging trends and problems?
  • Who best envisions the delivery of the strategy over a three-year period, knowing the best distribution strategy?
  • Who understands your current product portfolio and manages multiple tasks and products well?
  • Who champions the product roadmap most often in your team?
  • Who has a broad understanding of how to create and execute a buy, build or partner experience?
  • Who do you rely on to assess product profitability, pricing and working with M&A activities and finance teams most often?
  • Who guides and communicates your product plans and roadmaps consistently?
  • Who collaborates well with development and defines user stories, use scenarios or requirements that engineering understands and believes?
  • Who has the skills to design and enable sales using positioning, personas and the buying process to guide readiness?
  • Who manages your product marketing roadmap, understands how to measure marketing execution and effectiveness?

These questions should give you more insight as to the makeup, strengths and current characteristics of your team. Let’s look at two hypothetical situations.

Let’s say your assessment discovers a team with lots of business and strategy capabilities, but lacks the technical understanding to assess your products, create use scenarios that development understands. If so, you could be technical product management light and need to add resources to strengthen this area.

In smaller teams, you may discover there’s a plethora of “technical” product managers, but your team lacks the capabilities to define a buy, build partner strategy, support the business planning process and disconnect themselves from the technical stuff often enough to be credible with the business side of things. If so, you may want to add a strategic-oriented product manager or take on the responsibility yourself until you can groom a person for the role.

Structure and Alignment

There are many variables in how you structure, enable and align your action-oriented team. Pragmatic Marketing provides some high level guidance in its Product Management Triad article. This is a great article to review, but remember, as the leader, you have to assess the team yourself, and make the decisions. If it’s left to someone else, it will be organized they way they want it.

Recently, I was speaking with a senior product manager concerned that the CEO had aligned the team similar to the image above. Over the course of a few weeks I asked how the alignment was going and if there were any issues or progress with the new alignment. They said things had settled down, but confided they wanted to be recognized for their strategic skills while they were considered a technical product manager. They mentioned their strategic skills and how they influenced the product roadmap and product portfolio and asked what they should do. What was my advice? Continue to work with the team and always bring strategic influence and content to the party.

Dancing with the Ones You Have

The old saying “dance with the one you have” may apply to product management leadership, if you’re new to a team or company, or are in the situation where economics make it difficult to refine, staff or change the team.

As a leader have you allowed enough time to fully understand and learn the traits, personalities and capabilities of the team? Do you have preconceived ideas about alignment before you consider the team’s current capabilities? While there are personal preferences or past experiences that may influence your alignment, you have to allow the team to continue while you assess and recommend the best alignment. 

More than once, I’ve seen well-executing teams fall apart due to the lack of trust of a new leader or from changes to an organization that weren’t properly assessed or well thought out. My advice? Try dancing with the team for a while and see who leads, who follows and who has the skills that are required to grow the team and meet the goals and objectives of the company.

As you review your team and its alignment, you will realize some unique capabilities that are untapped or needs that need immediate attention. Take time to assess, align and move to create the team that best suits your needs.

If you find it difficult to align your team once you have used the suggestions above, please send me an email and we can connect one-on-one. I have a lot of information and recommendations from past experiences.  

In my next post, I’ll discuss how development methods such as Agile and SCRUM often impact product management alignment. Please comment on the post and share the post with others. You may contact me via email at jholland(dot)mcp(at)gmail(dot)com or on Twitter at jim(underscore)holland.

Thanks to Pragmatic Marketing for sharing the Product Triad image.

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