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Does Having a Product = Hiring a Product Manager

Lately, I have been thinking about the reasons why a good chunk of Product Managers and Product Leaders are stressed out at work. Numerous PM groups highlight the sheer challenges of the role causing product people to often lose sleep. So what might be going on here? I do not believe that product people are difficult to work with. Albeit the role itself is challenging as it involves often making high stake decisions. So we decided to research product managers and business counterparts to try to unpack what might be happening here?

Unpacking the Insights:

We reached out to the Product and business community and gathered feedback from from 89 people across different business functions and companies in different stages of their lifecycle - seed level, startup, growth stage and mature. The distribution of the responses was below:

Figure: Distribution of Data

Product Role Delight Score:

Similar concept of a user delight score that measures the wow factor of a product's experience, we have been using a simple poll to measure how product teams feel at work. Recently, we adapted this score and took it one step further to create "Product Role Delight Score", a simple 10 point scale. Here, the Product Team is asked to rate how they feel about their role. Similarly, the stakeholders are also asked how they perceive their respective product team members to gauge the value add they bring.

When we used this in our own research here, the results were rather disheartening. When we looked at this rating based on the stage the company was in, we found that the dissatisfaction was highest in scale and expansion and seed stages.

Figure: Product Role Delight Score Results by Functional Areas

As humans; although the thought of challenge excites many; the constant pace of pivots and speed is not not what a lot of people look for. However; we will almost without fail hear a question about hiring a Product Manager at companies that are at these stages where the dissatisfaction appears to be the highest on both sides.

The solution is NOT "Not Hiring" for product management roles; rather reflecting on whether it is the right thing to do at that time. This is where Spark To Substance's "Culture-Product Management Fit" framework comes into play.

Culture-Product Management Fit Framework:

Hiring for the sake of hiring becomes painful and causes friction to all sides including the customers. Hiring at the right level with not only the right skills but also for those that might be missing from the current team are very crucial. Building products, ruthlessly prioritizing on the right problems, rallying the cross functional teams towards the finish line and then obsessing about how to continue delighting the customers with the product's new released functionality are just some of the things that product management does. This is NOT the same as co-ordinating the development process or managing the backlog - a big misconception in the industry.

“Product management may be the one job that the organization would get along fine without (at least for a good while). Without engineers, nothing would get built. Without sales people, nothing is sold. Without designers, the product looks like crap. But in a world without PMs, everyone simply fills in the gap and goes on with their lives. [However,] in the long run great product management usually makes the difference between winning and losing . . . ”

- Ken Norton, Partner Google Ventures

Therefore just like the concept of Product-Market Fit, we need a Culture-Product Management Fit for the craft of designing, building, launching and sustaining product management to flourish in the company. We are not referring to the function or the team of product management BUT the work itself irrespective of who performs the role.

We often tell our clients that if something is not broken, especially when as an organization, you might not be quite ready to nurture product management, either postpone the hiring or not hire at all. The framework above is a good model to use both for hiring companies and Product Managers interviewing to understand the gap in the "Culture-Product Management Fit.

In the model above, we define Internal pain as the following (you can reframe this based on your context):

  • Delay in decision making

  • Building and designing plain wrong things

  • No end to end accountability for what gets built in the product

  • Non-existent product vision, strategy and roadmap

  • Inside Out approach to building products

Similarly, we define Fit as the existence of the following factors (you can reframe this definition as well based on your context). We will elaborate the topic of Fit in this blog as this can be more complex than the pain point above:

  • Business is sunsetting the sole product

Yes there might be a lot of work to be done as part of sunsetting a product. If as a business, you are sunsetting the only product you have, hiring a Product Manager for this is unless there is a clear longer term business strategy of developing a new product. Although this project still needs someone to own and lead, its probably not the best strategy to hire or assign this to a Product Manager. There are definitely other ways to solve this resource challenge. If you are interviewing for a role, try asking the long term strategy for the product. If it seems like the product is old and might be a good candidate for sunsetting, ask yourself if this kind of work might excite and motivate you.

  • Bespoke/ custom software solution

If your solution aka product requires heavy customizations and configurations for onboarding each customer, then the so called Product Management is reduced to executing the requests to make the sale happen. Product Management is much more than a Sales Enablement role. Talk to us if you offer an enterprise offering and would like design a Product Org that is consistent with your strategy.

  • Small company size OR early product life cycle

If the company is small or the sole product is pre MVP stage, it makes much more sense that product management is performed by the founder themselves. No point hiring a Product Manager at this stage if you are looking to optimize your cashflow and speed to validate your vision.

  • Execution Ability

This is another area where we often hear when companies start thinking about hiring Product Managers. If there are challenges in how much time it is taking to build the product or that there are a lot of things to build and you do not have resources to execute, hiring a Product Manager is not necessarily going to help. Fixing what might be the challenge in the Engineering org should be dealt with first before hiring a Product Manager. Although prioritization might be the issue here; however we have seen that it is better not to assume this might be the case. This is again a good reminder for both candidates and hiring managers to rethink the role of product management.

"Product Managers cannot make Engineers deliver faster"

  • Business Disfunction

All businesses have challenges, however if there are bigger broader systemic business level challenges in the organization from cultural, lack of trust or non existence of business level strategy, hiring a Product Manager is not going to help here. Again fixing the core business level dysfunctions should be undertaken before hoping for product management to be solving these. A lot of businesses can fall into the trap of passing the puck where conversations like below become an everyday rule:

  • Sales is not able to sale since product does not have Feature X

  • Marketing is not able to bring in leads as there is nothing exciting about the product to convey

  • Customer Success is losing customers and not able to retain customers because we still do not have Feature Z

It is really crucial to first evaluate if the processes and programs in each of the business areas are first optimized to ensure success before assuming that hiring product management would solve these. We are not suggesting that nothing needs to be done in the product; however what we are saying is simply DO NOT assume that product management is the holy grail to all business challenges. A lot of the times, the more important question becomes the level of product management hire that is strategically abetter decision to make. There are quite a few instances where hiring a Fractional Product Executive can be right for you if you would like to get immediate benefit from an industry veteran; but not pay a full time salary of a product executive. Talk to us if you would like to learn more. Once you can achieve the Fit, you can then decide hiring Product Managers.

Irrespective of which side you are on the table, this is a easy cheat sheet to use when trying to evaluate either if this is the time to hire or whether this is a company where you would like to join. Simply reframe the question on whether you are interviewing the company or the candidate.

If you need help to determine the right Product Org, contact us today to see how we might be able to solve this. Similarly if you are a candidate interviewing for product roles, join our PM Interview Bootcamp.

Finally Does Having a Product = Hiring a Product Manager?

The answer really depends on the balance between the Fit and Internal Pain or Internal Friction. If the core value add of Product Management is already being performed by another role or roles well without jeopardizing other areas in the business, we recommend not hiring a dedicated Product Manager. However when the internal pain is high and internal fit exists, hiring Product Managers can make the difference between meh and great. If you require strategic product advice and other options that might be available such as a Product Advisor or Fractional Product Executive, talk to us today!

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