Managing product managers is a rewarding and challenging position. Typically, you have a responsibility to manage the company product portfolio - and by the way – also the team of product managers.
During my career, I held various management positions – often leading other managers. I would say there is a difference in leading other LINE managers - and leading project- or product managers.
The former group would be leaders with a clear responsibility to lead others. To hire and fire, to set salaries, to make sure your staff complies to corporate regulations. But also to make sure your co-workers have their desks, office equipment, working laptops. Now and then you will have to approve travel requests, confirm timesheets…
Project and product managers, however, are a different kind of breed. This is a group of individuals who are expected to lead others: inspire colleagues to achieve fantastic, even unrealistic, goals.
Still, they normally do not have the formal authority of a line manager.
PRODUCT AND PROJECT MANAGERS
We often hear some people having difficulties separating the project and product management roles. One significant difference is in the authority of the leader.
Obviously, there are huge variations on company culture and the impact of project managers. In theory, at least, project managers have a very clear authority to make decisions and lead others within the scope of their project. If you are a product manager, the situation is often fuzzier. Yes, you are “empowered” to drive the business of your product – but very rarely with the authority to approve new development initiatives or marketing event (on you own).
For project managers, it is normally straightforward to define the scope of each individual. Even if they are all organized in a PMO (Project management office), projects are assigned to single project managers on an individual basis.
So what about product management? Assume that we have a team of five product managers responsible for a portfolio consisting of 30 products in various stages of the life cycle.
You assign each product to one of the PMs. The junior ones would be given less important products – maybe with a stable business in a “Maturity” stage. Or the new product in the conception phase, where there is a need for someone to be able to travel the world to gain insights and collect requirements.
You split the team in two groups according to the life cycle, assigning an experienced “heavyweight” PM to each of the groups. One group takes care of new products being conceived and developed, spending a lot of their time working with developers.
The other team concentrates on products in a growth phase, striving to expand business by adding services to the offering, finding new channels or by revitalizing mature offerings.
You take the lead yourself. The PMs are given the responsibility to the various activities within the PM Framework. Someone will be in charge of leading the monthly forecast update process. Another one manages the cross-functional team aligning our UX efforts (including aligning GUIs for all products). A third one would be the key interface for handling suppliers.
PROS and CONS
Having a clear split (as in scenarios A and B) is often a good idea: this helps align expectations and priorities between the line manager and her resources. On the other hand, having a team approach (scenario C) where new tasks could be handled by whoever is available right now gives higher flexibility to tackle emerging problems. It will also be less vulnerable if someone suddenly leaves the team (for a period or indefinitely).
Whichever model you choose, having unclear responsibilities has a major drawback: since there is no limit of work available for the individual there is a risk of burnout.
Splitting the work of a PM team is a delicate decision. In the end, it is very much about how you as a Director of PM want to execute your own management role. Do you want a lot of daily interaction with the team, or do you want each individual to run “their own business” over a longer period?