Distinguishing types of Product Managers

by Ivar Slavenburg

The other day, I was reading a book about Product Management called Aptitudes of an Energized Product Manager, written by Linda Gorchels. She has written several internationally acclaimed books, of which The Product Manager’s Handbook 4/E is probably the best known. In a way, “Aptitudes of an Energized Product Manager” can be seen as a summary of the latter, containing a much more comprehensive description of what managing a product or service entails.

Both books are highly recommended for everybody working in the field of Product Management or having that ambition, as is also shown by the ratings they receive on Amazon. Obviously, the books are containing a very broad description of the role. They don’t focus on the challenges in particular industries, nor do they describe the role of a Product Manager in specific types of development methods, like scrum or waterfall. As such, they should be considered to be either a very comprehensive introduction into the field for new Product Managers, a very nice and often necessary reminder for established Product Managers or a call to action for those feeling to be shallowed by the numerous responsibilities they have.

Upstream and Downstream Product Management

When I was reading the book, a particular section drew my attention. In this section, Gorchels describes a way to distinguish between different types Product Managers. Specifically, she distinguishes Product Managers responsible exclusively for the upfront part of the product’s lifecycle and those responsible for “the ongoing accomplishment of strategy as the product matures and evolves”. The first are being called e.g. strategic Product Managers, upstream product managers or product development managers. The latter are called e.g. tactical Product Managers, downstream Product Managers or product marketing managers. However, in many cases Product Managers have both upstream and downstream responsibilities. Gorchels refers to them as full-stream Product Managers.

In my experience, most Product Managers will refer to their role as being full-stream, so they consider themselves to be responsible for every aspect of a product, service or portfolio. It’s in most cases the preferred situation, avoiding another split up of responsibilities and the accompanying unclarity who is responsible for what and when. In reality, when looking at how many Product Managers operate, a tendency is visible where the background of the person is partially guiding his or her focus. Somebody with a marketing background feels himself simply more comfortable when dealing with the marketing aspects of a product or service, while somebody with an engineering background will feel more comfortable when discussing the technological aspects.

Responsibility matrix for Product Management

Looking at it from such an angle, a certain division of labour between Product Managers is not that unimaginable. Several years ago, I have proposed that a product management department should run a responsibility matrix, where product managers were and responsible for a certain product, service or portfolio, and have a generic responsibility for certain aspects over all products or services of the organisation. In the latter case, they support their colleague when certain aspect of his or her service needs attention. E.g. when something needs to be changed to a certain IT system, both the product responsible Product Manager and the IT responsible Product Manager are involved. Though the first remains end responsible, the latter needs to ensure that knowledgable decisions are made about this particular aspect, but also that the chosen solution is compatible with solutions chosen in other cases. This limits the amount of fragmentation for the departments having to execute on the product strategy.

Whether the split up as described by Gorchels is useful for your particular organisation is difficult to generically determine. However, the suggestion she makes to look at the difference between upstream and downstream is to interesting to neglect, as it fits naturally with specific interests and competences individual Product Managers have and how to leverage those maximally.

In a follow up article I will go slightly deeper into upstream and downstream Product Management and the idea to organise product management in a matrix.