The Product Team

by Ivar Slavenburg

In an earlier article on strategic design the Product Management competence was introduced. As a starting point the classic book of Haines, "The Product Manager's Desk Reference" (Steven Haines, 2009), was used which defines the competence as business management at the product, product line, or product portfolio level. It is the competence that maintains not only existing products and services, but also is deeply involved in the development of new ones. In other words, it is a key competence in driving innovation in an organisation.

Product Management exists to solve a problem

Haines makes the observation that Product Management is usually only implemented when the business is in trouble. In the article "Why Product Management is Everything" (Alan Ying, 2013), author Ying gives a slightly more positive reason. He writes from the point of view of a start-up that is growing towards a certain threshold. Until this threshold is reached „easy marketing skills”, like more salespeople and more marketing communication are enough to enable growth. Beyond that threshold, „hard marketing skills” are required. By this Ying means activities that authentically engage customers, whether it concerns the product itself or the way they can get access to it. This, according to Ying, is the domain of Product Management.

Composition of a Product Management Team

Ying states that successful product management happens when one team reports to one leader, being the Product Manager. The team should be composed of different competences, touching every aspect of the product or service:

  • Sales people, providing information about prospective customers or competitors of the product or service
  • Implementation/support staff, report about any issues with delivering the product or service
  • Developers, working on the quality of the product or the next release(s)
  • Business Development, information about supplementing products to provide a more complete solution for specific customers
  • Accounting, financial information about the performance of the product
  • Legal & Regulatory, terms and conditions of the product or contracts if required
  • Marketing, communication and PR, go to market strategy and product marketing.

It isn’t surprising that Ying puts the marketing competence as last in the list. Haines already concluded there is a natural tension between the marketing and product management competence. Also, it should be noted that with reporting to the Product Manager, not the hierarchical reporting is meant, but on a product or service level. More about that later.

The above list is not necessarily complete and it can be different per organization and the market it operates in. Also the weight of the different competences in the product team can differ as the product or service goes through its life cycle. In a product team of a start-up, the developers are probably dominant. When the team moves to the launch phase of the product, the marketing, legal and regulatory competences will become more dominant.

Nevertheless, it is vital they are all there from start to end and are actively engaged with what is going on. Not only because, sooner or later, they get a significant part of the responsibility for the success of the product, but also the different competences look from another angle to a product and can therefore provide solutions and insights that other competences might miss. A famous example is the wheel on the original Apple iPod, which was not designed by a product designer, but thought out by members off the marketing team. Another, maybe most valid reason they should be involved from start to end is because in the end they are just plain human beings, just like the customer you need to convince of buying the product in the end. If managed well, they are even your most critical customer! Not only are they committed to the brand and the product, but also their career is depending on the success of it.

It should be clear that there is a difference between the product team and the people working the product, the latter team potentially being much bigger, though there are limits. At Apple, e.g., a team working on a specific product is never bigger than around 100 people, to keep it manageable.

The same goes for a product team, as it too has clear size constraints to keep it manageable. It depends a bit on the Product Manager, but the size should be kept below 8 members. Consequence is not everybody working on the product or service is also part of the product team and thus not every individual competence can be represented in the team. E.g. instead of having a marketeer, a market analyst and a communication specialist in the team, al three competences are represented by one person. Again, this might change when the product enters a specific phase in its life cycle. This concept is clarified a bit more in the table below taken from (Haines, 2009). Notice that Haines uses a slightly different division of competences than Ying. The responsibilities per step in the life cycle can be described by, e.g., the RACI method.

Product Team Matrix
Product Team Matrix (Haines, 2009)

The Product Management team and the Project or Program team

Also, there is a major difference between the product team and the project/program team working on a product or service, the latter „just” being an organizational entity that delivers the product as specified by the product team and approved by senior management. Program or project management and product management are different competences and it unusual to find them all in one person. Obviously, it is a valuable thing if a Product Manager follows certain procedural steps as defined by the organization, organizes her work properly and informs the appropriate people both inside and outside the organization in time. However, that doesn’t make a Product Manager a project or program manager.

Empowering the role of Product Management

As already stated in the mentioned article, the Product Manager is a key role when it comes to innovation. She needs to be empowered by the organization to be effective. For that matter, I would like to repeat the words of (Haines, 2009):

  1. The organization wants to implement a central body that oversees all its products and services;
  2. This body gets the authority and resources to make decisions on the life cycle of these products and services;
  3. It also gets the authority over the health of a product or a service and is in constant contact with operations on their performance concerning the products and services. As such Product Management needs to be genetic, it influences all supporting structures.

Empowering the Product Manager is one thing, but is should be clear she can not do it on her own. Around her there needs to be a group of knowledgeable people from different competences. They should accept the lead of the Product Manager and, in turn, their colleagues should accept they are representing their competences in the team. Operations should execute what is decided in the product team meeting. Senior Management should not make any decision regarding a product or service without consulting the responsible Product Manager first and she should not make any decision without consulting her product team or relevant members of it. If discipline in decision making is not kept at all time, sooner or later either the Product Manager, her product team or both will feel they are not taken serious and this crucial entity of the organisation will stop functioning.

Additionally, as some competences, like Marketing, are becoming less relevant, while other, like Design, are becoming more relevant, this will have influence on the team and they way it functions. That will ultimately translate itself to the whole organisation.

Further Reading

  1. Steven Haines (2009), The Product Manager's Desk Reference.
  2. Alan Ying (2013), Why Product Management is Everything. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/alan-ying/why-product-management-is-everything.html.
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