Speaking on our Hacking the Org podcast recently, Matt LeMay suggested that we spend far too much time worrying about the definitions of different job titles in product management. ”Conversations about role clarity are usually problems of goal clarity,” he told us. But regardless of whether you think of the role as product manager or project manager, it is a crucial part of a successful project.
A good product (or for that matter project) manager is the person who connects business requirements, product development and customer experience. As such, product managers are involved at every step of the product development life cycle. Product managers help to define stakeholder requirements and translate technical information. They work cross-functionally to improve collaboration and transparency between teams, whilst managing stakeholder expectations and maintaining an open communication channel. Product managers work to reduce the risk of product failure and are instrumental to a project's success.
Conversely, not having product management can have a major adverse impact on a project, affecting a team's momentum and the likelihood of achieving the overall project goal. Yet, I’ve found when working with clients as a Cloud Native consultant for Container Solutions, the importance of the role is often missed.
A typical example of where the product manager role pays dividends is as the requirements inevitably change. A Cloud Native Transformation project, for instance, generally starts with a clear vision that teams will work iteratively to achieve. Along the way stakeholder requirements are more than likely to change. This can become a pitfall if collaboration and clear, open communication is not maintained as it can make it difficult for a team to scope the project and implement required changes. In such circumstances, the lack of a product manager to translate and make those change requests visible, as well as keep an open communication channel between stakeholders and teams, typically leads to miscommunication, duplication of work between teams, and unnecessary friction.
When this happens, a sufficiently motivated team will attempt to bridge the gap by proactively reaching out to other teams and stakeholders to collaborate and stay transparent, but this is far from ideal or efficient. I firmly believe that a product manager acting to oversee the project and connect the various elements will invariably save time in the long run, because it is a specialist skill. As Matt LeMay observes “the work of product management is connective work”, and that connective work is essential to ensuring that the project teams are building the right things.
Symptoms of a lack of product management
Lack of clarity around responsibilities
Often a lack of product management manifests as an apparent lack of clear leadership and responsibility. Management boundaries that are not set early on can cause disputes in the chain of command. Somewhat analogous to a cascading failure in a distributed software system, this disjointed leadership trickles down affecting the teams, with frequent gaps in communication and ambiguous team boundaries. The disconnect in leadership can mirror itself in the teams themselves, causing people to take sides. This means that teams will regress to working in silos with a tribal-like mentality, causing huge friction.
The lack of clear leadership and responsibility means that teams will often be working with outdated information, and may frequently have to discard ongoing tasks in favour of new ones that are better aligned with the new direction or information provided. As you can imagine this will be deeply frustrating for all concerned. The communication lag also often puts teams in a state of limbo, with no clear scope or requirements to work to.
In “Extreme Programming Explained”, Kent Beck famously said that “optimism is an occupational hazard of programming; feedback is the treatment,” and central to all modern software approaches, from agile to DevOps to Cloud Native, is the idea of fast feedback loops. Although there are bigger issues in the scenario described above than simply a lack of a product manager, the presence of one to act as the communication liaison between the team and stakeholders would not only improve communication, but also provide a straightforward way for teams and stakeholders to voice concerns, resulting in a faster feedback loop.
Likewise, I’ve noted already that lack of communication and transparency will hamper cross-team collaboration potentially resulting in an unintentional duplication of work. Here a product manager can act as a buffer between teams to ensure constant transparency and promote collaboration.
Lack of visible progress
Not having a clearly defined scope can also cause a team to struggle to showcase progress. This in turn can lead to stakeholder scepticism as to the effectiveness of the team. This is demotivating to the team, of course, but it is also difficult for stakeholders who may have staked their professional reputation on the success of a project. In extreme cases senior stakeholders may start to distance themselves from a project if they come to believe failure is the most likely outcome.
We’ve seen how a lack of clear leadership and product management can result in a cascade of challenges. These challenges in leadership and management can be resolved through the setting of clear team boundaries and a defined management hierarchy. In addition to this clarity in structure, a product manager allows the team to work within a clearly defined scope, providing a clear sense of purpose and direction.
Likewise the product manager should openly engage with the stakeholders to seek clarification of goals and showcase the team's progress. They should also work to foster collaboration and transparency between teams, by for example promoting pair programming and cross-team standups, thereby mitigating cross-team friction.
Ultimately, clear communication and transparency within an organisation are critical to the success of projects. Miscommunication can be hugely detrimental and often affects a team's productivity and momentum, or worse yet can derail a project altogether. Ensuring open and clear communication with stakeholders and other teams is key to avoiding a lot of common issues. The role of a product manager is critical as they work to ensure cohesion between teams, clarify and understand requests from stakeholders, and oversee adherence to strategy and scope. These are key points that ultimately determine the success or failure of a project.