Originally published April 11, 2011 on OnProductManagement blog.

Saeed Khan

When you think about your job and the work that you do, how do you see yourself in the role that you fill? Are you primarily product focused (i.e. a PRODUCT manager) or primarily business focused (i.e. a product MANAGER), or are you something else?

Does your role match your view of what Product Management should be?

Product Management is still ill-defined in companies

At ProductCamp Boston, I spoke to several people who seemed unhappy in their roles because their focus was defined as a strictly technical role, related to features and requirements. As one person mentioned, “the business people push us to fill the gap on the technical side of things.”

Another person described the role as “filler” — doing what other people don’t do. I asked, if that’s the role they wanted. The response was “No, but that’s the way it is.”

It’s no wonder that people outside of Product Management are so confused about what Product Management is. It’s because many of us in Product Management continue to work in roles that really have nothing to do with actual Product Management.

Being “filler’ is not the same as being “cross functional”.  And how can anyone measure the value of people who “fill gaps”?

I’m not criticizing the people in those roles — we all have to work and we can’t always choose the perfect role — but I think we need to be more vocal, speak out within our companies and educate the management on what Product Management is and the true value it can provide them.

We need both PRODUCT managers and product MANAGERS

And there’s nothing wrong with being a “PRODUCT manager”, IF you are part of a team.

i.e. your role is to focus more of your time on features/functionality and work with Engineering etc., but you work with counterparts (product MANAGERS) who focus on the business side of things, work with marketing, sales and senior management, and work to ensure that what is built has the maximum chance of succeeding in the marketplace.

If you are a “PRODUCT manager” but don’t have those kinds of direct counterparts, then you have to ask yourself if the work you are doing is for naught.  i.e. how well can you succeed in your role if the product you help build doesn’t have the proper business support to actually succeed?

How to change this situation

As I’ve said many times — Change is a process — and this situation is no different.

The first step is to acknowledge that this is a problem that we can address.  This change must come from us, because it certainly won’t come from outsiders realizing that they don’t understand Product Management or that there is a better way. We’ll have to tell them.

So, if you are in a situation where your role is ill-defined or where your company doesn’t understand Product Management, start by talking to them to help them understand. There are lots of resources out there (and here!) to help.

And don’t give up after that first conversation doesn’t get you anywhere. It most likely won’t. But after having multiple  conversations with your boss(es), — whether to let you talk directly to customers, or to focus more on business issues, or to define the role better so an actual team with differentiated roles can be created — like a slowly turning battleship, change will happen.

And don’t do it for altruistic reasons, like improving the status of Product Management. It’s unlikely to happen. Do it for selfish reasons, like improving your own opportunities in that company.  It’ll help you focus and over time the altruistic reasons may come about. And who knows, maybe that change process ends up proceeding faster than you imagined.

What do you think? Is this a problem that needs to be addressed? And if so, what other ways can we address the problem?