Every member of the product team is important. To succeed, a company must design, build, test and market the product effectively. That said, there is one role that is absolutely crucial to producing a good product, yet it is often the most misunderstood and underutilized of all the roles. This is the role of the product manager.
In this paper we discuss the role and responsibilities of the good product manager, and then we look at the characteristics of good product managers, where to find them, and how to develop them.
The first confusion that we often encounter when looking at the product manager role is that it is often referred to by another name or it is lumped in with another role: program manager, product marketing, project management, engineering management, or sometimes in small companies, a founder or executive.
At Microsoft, and at a few other companies, the role of product manager as we use it here is known as a program manager2. To confuse things further, Microsoft also has a role known as the product manager, but that is what most refers to as product marketing.
We also find some companies using the old-school definition of product manager, which is essentially the brand manager concept from the consumer packaged goods industry. This is primarily the product marketing function under the title of product manager.
Yet by whatever title or organizational alignment, behind every great product you will find a good product manager, in the sense we describe here. We have yet to see an exception to this rule.
The problem with combining the product manager role with another role, such as product marketing or project management, is that it is very hard to find someone who can do both types of jobs well. Each of these roles is critical, and each requires special skills and talents. We have known some truly exceptional people that can excel in both roles, but these people are very rare.
Further, for all but the simplest of products, the role of product manager as defined here is an all-consuming, full-time job, requiring a dedicated person. If you ask the product marketing person or project manager to cover the product management role, even if the person has the skills and talents required for both, it is unlikely she will have the bandwidth to do both jobs well. Further, for large product efforts, it is not uncommon to find a team of product managers.
The most common problem we have seen is that a product marketing person is asked to fulfill the role of product manager, and while this person might be outstanding in terms of product marketing skills and talents, creating a product is much different than telling the world about that product. The rest of the product team comes to view this person as simply “the marketing resource” that is useful for gathering market requirements from customers or from the sales force, and serving as the interface between the product development organization and the customers. While this model may yield useful market requirements, these are not the same as useful product requirements.
Hopefully someone else on the product team steps in and performs the true product management function, sometimes a lead engineer, sometimes a manager. If that person has the skills, and also the bandwidth, the product may still succeed. More often, however, the product is in trouble right from the start.
Let us look now at exactly what the product manager is responsible for:
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