I work as a mentor with startups and scaling SMEs and one of the most common questions I get asked is:
When is it time to hire a Product Manager?
The answer to this is not necessarily straightforward and really depends on how you define product management. Product Management, although pretty widely adopted as a discipline in organisations is still quite misunderstood.
If your organisation has adopted an Agile development methodology then the engineering team will likely be pushing for the business to hire a product owner:
A Scrum Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.https://www.scrum.org/resources/what-is-a-product-owner
The primary goal of the product owner is to maximise the value delivered by Agile Scrum teams. For this reason, they need to understand and be respected by engineering and quite often they have an engineering background or technology focus. Because product owners lean more towards engineering than marketing they tend to be quite inward focused. The majority of their time is consumed by the agile development process – attending to the backlog, supporting sprint planning meetings etc. They typically have very little time (or inclination) to focus on market analysis or strategy.
The problem is that once a business hires a product owner they often feel that they have product management covered. My view is that this is often not the case and let me explain why.
In many early stage businesses the CEO/Founder is often the person who understands the target markets better than anyone else. They will have clarity on the vision, the target markets, the competitors and market needs and they will guide product strategy. If there is an established agile process in the business they will influence the product backlog. As the business scales they will find it harder to work directly with the engineering team so will likely push to bring in a product owner to do this. In early stage businesses the CEO/Founder will also guide and influence strategic marketing and sales.
As the CEO/Founder becomes increasingly busy just dealing with the day-to-day requirements that come with being a CEO of a scaling business they won’t have the same capacity to share their market expertise with the senior leaders of the business.
So who takes on the role of delivering clarity on the vision, target markets, competitive landscape, buyer personas, market needs, etc. when the CEO is too busy to do this to the same level as before? Who provides clarity on direction to the sales, marketing and engineering teams?
Many believe this should be the product owner – but as we discussed earlier they are generally pretty busy just keeping on top of a backlog of product development requirements. They have little time to focus on elements of strategic marketing. I ran a Product Management function in a large software development company myself so I understand how challenging it can be for product owners to take on both the strategic and tactical elements of product management.
So if your product owner is too busy or too technical to focus on strategic marketing, then is it worth considering a supporting hire that has the capacity and capability to do this?
Someone with the title Strategic Marketer or Strategic Product Manager could add real value at a senior level in the business. Although closely aligned with the product owner, this role would be more strategic and outward focused and would perform many of the strategic marketing tasks that the early stage CEO/Founder undertook – articulation of vision, target market segmentation and prioritisation, competitive analysis, capturing of market needs, articulation and dissemination of a value proposition, etc.
I believe that at a certain point in a business’s growth there are signs it is time to take on someone with a strategic and market focused approach – read on for my view on what these signs are …
“Inside-Out” rather than “Outside-In”
Is your business having ad-hoc conversations with the market – often in broadcast (sales focused) rather than listening mode (strategic alignment, capturing market needs)? Are these engagements typically driven by a a handful of the senior leadership team?
If so then it is likely that no one person has responsibility for feeding back what they are hearing to the product development team or for owning how this is captured and framed in a value proposition for sales or marketing purposes. It may be the case that your product owner may not even be aware of these conversations! As a result the engineering backlog is likely driven by hunches and an internal view of the world as this is the only view the product owner has.
Although your business may have a Digitial Marketer, a Marcoms team, a Website Developer – are these resources typically in broadcast mode and focused on lead generation? Are they taking a strategic focus to market development?
Does your business have a high level understanding of target or addressable markets but not enough detail at a competitor, customer or market level to support a focused and prioritised approach to sales and market engagements?
If the product owner is focused inward then in reality product requirements will only tentatively link to market needs and it is likely that your product is being developed in a vacuum.
Poor alignment across organisational functions…
Where it was once easy to align everyone, is this now becoming increasingly difficult as the business scales?
If the senior team are travelling more and required to attend more external meetings to grow the business then they will find it even more difficult to align functions across the business.
Have your engineering, marketing, finance and sales teams grown organically? If so then they are likely operating in silos with little cross-functional alignment and it will have become more difficult to benchmark or measure the effectiveness of these teams.
If the CEO/Founder is finding it increasingly difficult to align the senior leadership team on a market-focused approach to driving the strategy then it may be time to find a supporting resource to help with this – don’t assume the product owner has the capacity to do this.
Hunches setting the product direction …
As an early stage business you had no option but to focus on strategy. Investors demanded it! As the company has scaled, has it been all hands on deck to deliver project commitments and has strategy had to take a back seat to tactical delivery?
Are Senior leaders in the organisation making product strategic decisions that are driven more from personal hunches rather than a validated view of the market?
To drive revenue, are you chasing every business opportunity even if it only has tentative links to your strategic vision?
Is this leading to confusion and an unhealthy lack of focus? Are business priorities unclear and is there a lack of focus across different functions?
If this is the case then it is likely that a culture of priority du jour has developed. If your business is evolving chaotically then it is likely that the product backlog is often re-scoped to suit tight deadlines or sales demands and key market-focused features may be omitted or neglected. This could have a direct impact on your ability to attract and retain broader market interest.
A tactical rather than a strategic approach to product development…
In order to win business have you been driven by customer demands and do you have a tendency to approach each sales opportunity as a tactical bespoke deployment? Are solutions tailored to each customer’s exact needs rather than being taken off the shelf?
If this is the case then you likely have a lack of repeatability across customer deployments and your service deployment team is growing.
As a consequence, your software solution may become difficult to manage across customer sites and the development team may struggle to manage an increasing number of customer quality issues. This could have a direct knock-on impact on your ability to service the needs of the broader market through regular quality product updates.
Failing to attract or retain buyer interest …
Many technical companies have a strong product development heritage. Although your company may have mastered the competencies to deliver a high quality and technically masterful product are you failing to articulate its value to the market? Do you find that your business is struggling to understand and speak to the challenges or problems that your target markets are experiencing?
It’s hard to be heard when everyone is broadcasting to rather than communicating with the market.
Research has shown that people spend 60% of conversations talking about themselves. And this jumps to 80% when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.
Are you spending more time talking about your own business rather than your customer’s challenges? Is your message unintentionally encrypted for your target market?
Although it is so tempting to begin broadcasting about your products to anyone who will listen, it is so important to clearly speak to challenges your market can resonate with. You often only get one shot at making an impact when you broadcast – try and make it count by hiring someone whose job it is to understand your target markets really well and to support marketing and sales to create messages that will resonate.
Finding it hard to understand return on investment…
If your business is winning lots of projects, are you assigning resources arbitrarily with little focus on “return on investment”?
It can sometimes be difficult to justify the investment in a project if the organisation cannot align it with a strong market demand.
Is your sales organisation chasing deals that are driving revenue but these deals are often once-offs and have loose ties to the overall strategic drivers of the business?
An active but misdirected sales team can consume organisational resources at a significant cost to the business.
Also, if product development activity is not carefully managed and aligned with a clear market strategy it can cost the business dearly. We would be foolish to invest in a large home renovation project, for example, without the guidance of an architect. We need their help to ensure our exact needs are met, to design the best solution and to ensure that the builders stay within budget. Product development projects are no different – strategic product managers ensure projects are well architected and align with market need. They manage and control investment in engineering development and work with product owners to ensure the business gets bang for buck!
Innovation is at a standstill….
Do you find that there is no clear process for capturing or prioritising new ideas?
Do you have a mechanism for gating ideas or preparing for what is beyond the next horizon? Does your business have the opportunity or capacity to seek out adjacent market opportunities and to fund blue sky thinking?
Every business needs time to plan for the future and to anticipate and react to industry trends and market needs. This requires foresight and investment and is a key part of strategic marketing.
Struggling to stand out in a competitive landscape …
Is your competitive landscape crowded and the market is finding it difficult to find compelling reasons to select your company’s products? Do you struggle to identify unique selling points for the products or solutions and it has become increasingly difficult to position your company competitively?
Although it is very difficult to maintain sustainable competitive advantage in a world where technology and market needs evolve quickly it is really important that every business focuses on what makes them great and what makes them stand out against the competition. Someone in the organisation needs to keep a close eye on the competitive advantage that your organisation can drive and maintain over time.
Although these indicators can manifest themselves to varying degrees in companies, depending on their stage of growth, they are a useful litmus test for the need to consider hiring someone who is focused on strategic marketing or strategic product management and who can support you to align everyone in the business around your vision.
How can IntegratedThinking Help?
Helping you to understanding what strategic product management or strategic marketing means to your organisation. Applying a step-by-step Insight2Value process that helps you to:
- Create scalable and repeatable service, products or solutions that customers truly value
- Drive future growth through the continued progression of innovative ideas
- Remain focused – making sure everyone is marching not only in the “right direction” but in the “same direction”
- Work to a clearly defined business model that meets corporate strategic objectives
- Allocate your finite set of resources to the right projects and achieve maximum return on investment
It is so important though that you seek support when establishing the product management discipline – making any kind of change in an organisation requires alignment from the top down to ensure you draw a line in the sand and take the right approach moving into the future.