Maybe We Should Be Problem Managers

Maybe We Should Be Problem Managers

Maybe We Should Be Problem Managers

Steve Johnson, Under10 Consulting

kHUB post date: December 20, 2019
Originally presented: November 5, 2019 (PDMA 2019 Annual Conference)
Read time: 8 minutes

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“So… what would you say you do here?”

Many product professionals struggle to answer this question. There are titles like product manager, project manager, product owner, product marketer? What do these mean?

Unfortunately, titles are a mess. What one company calls product management, another calls product marketing. Product owners are sometimes product managers and sometimes business analysts.

In my consulting work, I am continually faced with myriad titles and confused employees who are not quite sure of their roles and responsibilities. As a result, these product professionals do whatever they’re asked to do—which is why 47% of their time is spent in unplanned activities, such as:

  • Responding to RFPs for the sales team
  • Giving a product demo to a client
  • Designing a new user experience
  • Mapping the stories and tasks for a new release
  • Writing content for the company blog or newsletter

It seems that many product professionals provide product support to development, marketing, sales, and other departments. Which is natural. After all, product professionals have expertise in the product, the market, and the domain.

But if product professionals spend their time doing these unplanned activities, they often neglect their own job responsibilities.

Marty Cagan, author of INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love, writes: “Countless people with the title 'Product Manager' or 'Product Owner' are not doing the job their company needs them to do.”

And if it’s not the tactical, technical activities requested by development, marketing, and sales, what is product management?

Maybe this will help.

Under10 Consulting blank market and customer table

In a well-run organization, each role has a single orientation; they either support customers or support the market. That is, some roles support customers one at a time and other roles support a market full of customers. And not just customers—they need to understand the people who do not use the product—the untapped potential market.

So, some of the activities in an organization relate to either market or customer, as shown in green.

And consider this. Some of those activities are focused on the product you’ll have in the future versus the product you have now, as shown in orange. Enhancement requests and new product options are about future products. Promotions and sales tools are for the product you have now.

Finally, activities relate to one of these: Problems, Solutions or Delivery, as shown in blue. Market discovery such as interviews and observation as well as insights from your product data help identify problems—either problems in your product or problems in the way it is marketed and sold.

Where do you fit?

Make a list of the major items that you do weekly. Artifacts you create (such as product stories), ceremonies you attend (such as the daily standup), documents you write (such as articles or RFP responses). Write down a dozen things or more.

Now put them in two groups: those that are for one customer and those that are for all customers.

Some company roles, such as sales and customer support teams, focus on customers one at a time. Those activities and artifacts related to one customer are important! They’re items like customer demos, sales support, and RFP responses. But they’re not the responsibility of product management. Sales and services teams work with customers one a time; they own “Delivery”.

Now consider the items associated with all customers: things like customer interviews to uncover problems to be solved, product content such as ebooks, and win/loss analysis. Move them into one of two groups: they’re either about Problem Identification or Solution Design.

The group of items related to solutions are the responsibility of development and marketing teams. These teams are experts in technology and communication. They own the “how.”

The other group of items—those related to problem identification for the market—are the responsibility of product professionals. Product professionals, by whatever title—product manager, product owner, product marketing manager—are responsible for understanding problems in the market and working with development and marketing teams to solve those problems. They own the “what.”

Under10 Consulting completed market and customer table

When looking at primary responsibilities by department, product management finds problems in the market to solve in the future. Development solves them. Your Professional Services team is often necessary to configure or customize those future products as part of customer delivery.

Now let’s contrast this with the product you have now, the one that’s in the market today. What problems occur in the marketing and sales of that product?

Product marketing finds growth problems in the market for the product you have now. They work with Marketing to define a solution to those promotional problems and rely on sales teams to deliver the message to individual customers.

It’s common for product marketing managers to perform win/loss analysis. They examine multiple sales events—some wins, some losses—and look for patterns. They look for buying problems.

For example, one product marketing team found that clients needed to understand the underpinnings of their technology that the sales teams really could not explain adequately. Sharing the go-to-market problem with the marketing team, they determined the right solution would be a video with the CTO explaining the technology choices and how they created a better customer experience. With this video, sales teams were better able to explain the product they have now and reduce the friction of delivering it to customers.

A product manager visited a customer and watched the client using her product. She was surprised by one client who was struggling who was obviously unaware of a powerful feature. She sat with her development team and they decided to expand the on-screen help to correct for this problem.

Find a problem and then work with your solutions teams, the experts, to design a solution.

In recent years I’ve seen product management teams pulled increasingly into the technical aspects of the product, serving more as development managers and designers than product managers, and neglecting both business strategy and go-to-market responsibilities.

Perhaps the most common problem facing product teams today is the understaffing in other departments leads to overwhelming demands on the product team. Because there are rarely enough sales engineers, product managers support individual salespeople with technical information. Because professional services teams want its members to be billable at all times, product managers spend time creating statements of work. Even though these are important activities, they’re not product management.

The goal of product management is to systematically turn ideas into businesses. Are your product managers doing product management?

When we spend time supporting others, we fail at what we were hired to do. And if one team doesn’t do its job, other teams fill the void.

I’ve described a nimble planning process from idea to market in my book, Turn Ideas Into Products, available from Amazon in print and Kindle format.

About the Author

Steve JohnsonSteve Johnson is an author, speaker, and coach on product strategy and product management. His approach is based on the belief that minimal process and simple templates result in a nimble product team.

Steve has been a long-time advocate for product management and serves as an advisor to a number of technical product organizations and industry associations.

Steve has coached thousands of product and executive teams in the latest techniques. Learn more at

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