Product Managers get (all) the jobs done!

Young Mr Incredible is frustrated that the world keeps getting in jeopardy after he saves it

Sometimes in interviewing or training PMs, this question comes up: “Are we really supposed to be doing everything in this team?!” I’d love to answer with a clear “no”, but really? It depends.

Product Management is a glue function. We are responsible for overall success, so we can stretch to fix some of the broken bits. That part of the PM’s role is to fill in when a task is needed but others can’t do it. We unblock, either by deciding it’s not needed at this time, advocating for someone to do it, helping others get what they need to do it, or getting out of the way so others can do it.

Most importantly, we mustn’t fail to do the real job because we’re doing all the other jobs. Product managers exist to find the optimum answer to “what should we build?” Companies forget that as they stretch us into doing their project management and agile coaching and quality assurance and marketing &c. But the reason we exist is for finding the sweet leverage spot (the fit) between customer needs (the market) and technical capabilities (the product), with as few steps as possible (the efficiency). If that isn’t getting done by us, then maybe it’s falling back on the founders, or an engineering manager, or maybe it’s not getting done at all. None of these outcomes lead to keeping product managers on staff, no matter how many glue tasks they perform.

So, what should we do about all those other things that land on our plates? Prioritize the pile, and then consider them one by one:

Does it really have to be done at all?

This isn’t just asking a rhetorical question. Seriously consider the pros and cons: what happens if this doesn’t get done now. Try to set aside your emotions and predict the outcome of this task not being completed.

Is there someone else that should do it?

It’s coming to you because it’s not getting done… that means it is your problem, but that is insufficient to make the thing be your task. Your task is to find out why the person or group that’s responsible is not doing it. I like to go to them with a tool I learned when my kids were in preschool: “here’s the task. What’s your plan? Do you need materials?” Much of the time, I’ve found that the other team was simply unaware, or had kicked the task back for easily resolved reasons. Sometimes I’ve gotten a lot of drama as well, but again that’s just a problem to resolve by hearing the feelings and working the facts. One way or the other, if you ask the team they’ll most likely let you know what they want.

As PM you can then make a call on what to do: shut this task down, or make it align with the responsible party’s needs. Hint: if there is someone else responsible, even if they’re saying no, you probably want to think really hard about doing it yourself. If you do find a task in that situation and think you should do it, I would get that cleared with your entire chain of supervisors first. For instance, contract negotiations should be done with lawyers. If you jump on that problem and screw up the redline of a contract, your CEO is not going to be happy.

All else has failed

What if that other team doesn’t exist at your company? If it’s got to be done and no one else is responsible… then yes, it’s the product manager’s task. However, this is not an ideal outcome, and you need to devote some time to making sure that’s clear. This can be hard to do if you pride yourself on learning new things and doing a good job, but product marketers, financial analysts, and quality assurance engineers are professionals because they’re good at doing the things that they do. They have been trained, they have tools (mental and software), they have experience. You have gumption, which is charming but not always effective. When you accept a task that is outside your area of expertise, you should:

  1. Be clear to your boss and your team that you’re tackling this out of necessity and probably not doing a great job. If you’re doing a pricing model all by yourself for the first time, those responsible for the company should be aware of the situation. If you’re filling your days with glue work instead of managing your product(s), then your boss should be aware of the situation.
  2. Timebox the work, including time spent learning the domain. You aren’t going to become an expert quickly, and efforts to do so are just going to get in the way of doing the job that you’re actually paid to do. A product manager doing a task like writing all the marketing materials is a bandaid on a (temporarily?) broken process. Maybe that’s all that can be afforded at this time, and maybe it’s all this project will ever get… that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean you should neglect managing the product in order to become an excellent marketer.
  3. Don’t let this situation stand. We overstretch and burn out when we become permanently part of the process (not to mention, that we’re not pro grade at it). If you’re consistently in the weeds doing tasks that aren’t product management, work on fixing that. Call it out in your status, and drive getting it dealt with in the plan.

Note: We need to be clear on doing a task versus being involved in a task. I’ve used some example tasks in this post which are fine things to be involved in. The PM may need to be aware of some contracts. The PM should have a voice in deciding pricing, after all you’ve done competitive intelligence and talked to customers about their needs. The PM should have a voice in marketing, you’ve got a clear idea of who you want to reach even if you’re not an expert in pipeline management tools. The failure mode is becoming the responsible owner for these tasks.

All else has stayed failed for so long that down is now up

If this effort to get tasks done by professionals instead of PMs is ignored, then you have two options: revisit whether the task is actually required, or consider if you’re happy that this task is now part of the product management expectation in your organization. Maybe that is fine with you; maybe helping with engineering management and architecture fulfills your needs and you’ve been doing it long enough to get good. The career of Product Management is a big tent and you’ll probably even find other organizations where the expectations are similar. But if you’re not getting what you want and these extra tasks are drudgery that you can’t get rid of, you’ll got a conflict with the organization, and may need to consider moving on.

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