On Product Management: influence, authority and accountability

The Cranky Product Manager did me a wicked huge favor (that’s “Boston-speak”) recently.  In turn, I spent some time on her blog and was reminded why I visit so often.

I got to reflecting on the the mission of product management.  Given it’s such a wide role, and manifests in a variety of flavors across companies, I couldn’t come up with a single “model” for how it should work.  But I searched for some commonalities.

Three words that get tossed around when product managers commiserate in a bar (or online) are influence, authority and accountability.  Influence is often discussed as something that’s mutually exclusive to authority.  And product managers often yearn for more authority.  Accountability is often discussed as in “how can I be accountable without authority?”

So do I need authority in order to be effective at product management?

Authority.  I don’t have much, if any.  Nor does my boss, if s/he works for the CEO.  Nor does the CEO, if you have a board of directors.  Nor does the board if you have venture investors or stockholders.  You get the picture.  We ALL have a boss who’s somehow more in charge of the product than us.

So what.

Which got me thinking about influence.  Those with great influence tend to have tremendous power to shape & shift a company’s behavior.  Sometimes, strong influencers are seen as having authority.  I think this is the desired state for product managers.

Which leads to accountability.  What am I accountable for if I have no authority?

I’ve heard CEO’s, venture investors and board members say “I want my product managers to act like they are the CEO’s of their product”.  If you’re a products company, isn’t the CEO the CEO of the product?

One is accountable, in my mind, for the quality of investment decisions and the quality of their implementation.  Decisions meaning the trade-offs between competing investment priorities that yield maximum financial results.  And our job is to facilitate this process.  Really well.

How?  Know your market.  Know your buyers.  Know their pain points.  Know what solutions they will pay for.

Quality of implementation means knowing how to describe the solutions in accurate and compelling terms to those who will build & deliver them for you.

A final thought.  As I’ve advanced in my career I find myself spending less time worrying about authority and more about influence.  Ironically, with every passing year I gain more authority.  Sure, the cynic in you might be thinking I’m just being smug.  I don’t agree.  I invest more time building bridges with peer functions and trying as best I can to ensure that, as a group, we make investment decisions based on sound preparation.  And then implement them like crazy.  That’s what I feel accountable for.

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