The practice of product management is often likened to a balancing act. Product managers must juggle various stakeholders’ interests, including sales, marketing, technology, support, and, most crucially, the customer. The “pain” of product management, or the pressure and challenges faced, tends to shift around the organization depending on whether the business is sales-led or marketing/product-led. This article explores these dynamics and offers insights for C-level leaders, product managers, and product leaders on navigating these complex waters.
The Pain in Sales-Led Organizations
In a sales-led organization, the sales team is the primary driver of product strategy. The product is often shaped by what the sales team believes it can sell, which can sometimes lead to selling the future rather than the existing product. “If we just had this feature, we could sell it to X,” is a common refrain.
In this scenario, the pain tends to reside with product management, technology delivery, and support. Product managers can feel the pressure to continuously add new features to meet sales promises. The technology team might struggle to deliver on an ever-growing backlog of features, and the support team can be stretched thin trying to help customers navigate a product that’s constantly changing.
The Pain in Marketing/Product-Led Organizations
In a marketing or product-led organization, the focus is on building a product that meets customer needs and then crafting a marketing message that resonates with potential customers. The sales team’s role is to sell the product as it exists today, without overselling or over-promising.
In these organizations, the pain often sits with the sales and marketing teams. The sales team might feel the pressure to sell a product that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles they think customers want. The marketing team may grapple with crafting compelling messages that can compete with competitors’ more feature-packed offerings.
Shifting the Pain: A Delicate Balancing Act
The pressure to pass the pain to other parts of the business can be intense. However, time and time again, businesses find that an honest and truthful pitch tends to build trust with customers and allows the rest of the organization to do its best work. This approach requires a cultural shift towards transparency, a focus on delivering consistent value, and strong leadership to maintain this focus amidst the pressures of the market.
Product leaders have a crucial role to play in this balancing act. They must ensure that the product strategy is driven by a deep understanding of customer needs and that sales and marketing messages align with what the product can deliver today. They also need to manage expectations within the organization, ensuring that all teams understand the strategy and their role in executing it.
Harnessing Constraints to Drive Innovation
Interestingly, constraints often serve as the breeding ground for innovation. Consider the original iPhone. It lacked several features that were common at the time, such as 3G connectivity and a physical keyboard. Yet, it boasted revolutionary offerings such as visual voicemail, Google Maps, and a powerful browser. The absence of 3G allowed Apple to reduce costs, offsetting the higher costs of the screen and other innovative features. This strategic trade-off was not accidental but the result of meticulous discovery work by product managers and designers who understood their customers’ key jobs to be done. Deciding which features not to build is just as important as selecting which one you will.
This highlights the importance of strategic focus in product development something only the CEO can ensure happens. It’s not about packing in every possible feature, but understanding what truly matters to your customers and delivering that exceptionally well. Overfunded ventures with too much cash can sometimes lose sight of this, leading to Frankenstein Products that stray from their key customer value proposition.
Navigating the ‘pain’ of product management is an inevitable part of the role. The location of this pain within an organization can significantly influence its effectiveness, culture, and overall success. Whether your organization leans towards a sales-led or product-led approach, the key to seamless operation and a wining lies in a clear focus on customer needs, a commitment to ethical selling practices, and effective leadership. With a shared understating across the leadership team that, constraints can be a catalyst for innovation. A well-focused, adequately funded product built with a clear understanding of the customer’s needs can outperform a feature-packed ‘Frankenstein’ product every time.
However, in addition leadership teams must understand that actions taken by one department can have repercussions that ripple throughout the organization. Short-term strategies to meet end-of-quarter targets might seem beneficial, but if these actions merely shift the pain elsewhere, they can create a debt that must be repaid eventually. Ignoring this can lead to chronic issues and dysfunction over time, damaging the culture. For example, working in a business where only the sale team are seen as the heroes.
Leadership should adopt a holistic view of their organizations, recognizing that short-term gains shouldn’t jeopardize long-term health. They should foster an environment that encourages addressing challenges head-on, instead of passing them off to other departments.
Understanding the cost ratios across departments can provide valuable insights into the type of organization you lead. Assessing the proportion of your costs spent on front-of-house activities (such as sales, marketing, and product discovery) versus back-of-house activities (like onboarding, support, and product delivery/development) can give you valuable insights into the health of your product and your culture.
CEOs who understand these cost ratios can make better choices. By deliberately shifting spending, they can better motivate their leadership teams and build a winning culture. Leaders who are prepared to balance immediate needs with long-term goals and recognize that the organization succeeds or fails together are more likely to share the pain and win in the market together.