Three Reasons Why Product Managers Should NOT have authority over ANYONE
I can’t tell you how many product managers I have met who complain about their lack of authority over team members. They all raise a seemingly valid point: If we hold product managers accountable and responsible for the success or failure of the product, we should grant them the authority to have their say, which is often interpreted as authority over people. Sounds reasonable. Right?
Not so fast. The product manager is, for lack of a better word, a hybrid role. It differs from organization to organization, with every executive having their own definition and job description. Sometimes when people say product manager, they actually mean project manager. Certain companies have even re-invented and re-invoked the product owner role — more on that later — Sometimes product managers are nothing but a data analyst. What I mean by product manager, is the person responsible for the success of a product, through using customer research and data, who defines what is to be built and when in a product.
There. This person in this role is who we are talking about. Obviously, this person is going to have a lot of collaboration with Engineering (how the product is built), Design (how the product feels), Marketing and Sales (Where and how the product is delivered to the customer), Support (how the product handles customer issues) and so on. The product manager is the person in between all of these departments with a single mission: maximize the value delivered to the customer in a way that works for the business.
I am going to argue that to accomplish this mission, the product manager needs to have no authority over ANYONE in ANY of these departments. The points I am going to make are mostly about Engineering and Design (Who, together with the product manager, form the product team), but they are applicable to almost any discipline in the company.
First: A real PM is very busy
Product management is a highly demanding role. It covers a wide variety of activities: Talking to customers, going through data, going through logs, exploring the market, testing, documenting, going through the documents in meetings, re-documenting, not to mention the excessive number of meetings taken in a day (+4 is pretty common). In the midst of all this work, it is just not possible to add the responsibility of handling even one employee to the mix. It is just not possible to add all the managerial responsibilities — themselves quite demanding — to an already stacked schedule, time, mind and energy. There’s only so much even the best of us can handle, and if we are given more responsibility than we can manage, something has to give. And that something is usually the product itself.
Second: A real PM is always backed by data
The PM is responsible for many decisions, ranging from “what should the product pursue in the long run?” to smaller challenges like “Should we make this button blue or not?”. Good product work is all about making the right decision at the right time, and it’s not earthly possible to always be right. That’s why product managers are experimenting experts — they are constantly forming hypotheses and designing tests to either refute or confirm them.
If the PM is given the authority to just decide as they see fit without being backed by data, the team will most probably end up building the wrong thing at the wrong time, defeating the purpose of lean methodologies altogether, resulting in waste and ultimately, a failed product.
When the PM doesn’t have authority over people, team members are free to disagree with the PM’s ideas and they are NOT obligated to build it — unless the PM reveals strong evidence that the idea is worth pursuing.
Third: A real PM welcomes collaboration
Due to the nature of their mission, product managers are in constant communication with people from almost all departments. These people are often an invaluable source of ideas — in my experiences the engineers are a gold mine! — Which is why the PM should listen to their input. This is the first quadrant in a PM’s four essential roles (Explorer, Inspector, Challenger, Evangelist), where they explore broadly for ideas.
If the PM is granted authority over people, he will NOT get as many raw ideas; simply because people would be too self-aware in front of a managerial role to propose bold ideas. Authority will reduce the quality of idea input, depleting the PM’s arsenal.
Good product work requires time, data-drive decision making and a lot of unfiltered collaboration, which is just not possible when they are granted authority. Product managers should approach their ambiguous problems like a scientist: forming hypotheses and designing and running tests to either refute or confirm them. Maybe instead of calling them product managers, they should be dubbed product scientists.