What Isn’t Product Management?

In a well-run organization, each role has a single orientation; they either support [individual] customers or they support the market.

Peter Drucker, American management consultant

Over the years I’ve seen product management teams focused increasingly on the technical aspects of the product, serving more as development managers than product managers, and neglecting business strategy and go-to-market responsibilities. And when product managers define dev tasks and write stories, Product Marketing has been taking up the slack. 

I’ve really come to dislike any title with the word “marketing” in it. Is marketing about product strategy (as I learned in college) or is marketing about promotional programs? If you define “marketing” as defining and evaluating potential product offerings, then you’re really describing product strategy. If you define “marketing” as creating product demand, perhaps a

It seems most organizations are unclear on roles and responsibilities. Here’s a handy way of thinking about roles philosophically.

Some company roles, such as sales people and customer support teams, focus on customers one at a time. Marketing, product management, and development engage with a market, in other words, many or all customers at one time.

Visiting a customer with a sales or support objective isn’t product management; that’s selling and support. Interviewing and observing a number of customers to understand their workflows and buying journeys is product management, as we use the information to understand the needs of a market, not just the needs of a single customer.

We often break product leadership into two groups: product management (or product strategy, if you prefer) and product marketing. In general, product management focuses on future products and capabilities while product marketing focuses on current offerings. In both cases, their activities are targeted to a market full of customers: defining and delivering the right products by empowering teams with understanding of markets, products, and goals.

Current offerings are the focus of product operations (if you have this role) as well as sales teams (including sales engineering) and customer support.

Perhaps the most common problem I see is the understaffing in other departments leads to overwhelming demands on your product management team. Because there are rarely enough sales engineers, product managers support individual sales people 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.

How to use this

For product managers and others in your organization, write down common activities that require significant time. Consider each one briefly and decide if it helps one customer or many, and if it’s about current product or future products. If you have a significant number of activities in the bottom row, discuss the staffing and expertise in sales engineering and professional services. If most activities are on the left side, then discuss who is thinking about future deliverables. 

If leadership is doing the upper-right, then they’re doing product strategy. The one who owns an activity is the one who writes it down and keeps it current. Are these activities owned? 

What is (and is not) product management is a common discussion in almost any organization. Instead of looking at a bunch of activities and saying, this is and that isn’t, look at this activity matrix and declare, product management is determining product strategy. 

Titles are a mess for most companies. What one organization calls product management, another calls product marketing. For smaller companies, a product manager is often responsible for product marketing and sales engineering. In larger companies, we start seeing specialized roles centered around business strategy, product release planning, and go-to-market/sales enablement.

Another way of thinking of roles is to consider their primary objectives. What are these specialized roles attempting to accomplish? Within the traditional definition of marketing or product management, there are three areas of focus: product strategy, product planning, and product growth. 

Product management is about managing the product as a business. At the core of product management is learning—primarily learning about the market and its problems. Learning informs each of the phases of product definition, development, and delivery. Call it product management or marketing, it’s always about moving the product “up and to the right.”

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


For more on expertise and processes in product management, get Turn Ideas Into Products, available on Amazon.

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