What’s most important – great product managers or great organization?

Great product manager

Does great product management come from great product managers or great organization?

On a recent course, one of our delegates (who understandably wanted to remain nameless) said

“In our company product management is a mess. The job seems to vary from product to product – no one seems quite sure who does what. Agile was introduced but now we’re back to a messy compromise between Scrum and Stage-Gate. And our senior management expects us to deliver no matter what. So the job is about working around the systems to get things done and fire-fighting.”

‘Hero’ product managers cut-through the crap and get things done. They achieve results despite the rest of the organization. It’s impressive to see. It’s what many people believe the product management role is all about – it’s the only model they’ve seen.

But product management is complex and challenging. There’s another viewpoint that says a team of people are better able to deliver the breadth and depth of skills needed to do a great product management job. It’s about a high-performing team and well-oiled processes.

This view that can be summarised in a famous quote from Fujio Cho, Chairman of Toyota Motors:

“We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant systems. Our competitors get average results from brilliant people working around broken systems.”

The implication is that the fundamental requirement for brilliant results is brilliant systems. Without these processes and supporting tools then it doesn’t matter how good the people are, it’s impossible to get brilliant results. Everyone involved is encouraged and rewarded to suggest improvements to the system within which they work. This continual improvement based on input from lots of people delivers results for Toyota.

Is what works at Toyota relevant for high-tech businesses? Certainly, much of the value of today’s cars are not delivered by steel or the paint job but by the onboard electronics and software embedded in entertainment, navigation and driving systems. Cars are undoubtedly high-tech and what works for them may work for us.

As we work with many companies we’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to see many different approaches to product management. In some, an individual product manager does most of the work. In others, the product manager is part of a virtual team of 5 or more individuals who split the work and responsibilities.

It comes down to organizational design. Does it make sense to have one person do everything – someone who cares enough about the product to make it a success, who can make the trade-offs and priority calls? Or is it better to hive-off roles like pricing, market research and launching to experts who can build specialist experience and leverage economies of scale across multiple products.

Of course, there is no simple answer and in most organisations, it’s a mixture of both. In small organisations you might not have the choice – the product manager has to pick up everything. In large organizations, it can vary by the size and complexity of the product.

Some observations that might help:-

  • We’ve seen large virtual teams where there is no overall leader and decision making is distributed across peers each of whom is responsible for a particular aspect of the product. These virtual teams suffer when people pull in different directions. Product messaging becomes disjointed and inconsistent. Priorities change regularly. Without a clear leader and agreed roles, there is confusion and politics – things grind to a halt.
  • Having a single, experienced person responsible for all aspects of a product has clear benefits. It minimizes hand-offs which speed things up. And as there aren’t multiple decision-makers pulling in different directions it improves clarity on what needs to be done. People working in this way tend to love it – they’re calling the shots, they build up skills on many different areas and are a high-profile presence in the business. But it can be tough to find people who can do this well. We know one company who tends only to recruit people over 40 because they need the breadth of experience, skills, and gravitas that takes years to acquire. Also, people working in this way can soon find that they have too much to do and become a bottleneck to progress – they need a great support network to help them deliver.
  • Whatever the set-up, in our opinion what’s key is that there is one person who has the 360⁰ overview for the product. Everyone can turn to this person to get a balanced view. They have the big-picture across the technical, commercial and operational aspects of the product. They understand the strategic context and short-term tactical necessities. They are accountable for the overall success of the product. This strategic leadership role can be missing from some virtual product management teams.
  • Whilst the quality of product managers we come across on our training courses and in reviews is generally good, the organization of product management often lets them down. Our product management audits regularly identify problems with a lack of clarity on who’s responsible for what; how the information will be shared across the team; how decisions get taken on different aspects of the product and how disagreements are resolved. For many organizations, this is where the “low-hanging fruit” is when it comes to improving product management.


So to return to the question. What’s most important – great product managers or great organization?

Of course, the answer is that you need great product managers and a great organization.

Andrew Dickenson
Director, Product Focus

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