Is product management operational or strategic?


Is product management operational or strategic?

When it comes to product roles there is often a lot of debate as to what the roles mean and the responsibilities they have.

The ‘profession’ is developing and as such the roles are too, and for many who find themselves in a product role, they are often the first person with the word ‘product’ in their title within the organisation. I know that was the case in three of my product roles.

If this is the case, then although you’ll have been hired to do some specific tasks, to some degree you have some freedom to lay down the activities that product people do within your organisation.

It’s here you get to choose what kind of a product person you want to be. Do you want to be strategic or operational?

The above image shows a continuum of how typically operational or strategic job titles with the word ‘product’ in them tend to be.

Operational product roles

The further left you are along the continuum, the more operational your role is likely to be, with these roles focusing on:

  • the detail within features being delivered
  • getting the feature out of the door

Product Delivery is focused on making sure that the work is finding its way through the team and into production so that the value can be received by the customer, whilst one of the main definitions of a Product Owner is of defining the user stories that make their way into the backlog and then prioritizing these stories into the order they will be worked on.

These roles are focused primarily in the short term (getting through the next few sprints), with a little bit of medium term work thrown in there when the features might be a little larger.

They will be working close to the development teams to find solutions to meet feature goals, and answering questions throughout development.

There are also a proportion of Product Managers where the majority of their time is spent focused on the short term window in this way.

Strategic product roles

The further right you get along the continuum, definitely at the CPO and VP levels, but for a large proportion of the Product Manager community, the more strategic your role is going to be.

These kind of roles take:

  • a longer view into the future
  • a wider view of what the product is

Chief Product Officers by definition have full responsibility for the product, but they’re unlikely to be looking at the detail of user stories in the current sprint, instead focusing on the bigger questions of how the product will be delivering on the organisational long term goals.

VPs of Product take these longer term goals and provide a framework for the teams to deliver on the goals, whilst the Product Manager breaks this down to the next level, determining which individual features will contribute to the goals, prioritising in the medium term and managing the roadmap.

Product Managers are more likely to be looking external to the teams, as they seek to understand their customers or users, the market, and the competition.

Should your career always move to the right?

There’s a tendency to assume that the product role continuum could in fact be written vertically to reflect the fact that it would represent a product career ladder, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Many product people enjoy the operational aspects of being close to the coal face and will happily work in the left hand half of the chart. They might utilise their experience to not just write stories or solve problems, but support the team in the way that they deliver things, introducing process and product thinking, and undertake coaching.

Of course, the reverse is true and others want to get away from the day-to-day churn and think bigger. They want to shift to the right so they can consider and shape the future direction of not just the product but the entire organisation.

And neither of these is right or wrong. It’s entirely dependent on the type of product person you are, and that’s what you should be asking yourself. “Do I enjoy the operational or strategic aspects of product management?”.

Once you know what you prefer, then you can start to shape your roles, and thus your career around what you enjoy, and leave the bits you don’t to others.

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