Written by Tara Toler
Are product managers necessary? It’s a topic of fierce debate. And the answer depends on who you ask.
“PMs are obsolete,” one side argues. “They’re expensive and redundant. They increase the distance between customers and developers. An empowered team is fully capable of cross-functional communication and decision making.”
“A project without a product manager is a rudderless ship,” the other side counters. “Without a designated product manager, there’s no focus or consistency. Communication breaks down between design, development, marketing, and internal and external stakeholders. Team members forced to wear multiple hats can’t fully develop their craft.”
We argue that the world needs product managers — even if certain projects don’t.
Communication and collaboration are critical to product development.
The product manager is the primary point of contact, a gatekeeper between the customer and the team. They’re responsible for updating all team members and stakeholders on project-related news.
They ensure that all team members work collaboratively and remain aligned with the product vision and end goals.
And they make decisions that influence the development process — planning, approving, prioritizing, and structuring the work.
In the absence of a formal product manager, these duties must still be acknowledged and assigned. They’re the oil that helps the rest of the machine run smoothly. The glue that holds it all together.
Product managers prioritize tasks and make decisions driving the entire project from creation to launch.
A good PM understands digital strategy and how to build a thorough product roadmap. While the PM is not necessarily responsible for defining the functionality or specifications of the product, he is the decision-maker. He has to understand the implications of these decisions — and the underlying forces that drive them — to steer the ship effectively.
A good PM also strives to understand the audience and user personas that drive the value and need for the product. He advocates for the needs of the customer and end-user while balancing the restrictions of budget, time, and scope.
Product development is a complicated process with many moving parts. A great product manager must have a broad knowledge base, a high-level view of the project, and excellent people skills.
Without a PM, there’s no longer one person in charge — one point of contact for internal and external team members. This leads to miscommunication and distortion based on different interpretations of information.
Competing priorities and perspectives sidetrack progress. Details can be forgotten, and requests misplaced. There’s no one person whose main priority and focus is to worry about the success of the product.
The PM ensures that the entire team maintains alignment with the vision and end goal of the project. By identifying issues as they arise, they empower the team to respond quickly and proactively. The result? Better productivity, better cost efficiency, and reduced risk.
The world needs product managers — but certain projects may not.
For start-ups or solopreneurs, a designated PM may not be feasible. There may not be room in the budget. The team may be small enough that communication isn’t at significant risk. And relatively simple projects with continuous integration can utilize a flatter power structure.
In these cases, the team can operate without a PM. Yet the general process remains unchanged. Decisions still need to be made, and responsibilities still need to be assigned.
Often, a senior team member will wear multiple hats, or a few people will share the responsibilities. Some teams even turn their customers into the PM, using feedback and surveys to prioritize and define goals for the team.
With smaller and simpler projects, it’s easier for the team to do the extra work of specification and inclusion. But with bigger projects and more specialized teams, a deeper level of strategy is involved. It’s challenging, if not impossible, for that to fall on the team.
The need for a product manager and the formality of the role is highly situational. It depends on the customer’s needs, past collaborations, and the complexity of the project.
When deciding whether or not your team needs a product manager, consider the following:
The role and responsibilities of the product manager will continue to evolve over time. But their primary focus will always be on one thing: the success of the product.
Great product managers have a clear vision of success and a practical understanding of how to get there — and that’s something the world will always need.
Written by Tara Toler