Lean Resources and Grand Ambitions: The Danger of Wearing Multiple Hats (on Product Development Teams)

By Greg Geracie

In the recent Study of Product Team Performance©, 2012 we asked survey respondents what role they played in their organization. We then asked if they were playing multiple roles on the product team.

The actual question was “If you play multiple roles, which best describes your secondary role?”

We asked this question because, as the recession took hold, we were seeing an increased number of organizations expecting their product team members, product managers included, to cover more ground. Ground that had traditionally belonged to other functions.

Here’s what respondents told us they were doing in addition to their primary role…

  • 23% said project management
  • 19% indicated business analysis
  • 14% were doing program management
  • 11% were assuming product owner activities
  • 10% were doing some product management activities

We also learned that product team members are being asked to do more because their organizations had trimmed headcounts but not company ambitions. Said another way, while the number of FTEs had decreased the company’s business objectives did not reflect the reduced level of resources. As one survey respondent noted it’s a time of “lean resources, and grand ambitions.”

The problems associated with asking team members to wear multiple hats are numerous. They range from conflict of interest to diluted effectiveness. For example, asking a product manager to take on the project management role is a conflict of interest. The product managers’ job is to create value throughout the entire product management life cycle while the project manager is trained to keep a project within a well-defined boundary of scope, schedule, and cost. What happens when the optimal value falls outside of these boundaries?

Additionally, keeping with the product and project management example, assuming that product managers will make good project managers and vice versa is a dangerous assumption. Both of these roles demand singular focus and specialized training. A product manager does not just wake up one day and know how to effectively put into place a work breakdown structure. Nor is it feasible for a project manager to know how to craft a compelling multiyear product strategy. These are skills honed with time and training.

While I have focused in on product and project management the same can be said for the other co-mingled responsibilities identified in our survey.

The recession may have made combining these jobs necessary but it’s dangerous to assume that these roles can be intertwined indefinitely. Nor is it likely to be in the best interests of the organization. People tend to gravitate to what they do best. If product management is a team members passion, and project management has been forced upon them out of necessity, how much energy are employees truly giving to a role they don’t enjoy and have not been trained to do?

Juggling multiple roles is not a long-term solution. It’s only a matter of time till one or the other hits the ground. You can bet it will be the one that a team member had foisted upon them.

Greg is the President of Actuation Consulting, a world-class provider of product management training courses and advisory services to some of the nation’s most well-known organizations. He is also the author of the global best seller Take Charge Product Management and the Editor-in-Chief of The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge.