Why is Product Management So Undervalued until a Moment of Crisis?

By Greg Geracie, President of Actuation Consulting

Over the last 20 years I have noticed the same cycle play out time and time again. Organizations of all sizes continue to undervalue the product management function until they face a moment of crisis. Typically this takes the form of a change of control, difficulty scaling, and an almost endless variety of other possible combinations.

This situation is understandable in organizations that are migrating from start-up mode to a mid-sized organization as the CEO or founder was likely playing the role up until this point in the company’s evolution. However, it’s less understandable in organizations that have successfully achieved scale. Yet, it’s clear that organizations of all sizes continue to struggle effectively implementing successful product management organizations that truly drive value let alone implement a sustainable system that stands the test of time.

Clearly part of the problem is the lack of effective training for product managers. Normally product manager training tends to focus on a particular element of the process – for instance strategic planning or requirements development – rather than understanding how all the various pieces fit together into a working whole.

Another factor is the lack of academic training for undergraduates. This is not a solution in and of itself but what it would do is to help overcome one of the largest challenges – getting new product managers to utilize a common lexicon to describe what product management is and what it does.

Today, all the players in an organization tend to see product management from their own vantage, not unlike the fictional blind men who all touch an elephant only to describe the animal based upon the part they’re directly interacting with. This lack of agreement about the entire entity impedes successful implementation and contributes to its lack of sustainability.

The problem is further compounded by frequent, and in some cases, severe understaffing of the function, the continued comingling of product and product management, lack of fundamental product management tools, and effective leadership.

Ironically, none of these problems are insurmountable and all of these challenges can be overcome. Well rounded product management professionals can make a tangible difference and significantly improve the performance of underperforming organizations.

But at the end of the day, what is it about the product management function that leads organizations to underappreciate it until they find themselves in a situation where they desperately need it?

One of the conclusions that I have come to is that organizations diminish their product management organizations without intending to do so. In fact, I think there is a common indicator that acts as a red flag signaling that organizations have undermined their own success.

The key indicator that I’m referring to is a lack of connectivity between the tactical product roadmap (typically a 12 month view of prioritized and planned release activities) and the company’s business goals and objectives. Product management organizations that lack a coherent product strategy that effectively links the company’s business strategy to the day-to-day tactical activities often find themselves in the situation of reduced responsibility and perceived organizational value. This change from championing market needs to owning functional requirements portends the type of under appreciation that has become so common and contributes to the eventual crisis that many organizations face as they lose sight of the markets they serve.

So if your organization is headed down this path beware the red flag that crosses organizations of all sizes. A lack of a coherent product strategy often portends a looming crisis to come – your organization might be living on borrowed time and your moment to shine may be just around the corner.

Greg Geracie is the author of Take Charge Product Management©, the Editor-in-Chief of The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK), and the leader of this initiative. Greg is an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University and the President of Actuation Consulting a global leader in product management training, consulting, and advisory services to some of the world’s most successful organizations.