It’s been a common refrain going around SaaS companies that “we need more experienced product managers!”. Well, what if we actually don’t need more product managers but more product thinking? What if all the tasks that are attributed to product managers could fit with people who have other job descriptions, their tasks scattered around through the other common roles? We’ll explain why in this article.
Why you don’t need a Product Manager
There are plenty of tasks attributed to product managers who actually don’t belong to them. Among them, we’ll list a few. As an example, you don’t need a product manager to get the “job” done and keep your team focused. To manage projects, and give status updates, maybe what you need is a project manager, not a product manager – or some specialist in every team should wear that hat.
To manage a team, and advocate for it, you’d be better served with a team manager who’s a specialist in what your team is doing, like a senior developer or a senior customer support manager. To have accountability for shipping features and projects, you don’t need a product manager – why isn’t the whole team accountable for it?
To facilitate standups, planning meetings, and retrospectives, shouldn’t you have an office manager who does that? Do you really need a product manager to schedule and plan for team meetings? To talk to customers and users, you have your customer support team. When measuring the impact of work, and designing experiments, wouldn’t that job suit an analyst or data science specialist better?
And if you have a copywriter in your team, couldn’t he or she write user stories and requirements in tandem with developers and your customer support team? And to test work with customers and users, couldn’t you rely on customer support?
These are all tasks which usually are trusted upon the product manager without much consideration. But, as you can see, you don’t need product management for that. These are all tasks that could be done by other team members. Product manager has become a catchall title that means nothing. A product manager could be doing anything on a regular day from that list of tasks. He can do all of that. But should he or she be doing it?
When do you actually need a Product Manager?
When you actually have a product to be managed, you need a product manager. This means that there’s already a clear link to revenue, a business model, pricing, and marketing. Many SaaS companies are the product themselves. Yet there is a tendency to call everything within the company a product – and each product needs a Product Manager, right? Right?…
Why does this happen? There are several reasons. The first one is that people think that a product manager should be the one accountable for team work. If there isn’t someone there to manage that team, then who is going to be accountable?
Well, why can’t we let the whole team be accountable for what they’re trying to build?
On the other hand, people tend to consider products better than projects. Many people at SaaS companies think that having product thinking is essential for their company to work. However, that’s not always the case.
People tend to think that everything overlaps with product management, when instead we should focus on team health, hiring SaaS experts (using SaaS recruitment agencies), and worry about core business issues. People use product management as a sort of crutch when, in reality, all the things people want product managers to do should be handled by other team members while the product manager actually does some product management.
Teams with the right members, like UX, agile coaching, data science and research can deliver the same or even better results without a product manager micromanaging their work.
Startups are not mini-companies. They represent the search for a business model. They go by different rules than larger, mature companies. Same thing for their ideas and products. You need to go a long way before you have a product to manage.
The progression of product management
Among SaaS companies, there is a progression in the way teams are managed. First, you have companies that have zero product thinking and are focused solely on the projects they have in hands. At this point, hiring a product manager it’s not that useful if he’s not going to have a product to manage in the first place.
The first step up is hiring UX and giving them the responsibility to manage their project. There are SaaS recruitment specialists for that. Get the right people to work at your team with the help of SaaS recruitment agencies.
The next step, which is huge already, is engaging developers in actual problem solving instead of just focusing on the main features of your “product”.
An enormous step up from this is having cross-functional teams who organise themselves without help. Now you have your “product teams”, and your product manager is actually free to do his core activities.
Then, there comes a point where you need to adapt your product manager’s role to the increasingly complex reality of your company. Many companies get to a point in which they have plenty of product manager roles which are redundant. The organisations get into an infinite loop of attributing responsibilities to different people which could be solved with a more holistic approach – but, by then, the organisation is too heavy, and its job descriptions are stuck in a reality that’s not going to help the company grow. What to do then?
This does not mean you should fire your product managers. This means you should be more careful with tasking someone to be a product manager when there’s no product to manage. It means that your teams should share accountability for what they are developing.
Consider creating internships to fill the roles who have to wear many hats instead of hiring a product manager. This will give your interns a chance to grow and understand what is it that they actually want to do. Hire people for the roles you need (like UX and Data Science) and let them do what their job description actually entails. Hire product managers to do product management, product leaders for team leadership, and product strategists for strategy.
For your team to work, you need people who know what it is that they’re supposed to be doing. There can be an overlap between teams, of course. But everyone’s role should be clearly defined. For now, there is still a little bit of confusion about what a product manager should be doing. However, we’ll come to a point of convergence when all of that becomes clear as daylight. We still need to work with what we’ve got, that’s for sure; but we’ll get there.