The biggest challenge facing the B2B product management profession is the gap that exists between the lofty expectations that accompany product managers as they step into their role, the reality of what they must do once they get there, and the resulting effect on product management’s prominence within the organization.  How will the product management profession overcome the challenge of expectations vs. reality to prove its value?

I lived this as a practitioner and I’ve been watching it for 10+ years as a consultant.  To this day, I routinely hear it from clients and it continues to be reinforced in discussions taking place at ProductCamps around the world.

The typical storyline plays out like this.

Organizations seek out highly skilled, talented individuals who are more than capable of bringing strategic value to the organization in a product management role.  But the reality of the job makes it all but impossible to deliver on those expectations of “strategic value” both parties envisioned going into the deal.

And that’s not the worst part of the problem.  It’s the fact that most organizations are completely unaware that the manner in which they’ve defined and structured product management is the root cause of the problem.  So it keeps repeating itself and eventually the stature of product management suffers because it’s not meeting expectations.

All parties involved – product managers, hiring managers, executives and talent managers – are equally frustrated.  What’s the answer and who’s going to make the first move?

I’m not sure there’s a single answer but it begins with a realization among all parties that treating products like businesses within the business is the root cause of the problem. Here are the top three reasons why.

  1. Handicapped From The Start

    The “product as a line of business” structure immediately handicaps the individuals responsible for managing those products because their vision, scope and magnitude of market opportunities are limited to a product.  It’s like winning free use of a Ferrari but only between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Los Angeles freeways.That handicap ultimately manifests itself into a team of talented people essentially limited to making incremental improvements to their products but expected to produce results that are strategic to the organization.

  2. Missed Market Opportunities

    Missed market opportunities are most often the result of product tunnel vision, where organizations only see the market through the eyes of their products.  Since most products in B2B companies target the same or similar markets, the “product as a line of business” structure is highly conducive to missed opportunities.  Product managers are evaluated and compensated on product level results, so there’s no incentive (let alone capacity) to expand their horizons beyond anything unrelated to the performance of their products.

  3. Too Many Product Strategies Aren’t Strategic to the Organization

    When the focus is on product performance, every product manager draws a target for his or her products in the form of a product strategy accompanied by a business case to justify the resource investment.  The unintentional result is an organization aiming for too many targets and spreading its resources too thin, thereby diluting its ability to hit the bull’s-eye on any of them.What if there was only one target (a portfolio strategy) and every product made contributions that gave the company (or division) the best odds of hitting the bull’s-eye?

    I also lived this as a practitioner and it was the most fun and rewarding product management job I had, because the company was succeeding on all fronts and the value of product management was abundantly clear at all levels.  I also come across plenty of companies doing product management this way in my current role and 99% of them are on a growth tear.

My intent of this discussion is not to paint a picture of doom and gloom or imply B2B organizations can’t be successful managing products as separate lines of business.  Plenty of them do.  My bigger concern is the growing number of organizations where this approach is yielding diminishing returns and product management is the discipline with the biggest target on its back.


Is the criticism of product management fair or not?

There are two sides to every story.

Product managers have a relentless ambition to be recognized as “product CEOs” and treated accordingly.  Are the actions behind that ambition having the opposite effect on the profession of product management and its prominence within the organization?

Organizations want strategic value from their product management function but may unknowingly build the discipline in a manner that makes strategic value impossible to deliver.

How will the product management profession respond?  A massive awareness campaign seems like a good start!

Do you agree with the assessment?  How would you address the problem?


Footnote:  When ZIGZAG Marketing re-branded as Proficientz in 2011 to underscore its focus on product portfolio management, this issue was the #1 driving force behind our shift.  Portfolio management isn’t “advanced” product management.  It’s simply product management with a different intent that benefits the organization as much as it does the profession of product management.  Contact us if you want to train your team on portfolio management.