That “All the Responsibility but No Authority” Saying

“The most challenging thing about product management is that you have all the responsibility but none of the authority,” the job candidate said. Quite satisfied with his answer to the Cranky Product Manager’s stock interview question, the candidate flashed her a knowing, gleaming white smile. That was the signal. The Cranky Product Manager was supposed to epileptically shake her head in agreement and, at last, connect with the candidate.

No such luck. Instead, she rolled her eyes… Not the best manners for an interviewer, but seeing as the Cranky Product Manager is not exactly a, well, refined individual, she had no control over her clichéd response to his clichéd answer. The Cranky Product Manager already heard two other candidates spin the same old tired yarn that morning. In fact, she read a version of that I’m-a-powerless-product-manager-woe-is-me tale on at least one other blog that week (Product Beautiful, a great blog that the Cranky Product Manager recommends very highly, despite that one post).

But worse than trite, overused and unoriginal, this sentiment — universally shared by the world’s lamest and whiniest product managers, and even by some of the good ones — is way too self-congratulatory and is just plain wrong.

Yes, as a product manager, you are indeed responsible.  Your job is to corral and coordinate the hoards of developers, testers, marketers, writers, sales folks, support engineers,  professional services staff, and more — the entire cast of characters needed to successfully bring kick-ass products to market.

And, yes, as a product manager, it is true that you rarely have authority. No one (except maybe a few more junior product managers) reports to you. You can’t fire people for not taking your orders.

But here’s the thing… SO WHAT!?  So these people don’t report to you. So they don’t have to respect your au-thor-i-tah.  Big frakin’ DEAL! If they DID report to you, do you honestly think your job would be any easier?  Do you think they’d magically start listening to you and doing what you say?

Last time the Cranky Product Manager checked, high tech product folk, no matter what their job functions, were not minimum wage workers. As intellect workers, high tech-ians don’t do anything  just because their bosses command it. Nope. Those damn independent thinkers need to be persuaded. They need to buy into the plan and then they act. Sure, sure, those folks might occasionally placate the powers-that-be by half-heartedly lying there, closing their eyes, and thinking of England. But that kind of soulless attempt to merely get the boss off, uh, your back… well, it’s usually worse than no attempt at all.

So, in this respect, those other “real” managers — and by “real” I mean managers who officially manage people — have just as tough a job as product managers. Probably tougher. People managers must ALSO corral and coordinate their people, and get them to do things that they wouldn’t normally consider if left to their own devices. Like product managers, they legitimately do so ONLY by persuading and inspiring. NOT by fear nor the unspoken threat of bad performance reviews or firings. NOT by flexing their so-called “authority.”

In fact, as someone experienced in both people and product management, let the Cranky Product Manager assure you that the only effective difference between a manager with “authority” and a manager without is that with authority comes a lot of tedious crap: paperwork galore, mind-numbing sexual harassment seminars, and — most dishearteningly — the occasional hell of laying off a subordinate who does a great job .

So, whiney product managers of the world, STOP bitching about “all the responsibility with none of the authority” right now. Get out of your minimum-wage-oriented headset and recognize that official authority is irrelevant to anyone in high tech companies. Instead consider, even if briefly, that your difficulty in getting others to follow your lead might be because your arguments are not compelling.

Or maybe, just maybe, they don’t listen because they know you think of them as minions who are motivated by fear. In other words, maybe you’re a jerk.


  1. Liz B

    “Lie back and think of England…” LOL and so true!
    All the PMs at my company – myself included – have complained about our lack of authority before, but you are right. It’s just whining.

    Mea culpa, mea culpa…..

  2. praveena

    Cranky Product Manager, I think I am in love with you!

    Seriously, you’re making me reconsider my sexual orientation, you’re so hilariously funny.

    You speak the truth, sister!

  3. jank

    Like product managers, they legitimately do so ONLY by persuading and inspiring. NOT by fear nor the unspoken threat of bad performance reviews or firings. NOT by flexing their so-called “authority.”

    As a Navy officer (8 years active, 4 years reserve), even in cases where there is actual and honest to god “authority”, it is, almost without exception, a mistake and a failure to have to use it.

    The exception being the rare case where something is on fire, water is coming into the people spaces, or someone is shooting actual bullets in your direction.

    And, even during the exceptions, results will generally be better if you have spent the time without immediate threat to life and limb developing people, training, and making sure that, when the time comes, people are properly motivated and knowledgable to do the right thing because they know it’s the right thing, not because they’re being told to.

    “Official Authority” should be irrelevant to anyone interested in being a truly good or effective manager, regardless of blue collar/white collar/minimum wage/highly paid knowledge worker/pet owner. Resorting to “Because I told you so” is nearly always a failure.

    (the exception being when my f’n 6 year old just won’t stop making the 2 year old cry. In that case, “Because I told you so” is the proper course instantly)

  4. Paul

    I guess the point of my article about responsibility vs. authority was not as clear as it could have been.

    My point was that most people think of “authority” as the chain-of-command, I-can-order-you-to-do-something flavor. As a PM, you can’t rely on that kind of authority, so you need to develop great communications skills and use Follow the Leader style to inspire those who don’t report to you to do what you want.

    That said, I stand by my post. I will say that it wasn’t meant as a whine as much as it was a recognition of a reality that PM’s must deal with, which is why I offered some (IMHO) helpful tools to overcome the problem.

    Maybe that puts us in violent agreement?

  5. The Cranky Product Manager

    Jank, you are indeed correct. The Cranky Product Manager wrongly stated that minimum wage workers might be motivated by authoritarian dictates.

    The Cranky Product Manager was so muddle-headed when she wrote that statement that she forgot her own minimum wage past, and the surly service she offered from the fast food counter. She was cranky, even at age 16, and undeterred by the scolding of her “manager” who habitually told team members to “shut the f@#$ up and just do what I say.”

    Thanks for the reminder.

  6. The Cranky Product Manager

    Paul, the Cranky Product Manager does indeed believe she is in violent agreement with you. Product Management is a hard job that requires prodigous communication skills, but not one that is necessarily harder than any other job that demands results.

  7. Saeed

    Positional authority, (which those who directly manage people have), is very different from influential authority (which a product manager has).

    Anyone Product Manager who has had to deal with obstinate development managers knows this very well. Who are the developers going to follow?

    Additionally, in many companies, the role of product management is ill-defined or ill-understood, particularly by those in senior management, and especially so in many Bay Area companies. In one company I worked at, the role of product management was distilled down, by the Director of Product Management, into the following:

    Collect and evangelize requirements.

    This guy came from a very technology centric company where Development called the shots. Guess who had authority in the company I worked at?

    Changing company culture is difficult. In many companies, Product Managers don’t have authority and so, don’t be so cranky on people who feel that way. Show them there is a better way, and let them know your company is different. Then, if they are deficient in some other ways, end the interview and send them packing.

  8. Roger L. Cauvin

    One thing I would add is that buy-in from execs is important. It doesn’t matter how much credibility or “authority” a product manager has over peers if the CEO vetoes the PM’s strategic recommendations.

    So a large part of a PM’s job is to communicate effectively and build credibility with execs.

    A company in which execs and PMs are not strategically aligned is sick. Unfortunately, this situation is common.

  9. bob corrigan

    I have only three words for any of my minions who forget to obey my every whim with breathless enthusiasm: Respect my Authoritah.


    I’m convinced that the best PMs don’t even know how they do “it” – it’s a gift that can’t be taught, only refined. Trees “leaf”, dogs “bark”, PMs “inspire”. And bribe, wheedle, cajole, blackmail, taunt, beg and occasionally bargain.

    Happy Thanksgiving, all!

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