Why it doesn’t matter where Product Management lives in the organization

The Cranky Product Manager has read, and listened, and pondered, and debated, and bit her tongue over the years, as others have debated the proper place in the organization for the Product Management function.  Should it be in Engineering? Or in Marketing? Or in its own Products organization that reports directly to the CEO?

Not surprisingly, the answer depends on who you ask.

If you ask the CodeBoyz and CodeGrrlz, they generally think PM should be in Engineering. Because then the PMs could be forced to hang out in the Agile Tomb all day with the engineers. And because some CodeBoyz and CodeGrrlz think the PM should even pitch in and write some code now and then (a generally bad idea – see footnote 1).

If you ask the Marketing Weenies, well, naturally they want Product Management to be part of Marketing. Because then the Product Managers would somehow be more focused on customers and THE MARKET. Because, supposedly, you can’t focus on THE MARKET unless the letters M, A, R, K, E, and T are in your group’s name, in that order.

And if you ask many of illustrious luminaries and pundits that consult and train on the fine art of Product Management… well, they will all tell you that Product Management is such a strategic function that it should report directly to the CEO. Screw Engineering and Marketing!  We need a pipeline to the Big Cheese! And this is all fine and good, especially if you are the VP or Director of PM and want the ego boost of saying you report directly to the CEO. You could then give both the VP of Engineering and the VP of Marketing the finger if you so desire!

Anyway, for a long time the Cranky Product Manager has read these various arguments churning about in the blogo-sphere-iverse, and something about them — no matter what their theory or conclusion — pissed her off.  Just a little. And she couldn’t quite figure out why.

Until now. It’s the assumptions underlying this debate that irritate her.

The assumption is that if we sit in Engineering we’ll be too spineless and too tunnel-visioned to focus on the customer, market problems, issues for the field, the competition, or market positioning.  But if we sit in Marketing that we’ll be so focused on empty soundbites and website color schemes that we won’t be able to give Development detailed enough requirements, that we’ll conjure up product features that can’t possibly be built (a la Warp Drive), and that we’ll stare vacantly into space instead of considering technical extension points (i.e. APIs) for our products.

What a bunch of crap.

On the one hand, all these proselytizing and theorizing folk say that Product Managers need to be these gifted cross-functional leaders and act as CEOs of their products, but then on the other hand they don’t trust these Product Managers to do so, based on nothing more than where the Product Management function sits within the organization.

For the Cranky Product Manager, and for every decent product manager she has ever asked, EVERY SINGLE decision made as a product manager comes down to the following two questions:

1. Is this the right thing for my product?

2. Is this the best thing, out of all the possible “right” things, for my product?

GOOD product managers are obsessed with doing the RIGHT thing for their products – their bosses opinions be damned, and their bosses’ bosses opinions too.  They will fight tooth and nail to make the right things happen, to prioritize the activities that will move the needle the most (i.e. make the most money).  Whatever needs to be done to make the product a success.

This holistic, obsessive, determined, and pig-headed attitude is WHY good product managers are respected throughout their organizations.  It’s why people from different functions listen to them. It’s why they have credibility. It’s why they get stuff done. And, it’s why they are often “challenging” to manage, especially if your agenda includes items other than product success.

If good PMs were able to be easily pushed around by their VP’s latest political maneuverings, well they were probably not good PMs anyway. If this seems to be your challenge, well maybe you need to reconsider how you are evaluating your PMs – are you sure it’s based on their RESULTS and not their docility?

Anyway, possession of this do-it-right-and-do-it-best attitude has very little to do with WHERE the product manager sits in the organization.  It has everything to do with the personality, passion, and focus on results that each product manager brings to the job.

So instead of pondering this infernal, and pointless, organizational design question, perhaps we should focus on hiring the RIGHT types of people of Product Management jobs.

Read what others have said about this topic:

Footnotes:

1. Having product managers code is a dumb, dumb idea – trust the Cranky Product Manager. She’s a
fantabulous product manager but at this point has forgotten more about writing code than she ever learned. Like playing a musical instrument, coding is something you need to do on a regular basis to be anything but a crappy programmer.  Plus, it take the efforts of two mediocre programmers to undo the damage done by one crappy programmer. If a good PM has time to code often enough to not be completely crappy, he/she should probably instead spend that time looking for new market problems or doing competitive analysis.

27 comments

  1. John

    Well put and couldn’t agree with you more. Perhaps one other (selfish) factor to consider is mentorship. Where as a PM am I going to best draw experiential arrows for my own quiver? From a marketing boss, an engineering boss, or a CEO? I suppose that depends on what you want to be when you grow up. Personally, I want to be a vintner so it just doesn’t matter.

  2. Howard Pressman

    I absolutely agree that it shouldn’t matter. Except that it does for the sole reason of the PM’s happiness. Unless you are the VP of Product Management, if you are a PM and report to a VP of engineering or marketing, then as much as you want to do what you know needs to be done, your boss will never really be happy anyway, since they won’t really care about what you do for the other organizations in the company. So if your boss isn’t happy, then when the going gets tough, you’ll be the first one to get going. I mean, why fire a coder when there’s that PM that I don’t understand……

    I’ve been in all 3 types of places, and I definitely like it better reporting to the COO. Because it is really, I mean really, fun to give engineering and marketing (and sometimes yes, even sales) the finger when you have to do what is right for the product and the company.

  3. Ron Kaplan

    I think it depends on your VP/CEO and his/her role in management. Sometimes, the VP of Engineering is the main strategic thinker of a company. Other times, it is the CEO or someone else. I worked as a PM under Marketing, Engineering and the CEO. Makes no difference until you work for a schmuck who does not LEAD, which is followed by poor representation to upper management. This bad representation to management results in uninformed decisions, and makes this PM want to vomit.

  4. William Pietri

    Hi! I agree in theory, and disagree in practice. Not for you personally, but for the junior product managers that I want to become just as fierce.

    Even though I’m a propellerhead by birth and training, I think product management should have its own chain of command, equal in power to that of engineering. When people can’t solve a decision by fiat, they’re forced to work together to find solutions they both like. I think that makes for better products.

    Sure, a strong product manager will fight tooth and nail. You can put that person down in any vaguely sane organization. But developing product managers need time to learn when to fight and when to listen. I think reporting to a person who is clearly focused on product can help with that. Without that, I think it’s easier for them to learn to be excessively suppine (and therefore useless) or excessively difficult (because they learned to fight before they learned how to tell when they had a good idea).

  5. William Pietri

    Also, allow me to step into the cranky mode for a sec. Regarding your feelings on being forced to hang out with oh-so-smelly engineers in the team room/tomb: blah, blah, blah; wah, wah, wah.

    Are you really serious about making a great product? Do you want a team of people to carry the torch for your vision and generally kick ass in the ways you want? Then show the fuck up. We engineers aren’t great with divining the wishes of the people right in front of us, so expecting us to do that with people who aren’t even there is an opium-pipe dream.

    Yes, product managers also need to spend time with other people. Lots of other people. The ones I know can still do that and spend plenty of time with the team. And when they can’t, they hire more product managers. If you’ve got less than one product manager per four engineers, then either your engineers aren’t producing much, or, just as likely, they’re forced to pick up your slack.

    The job of product management is to say what to build. If you aren’t there to do the saying, then you have nobody but yourself to blame when the building doesn’t turn out the way you want. And no, a document doesn’t count. If it did, then you wouldn’t have to go jetting off all over the place; you could just get people to send you memos.

    As an aside, if you don’t like the office space that the engineers have, put your mouth-fu to work and get them some decent digs. It’ll benefit everybody.

    (P.S. The cranky thing is fun! I see why you like it.)

  6. Michael Palmeter

    To a great extent I think that the reporting structure for PM actually dictates what a PM is. I have been a PM for eleven years, most of that time reporting to Engineering management. Once, however, I had the luxury of reporting to an SVP of product management and two years ago I was in the position of reporting to the SVP of marketing. In every case I found that my assertion that I had an “end-to-end” responsibility for the revenue and profit on our product investment was greeted with both enthusiasm and a long list of “exceptions”, generally reflecting the desire of management to keep me out of the business of other peer organizations. for example, I have been asked to avoid “doing marketing’s job” for them or “becoming pre-sales” or “becoming an architect”. I’m not actually of the opinion that any of these requests were unreasonable or unfounded, given the circumstances at the time. I do, however, believe that PM is not by any stretch of the imagination a profession or a discipline. There is no particular credential that I have found to be required or even particularly helpful – it is what you make it and experience is everything. Perhaps the debate about “where PM sits in the organization” is merely an indirect way of acknowledging that true ownership of product strategy (the essence of the big-picture PM role) lands in different places in different companies. Usually, there is as much personality, history and politicking involved as there is organizational theory.

  7. Stewart Rogers

    Unfortunately, a lot of Product Manager’s out there are still getting product direction from their higher-ups. I agree it shouldn’t matter, but I think it does to an extent. However, the right spot for one company (maybe marketing) is not the right spot for the other company (maybe engineering). To each their own.

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  9. Larry McKeogh

    As others pointed out there is a difference between theory and practice. I would agree with Ron Kaplan that it shouldn’t matter except when there is a leadership void. I have fought tooth and nail to make the right customer based choice. In the end my recommendation, despite tons of data to support it, was overturned for something less. Why? Because it is the path of least resistance and someone higher was looking out for their a**. At that point it became clear to look for somewhere else to practice product management since it was not taken seriously. It obviously didn’t belong in that division.

  10. Saeed Khan

    Cranky,

    Have to violently disagree with you here.

    While individual product managers may focus on what’s right for the product, the reporting and organizational structure will help or hinder them in how successful they can be in getting done what needs to be done.

    Every function in a company, not just Product Management has people who want to do what is right. But organizational structures and power politics will very quickly come into play in enabling or hindering doing what is right.

    Having PMs report into Development, for example, will constrain what they do in the same way that having QA report into Development.

    Having PMs report into Marketing may be better than reporting into Development, but again, the focus and objectives will be influence by that reporting structure.

    I’ve written about this topic here.

    http://onproductmanagement.wordpress.com/2007/12/18/product-manager-vs-product-management-part-3/

    In short, Product Management can work while reporting into various orgs, but it will work best when they are viewed, measured and valued as a distinct but equal function alongside Sales, Marketing, Development, HR etc.

    Saeed

  11. Roger L. Cauvin

    Have to agree with Saeed here. The issue is not whether the department affects the product manager’s determination or intended approach. The real issues are:

    1. Whether the product manager’s decisions are respected by the rest of the company. For example, if the product manager reports to the CEO, marcom is more likely to respect her positioning decisions than if she reports to the VP of Development.
    2. Whether the organizational structure enables the product manager to do her job. For example, Development’s budget may not allow for travel for on-site prospect visits.

    Where I agree more with the spirit of CPM is that the formal reporting and departmental structure is not itself what’s relevant. It’s the drive of the product manager and the nature of the interaction and personalities around her.

    Roger

  12. Paco

    I have to violently AGREE with the Cranky PM.

    I share similar experiences to those who are disagreeing with this post, and I had my best experiences when I’ve been in a PM org that reported directly to executive management. However, I’m not satisfied with the conclusion that “it’s ultimately up to my management” – regardless of what org I’m in.

    Yes, if you report to someone who doesn’t support you or invest you with official authority, you’re going to have all kinds of problems when you’re disagreeing with others on product direction. As others have noted, that’s gonna be true whether you’re reporting up through marketing, engineering or directly to the CEO.

    But for me, I take it as a personal failure if I can’t get management to back me up. Even if your boss is literally smoking crack, a PM’s gotta do what a PM’s gotta do. E.g. step one is to hold an intervention and put your boss through rehab, followed by step two which is to get them to sign-off on your latest product roadmap PPT. The most effective leaders use their personal authority to get things done – whatever it takes as long as its ethical.*

    And that personal authority comes from peoples’ respect for your knowledge, abilities and the contributions you make to the team. It doesn’t come from having all the data to prove that you’re the one with the “right” answers. Early in my PM career, I made the mistake of believing in that sort of self-righteous “correctness”, and if management couldn’t see how obviously correct I was, then to hell with them. My “smarts” got me a lot of respect from sales, support, engineers and even management when we were talking about tactical stuff. But I was hitting a brick wall when management discussed strategic stuff.

    Well, as we all should know, facts and logic aren’t the only way to influence people. Don’t get me wrong, facts and logic are great, and please use them liberally :) But I’ve had occasions where I’ve influenced key people by beating them at foosball or by singing Elvis tunes at karaoke bars. If you think you’ve got the facts, the direction is obvious, yet management doesn’t see it – then there’s something else influencing them that you’re not addressing. Sometimes it’s a trust issue, sometimes it’s political ass-covering or power-mongering, and sometimes it really is random stuff like someone’s an alcoholic and you have know when they’re sober and when they’re not.

    Face it, even when you’re good at what you do as a PM, you always want/need to share the credit for your product’s success and you always take a lot of the blame for the failures whether you want to or not. Having a schmuck for a boss is just another fun part of the inherently “unfair” job we so masochistically adore.

    *fyi – ‘sake bombs’ at a karaoke bar are considered ethical. using your camera phone to record embarassing videos of your VP is not unless you just use them for personal amusement. just an example…

  13. Geoffrey Anderson

    Wow. Some great nuggets of wisdom. I am in the camp that agrees with the CPM here. There are pitfalls in any structure where the PMs report.

    In my world, I report directly to the VP/GM of the business unit. In a sense, it is like reporting to the CEO (at least for our structure). This would be fine if the relationship between myself and the VP/GM were in lock step. However, he is the former VP of engineering, whom I think spent a night in a Holiday Inn Express, and now thinks he knows marketing. He has the (mistaken) notion that PM == Marketing, and feels that we in PM can really do three jobs effectively. First is the traditional PM role. Second is the PMM (product market management) role, and lastly, the Marketing Communication role. This would likely be OK if I had a single product, or even a single product line, but I manage two diverse (but related) product line, with 8 distinct products int he families.

    If I were king for a day, I would carve some headcount out of our enormous engineering team (nearly 38% of our total staffing) to create a properly structured PM organization, and the marketing support organization, to handle our complex business.

    However, since our VP/GM places the priority of adding PM talent one notch below hiring a full time receptionist, I have no illusions of it ever getting better.

    I wholeheartedly agree to the comments above that a kick-ass PM can function anywhere, and that lesser PM’s will whither and die, particularly in the ballet that an effective PM has to dance to lead consensus among the key stakeholders. I used to be happy to try to mentor people who are new to PM, but after so many failures, I have concluded that good PM’s aren’t grown out of dissatisfied engineers, field applications engineers, or technical marketing people, but are born to the life.

    Perhaps I am jaded, and indeed my current gig sucks eggs, but working for a leader who couldn’t lead a pack of hyenas to a dead wildebeest carcass is tiring and unrewarding. But I can’t imaging not doing this for a living. When you do well, it is the best feeling in the world.

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  15. Mervyn Alamgir

    Great post. CPM was reading my mind because I had a conversation about this same topic with a colleague this morning. The ultimate success of a product manager is based on their passion, ability to lead and knowledge of the customer/product/business, not where they sit in an organization.

    Product management is the glue of the organization, the only group that interacts with sales, marketing, engineering, QA, support, ops, finance, the CEO, CTO and every other corner of the office. But it doesn’t matter how much responsibility sits within product management, there is never any authority that goes with it, too bad, deal with it.

    For PMs-in-training: get a thick skin, develop a passionate voice and have data to back up your beliefs. This will earn you respect within the organization.

  16. Igor

    Nice post. Speaking from experience, having the PM team report to the VP R&D is a very bad idea. Bad as in ineffective process, unhappy PMs and terrible products. The key problem is the lack of leverage when working with developers, as they quickly learn they can escalate any disagreement to the big boss who will invariably side with their seemingly more-techie-less-risky point of view. This may deteriorate to a state where R&D calls the shots on everything regardless of any spec or request. The VP R&D will never realize he/she are single-handedly demolishing the product and the product team. Actually they’d rather enjoy the ego boost that comes from having full control over everything to do with the product. On the other hand they’ll never allow any or this to filter outside his/her organization, so to the rest of the company, including the CEO, will not be aware that you are powerless as a PM and will rather assume you’re just inapt at your job. I’m pretty sure multiple potentially good companies had shut down because of this phenomenon.

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  21. Jenn

    Wonderful discussion. A few years ago I would have agreed completely with CPM. But now I have been put under the EVP of development who is first and foremost concerned with reducing the departmental costs, and the PMs job is to pick the capabilities to slash regardless of market potential, client need or sometimes even contractual obligation, in order to improve overall corporate profitability. When every day is a fight to defend your product, who you report to, and what that department’s mandate is, matters a lot. I’d be happy to in marketing right now, but it was best when we had an independent seat at the table, with a voice on par with other departments when decisions are made.