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Product Managers: Do You Do Product Strategy or Execution?

Here at, we've worked as Product Managers, Product Owners, Product Leaders, UX designers, software engineers, developers in various capacities through our collective careers.

We've been product managers, designers and entrepreneurs or other things.  We here at see all these things are interchangable depending on what problem you're trying to solve.  It's people that solve problems at the end of the day and people can grow into those roles should there be a need.  It's like in the Harry Potter series where they have a "room of requirement" (we're nerding out here and I digress). The room was originally founded by the house-self Dobby to be a place for him to rest after he was drunk, but then it also became Dumbledore Army's bunker or lair to plot their strategies.  It's tucked away and only used when it is required (self-explanatory wouldn't you say).  And in the same way, Harry and his pals were all like that too -- students first, wizards, but when it came to step up to defend the world into darkness from YOU KNOW WHO, they stepped up to be entrepreneurial leaders.

A title is just a title.  We use it to communicate it on our employment records, people operations or human resources departments use it to convey what the position is about (in the case of Product Management it is still not super clear about the titles, luckily we have a guide) and generally we use language as a short cut to what the real responsibilities of the job are all about.  In the case of product management is it (in our opinion), convoluted at best.

We have all experienced this before but the best place to see the confusion up front and person is the FAQ of the internet (no not Reddit): Quora.

Questions People Can't Stop Asking on Quora about Product Management

  • What is the difference between a Project Manager and Product Manager?
  • Is there a formal training to break into Product Management?
  • Do product managers deal with budgets and timelines?
  • How do product managers present strategies?
  • What do you need in a product vision?
  • How do you work with developers?
  • Do you need a technical background to be a product manager?
  • ...the list goes on and on and on.

Our job here and we hope to achieve this is make it simpler for people to build a career in Product Management.  We love it, we embrace it and we want others to file the high we've felt too.  Hopefully we'll be answering these questions and more on our site and get people connected to the products and teams they love to deliver value at scale -- but like great product people, we need to prioritize.  Today's topic is about this very narrow discussion on how companies actually think of the product management discipline and how they go about allocation responsibility to people who work in product and differentiate strategic and the execution side of things.

Product Management-as-a-Career

Product Management as a unique and distinct career path is still evolving.  Like all amazing careers like Human Factors Engineering which evolved into User Experience design or Industrial Engineering evolving to Masters of Business Administration (MBAs) the reality is that the differentiation in the workforce takes decades.

Some companies help it along, the mindset of employers change. But typically and like a lot of things, it's borne out of a mix of practice and research.  Academia typically looks far far ahead in what could be.  And many of these things had a start in those types of university-company joint labs be it Xerox Parc or other environments like that.

Product Management is not exception.

Cut to today, a job in product management is not uniform or ubiquitous, at least not yet.  When you look at Product Manager job postings or job descriptions, what we have encountered is that there is a lot ambiguity to what the job entails.

Of course the job description is only the beginning; as you know the Product Manager interviews and recruitment process is long and more often than not ask people to think through live case studies, do homework or a mini-project on your own time and to present it back to the hiring and/or technology team.

Before we being to talk about how product managers get split up into their work on strategy versus their work on execution there's a few dimensions that can help explore this answers.

Dimension 1: Large or Small Organization

Dimension 2: New or Existing Product

Dimension 3: Size of the Product itself

Each dimension is important to explore and we have found that it affects the nature of the work that you would do be it strategic product management or more execution-heavy.

Why Strategy versus Execution?

It's 2018 and we live in a world where entrepreneurship is synonymous with being a celebrity.  Being a developer is like being an actor in Hollywood -- you get the chance at fame if you hit up the right Director, know the right producer and be part of the blockbuster movie that crosses the $100 million mark worldwide on the first weekend.

When we look more closely Hollywood there are some interesting parallels to the software creation world too, especially as it relates to startups and how talent in each industry source projects.

The reality is while we think ideally the the product manager is the person who always sets the product vision and get to managing the product strategy that isn't always true.  In fact, what we have found is that it's the exception that Product Managers have the full say in the strategic side.

This is in contrast to the idealistic world of Agile and Scrum methodologies.  And that's why Product Management is an art and a science in-practice rather than a bunch of theories applied in a vacuum.

Now, speaking of vacuum the product manager so doesn't work in a vacuum either and just executes all day long.  Otherwise she is a program manager or project manager then.  The executive-focus product manager is one that needs to effectively work with everyone, to facilitate, navigate and nurture the relationships in order to connect the market to the team building it. 

That's not to say that product managers are only execution focused and that's what your stuck with if you work in this world, but we want to set realistic expectations that execution is the focus of a lot of product manager jobs -- as it should be.

With that, let's see how the characteristics of a job environment affect whether or not the PM role on the strategic-execution spectrum.

Dimension 1: Size of the Organization

This is not a tell-all, but a good measure to start with.  Larger organizations come with budgets and typically annual budgeting process.  Larger organizations also likely will have a hierarchy and depending on their product mindset and product-orientation in their culture, you're likely to have Directors of Product Management or Directors that managing product managers.  Some of these folks will managing on the functional and administrative side of your role, but some might be heavily involved in the strategic direction, visioning or "PowerPoint-ing" for short.  

In larger organizations, these might be those that run proof-of-concepts (otherwise known as PoCs) where they see where they can get traction to proof out the funding required to build a Release 1 or a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

These larger organizations of late have set up what they have called "Innovation" areas or Innovations labs or Centers of Excellence for Innovation to think behind the current suite of products or add-ons to the current products already in the market.

What we have encountered is that these organizations would then hire product owners to execute on the strategy or have these individuals work with the details of bringing the MVP and beyond to life.

Contrast this to smaller organizations or startups where you still need to be a jack-of-all-trades.  Essentially it boils down to if your company has many layers of bureaucracy.

Dimension 2: New or Existing Product

If it's a new product or team, it's likely you're put in place to run it though that's not a hard and fast rule.  New products typically require strategic decision making especially at the product discovery phase and especially as it relates to choosing what to do versus not do.  You need to focus what is the on the MVP roadmap to achieve the maximum value -- enough to test the hypothesis of the vision.

There are exceptions to this and it goes back to Dimension 1. Even if it's a brand new product and waiting for launch and you were the first person assigned to this team, it's like that strategy was already approved by someone, funding has been secured by X, Y & Z Directors, CEO (or Board even) and you were brought on to (again) execute.

Existing products likely already have a roadmap, a strategy. You work with them or the existing canvas to create the enhancements.  That's not to say that if the size of the product is large enough that you get to own a piece of it.

Dimension 3: Size of the Product itself

You can guess at how big the product is, but you won't know until you do a little research.  Of course it's Google Maps for example, then you'd probably have an idea. :)

That's actually a good example of how the size of a product is important to determine if what you would eventually do in this PM role has strategic work or more execution-heavy.

We know from Google Blogs, that there are several Product Managers that run Google Maps.  It's so large, there are so many moving pieces (literally in some cases) and one needs to focus in order to prioritize what to do.  Of course in these cases, there are then such things are Scaled Agile and Scrum of Scrums and Group Product Managers and all the like but it's really trying to still create teams that are small enough to focus on their core value delivery amongst a larger team.

If your organization really and truly adopts Agility in whatever form, it's likely that even a large product will have many verticals or segments that require devotion by a dedicated product manager.  And it's also likely to say that even while the product is big and you are in a big organization (think Alphabet/Google) that as a PM you're likely tasked to be responsible for the strategy of that particular product from end-to-end.

But there are large products or even small products that you don't have full control over.  Take for example a product that while on the outset looks small, is really a front-end reliant on old large legacy systems.  Even though you team might be small and you might be on paper be the Product Owner, so many of the decisions and schedule is reliant on the underlying systems that your application needs to live and breathe.

So the size in this case, more often than not refers to the complexity -- how complex is your product, how reliant is your product on other products/teams.  The key is that when we talk about this dimension the size of the product includes the very large tentacles that your product touches from end-to-end.

Can you think of other dimensions?  What has been your own experience?  Do you do product strategy and how much of the time do you devote to that?  How much of the product vision and direction is really under your control? Do you have decision authority?  Leave a comment below and we'd love to include your feedback in the article.