Where should product management live in an organization?

posted in: Product Management | 2

I attended Product Camp in Boston over the weekend and the topic of where product management should live in an organization came up once again.  I had a blog post about this on my abandoned old blog, so I dragged it out and looked at it.  I realized I now agree with bits of it and disagree with other bits of it.

On the bits that I agree with, I continue to stand by my basic tenet:

Engineering and product management must be peers.

In my old blog post I went on to advocate that Product Management reports directly to senior staff as peers of Engineering and Marketing. I still think that’s the best possible structure.

However, the reality is that very few startup companies and small businesses are equipped to support this structure.  The CEO is typically terribly overloaded and is often not equipped to give the head of Product Management the support that he or she needs on a regular basis.

At the time I thought the next best thing would be to have Engineering and Product Management report into a Product organization which then reported to the CEO. With one more company and a couple more years of perspective behind me, I no longer believe this is practical for a small company. When the company has 20 or fewer people, 3 product execs is 1 exec too many. A much more practical solution is to have product management report into either Marketing (prefered) or Engineering (as a last resort).

It all depends on the people we have in a company and the skillsets they bring to the table. If Engineering has access to resources who are great at understanding customer / buyer needs and wants and can generate their own functional specification as a service to product management, then I think a more strategic product manager with substantial product marketing skills would make sense, and that person would work well in the Marketing organization. Conversely, if product strategy and roadmapping is well covered by other executives, and the need is for detailed product design and specification, then a technical product manager reporting to Engineering could work just fine.

I still believe Product Management should have a seat at the senior staff table together with Engineering and Marketing. But I think other less optimal structures can be made to work. The trick is to clearly define the role within the organization and make sure the product manager can succeed in their role.

2 Responses

  1. Rich Mironov
    | Reply

    A hard topic, thanks for bringing it up.
    I agree that a startup’s small team and overloaded CEO mean that PM can’t normally report directly to the top. In my last few startups, we either [1] had PM report up through engineering, which made sense for very technical products, or [2] combined Marketing and Product Mgmt into a few (initially one!) person and expanded that as revenue growth and staffing allowed.

    Neither is ideal, and both depend on having a c-level exec who understands product mgmt enough to manage it benignly (i.e. not actively screw it up).
    See a really old post of mine http://www.mironov.com/articles/where_should_pm_report/ on this, and a recent talk http://www.slideshare.net/RichMironov/sd-forum-where-strategy-3710248 .

    • Elaine Chen
      | Reply

      Hi Rich,
      Thanks for the comment! The issue with [1] is conflict of interest. I had PM report to me when I was head of engineering for a moderately technical product, and I was perpetually second guessing myself regarding my decision making process (despite having spent the previous 6 years working as a product manager). I think [2] makes life vastly simpler for the head of engineering. No more split personality acts in the middle of a meeting where one first argues one side then argues the other 🙂

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