Question: The role of a product manager in the new digital world. A threat to BRMs or something to embrace?
In a world of constant change then it’s not surprising that we’re also seeing conflict and friction created between teams. In this post, I explored the BRM and conflict in general terms and highlighted the need for leaders to be creating environments where teams were able to succeed rather an individuals fight for status and the ear of the CIO. Many of the things expressed in that post apply to the relationship between the BRM and the Product Manager but there are some more specific things which I believe we should consider.
Firstly, let’s consider the role of the product manager.
If you are not in the public sector then the work that the Government Digital Service has done to create role definitions is not likely to be something that you’re familiar with however there is a lot of good (and some not so good) content available. The Product Manager guidance is available here and is as good as any a reference point to look at. A word of caution if you continue to look elsewhere across the role profiles is that the Business Relationship Manager profile sits in the operational family and is focused on service delivery. I have previously championed changing this when I worked in the Civil Service and know others continue to push that forward.
Product Manager roles aren’t specifically new or just something that has emerged in the digital world but how an organisation may now use them is often different. We’re increasingly seeing organisations move away from having hierarchy and functional teams to embracing multi-disciplinary teams whose purpose is to build and run a thing that does something. In some cases this is called a capability, in others, it is a product or a service. Many words can be written about the differences and relationships between those things but at the end of the day they share some common characteristics – primarily you can draw a box around the thing and know that everything within the box does something useful. If the thing doesn’t do anything on its own then it is normally a component and will underpin several products or capabilities.
With that context and understanding, I believe you can start to see why the BRM and the Product Manager can be friends and that the emergence of this role is a good thing and not a threat. If anything then it is an opportunity for the BRM to start to elevate their role to a more strategic peer within the organisation thinking about the longer-term future. If you’re feeling directly threatened as a BRM by the rise of Product Managers in your own situation then I would suggest that you start to evaluate if you’ve been too narrowly focused on a specific business area or on the near-term pain that is being experienced.
As Product Managers start to lay claim to some of the things that perhaps you as the BRM have traditionally been doing then my advice is don’t fight it, but embrace it and go after higher-value work. There is some “white space” that this should create and an opportunity for you to move to a new space.
Here are some suggestions:
- If you’re purpose as a BRM is to ensure the IT/Technology delivery team is in the best possible place (reduce the number of surprises) then you can work across multiple product areas to start to understand what the common building blocks are going to be.
- Product Managers will be silo-focused so you have a new community with which to build underneath and support joining the dots and finding opportunity in that space.
Look at what isn’t being done but is important.
Few organisations have fully embraced the product approach for all their capabilities and so you can explore how you look at the needs of communities of people in the organisation.
How will technology change the work that they do, and indeed the way they work. What will be the supporting capabilities that are needed for them to continue to deliver in the future? The groups of people may be communities of practice, professions or part of a job family but it should be possible to spot them.
- Think bigger and further out. Product Managers are trying to deliver today with an eye on the emerging needs of the users of their products. You have an opportunity to be one step ahead of them and to be useful in the development of roadmaps. Don’t try to compete with space they’re working in but go before them and bring innovative thinking to the table. This is the opportunity you need to really start to surface, stimulate and shape not just demand for the provider domain but for what areas the organisation is going to be successful in the future.
- Work on being able to tell the strategic narrative, how do the products come together to achieve the organisation's vision and mission. By being able to show where the products fit, how they potentially overlap (or worse conflict) and what the gaps are you can also start to demonstrate that you have the broader and deeper understanding of what is needed for the future and where the opportunities lie.
Ultimately, if you see the Product Manager as a threat your response will be defensive. I don’t believe that’s a good thing for anyone, especially not a BRM.
Recognise the value of the role and use it to elevate your own position away from the narrow focus that you may have had to deal with and move into a broader more strategic space. If you embrace the Product Manager then there is a richer world of opportunity and a new playground for you to explore.