Product Leadership

Should a Head of Product Make Strategic Product Decisions?

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The Head of Product Role in a Nutshell

A head of product manages a group of product people—individuals who look after one or more products and who may be called product managers or product owners. Depending on the company size and org structure, the role might also be referred to as Director of Product Management, VP Product, and Chief Product Officer. Working as a head of product includes the following three duties, as I discuss in more detail in the article What Should a Head of Product Do?

First, develop the individual product people. For example, ensure that the individual’s role and responsibilities are clear; help the person grow as a product professional, be it by coaching and mentoring them or by encouraging them to attend training courses; offer clear and helpful feedback and hold them accountable for meeting agreed goals.

Second, develop the product management team. For instance, help the members collaborate, establish shared standards including product management processes, methods, tools, and templates; communicate strategic business objectives; and hire new product people.

Third, develop the organisation. For example, ensure that the individual product people are sufficiently empowered to succeed in their roles and establish a product-led way of working.


What Happens When the Head of Product Determines the Product Strategy?

As you might have noticed, the list above does not mention determining the product strategy. Here is why: When a head of product determines the product strategy on a regular basis, then this is likely to cause the following two issues.

First, the product people don’t have full ownership of their products. Instead, they are focused on the tactics/delivery. In the worst case, they are product backlog managers and user story scribes. This can lead not only to low motivation and high turnover. It can also give rise to what I call a strategy-delivery chasm: Strategic decisions are not effectively translated into tactical ones, and insights from the delivery work are not used to evolve the strategy.

Second, the head of product turns into a bottleneck and/or becomes overworked. As the products grow and as new people are added to the product management group, the workload of the individual rises. But there is only so much work someone can cope with, and being overworked for an extended period of time leads to low productivity, mistakes, and health issues.

There is, however, a situation when it makes sense for the head of product to determine the product strategy: when the individual is a contributor who manages a product in addition to leading the product management team. This can be an effective short-term fix, for example, to compensate for the lack of experienced product people on the team. But as a permanent solution, this approach is not advisable: It is likely to cause the second of the two issues mentioned earlier.


How the Head of Product Can Help Achieve Product Success

If a head of product should avoid making strategic product decisions, how can the individual then ensure that a product creates as much value as possible? Here is my answer: By enabling and empowering the product people to own the strategies of their products. The following four measures will help with this:

First, develop the individual product people through training, mentoring, or coaching. This includes securing the necessary training budget and selecting the right training courses, as well as creating a training-on-the-job program, attending product strategy workshops as a stakeholder, and acting as a sparring partner for strategy-related questions. Note that this assumes that the head of product has the expertise required to offer the right advice—which I regard as a prerequisite for taking on the role.

Second, help create shared standards to facilitate collaboration amongst the product team members. Agree on how a product strategy is described and in which tool is it captured; how it is validated; how often it is reviewed; and to which extent stakeholders and development team members are involved in the process. You might decide, for example, to follow my approach, use the product vision board to describe the product strategy, iteratively validate an initial strategy, review the plan at least every three months, and carry out the work collaboratively by involving the key stakeholders and dev team representatives.

Additionally, decide how products are managed that require more than a single product person. For instance, you might choose to have one overall product manager/owner and additional product people who look after product parts like end-user facing product capabilities/features.

Third, make sure that the product portfolio is proactively managed, that the individual product strategies and product roadmaps are harmonised, that major releases are coordinated, and that dependencies and conflicts between the products are addressed. For smaller portfolios, the head of product can typically carry out the portfolio management work. For larger ones, a dedicated product portfolio manager should do the work, join the product management team, and report to the head of product. This avoids the risk that the head of product becomes a bottleneck or overworked.

Finally, ensure that the product people are aware of and understand the business strategy together with the overarching business objectives that constrain the strategic product decisions. To do this, participate in creating, reviewing, and updating the business strategy as part of the leadership/executive team and communicate the plan to the product management team.


Summary

As the head of product, avoid determining the strategy for an individual product on a permanent basis. Instead, empower the product people you lead to make the strategic product decisions. Offer advice and feedback. But let the individuals own the product strategy and hold them accountable for maximising the value of their products. Additionally, ensure that the product portfolio is managed, and that the business strategy is clear to everyone on the product management team. This way you’ll support the individuals and help them do a great job.

Roman Pichler

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