Are you a tactical product manager without any strategic role?
Pro-Tip: Transition to a strategic role as soon as possible
Product Managers— Everybody wants them but only a few are sure what to do with them.
A Product Manager can be considered as Jack of All, master of none. In a lot of companies, their scope of work is very loosely defined. As a result, it tends to expand whenever a task comes up for which no one else is directly responsible.
Thus, you have the “always busy” product manager, who is constantly juggling meetings and responsibilities. Their job is to run around, execute the orders of the upper management, push the developers hard and get things done. I call them the tactical product manager.
Being a tactical PM may bring you a lot of work but is it really helping you grow in your role? Are you slowly learning the art of building great products? Are you learning how to think strategically? Do you have an idea of the vision of your product?
If the answer to the above questions is NO, then you are definitely a tactical product manager. You should try to bring in strategic elements to your role as soon as possible.
Before we discuss how to do that, let me take you through my first year as a Product Manager. This will give you a very good idea of what a tactical PM’s life looks like.
The time when I too was a tactical product manager
In April 2019, I graduated with an MBA from a decent college.
As I set foot in the big bad world, there were dreams in my eyes and revolutionary thoughts in my mind. I was going to change the world.
Turns out, I was getting ahead of myself. First, I had to rectify this small matter of putting my career back on track.
I was a product manager with the following major responsibilities:
- Get issues reported by support and account management team fixed on priority.
- Take up the feature requests from the management— CXOs and VPs. My job was to scope these out and get them implemented.
- Run the daily standup. Our team comprised one tech lead and two freshers (with no prior experience). If something was not fixed on time, then I was responsible, not the tech lead.
- Give daily updates to the stakeholders about the team’s progress and provide the week’s plan.
I was the proverbial “busy guy at work”. Lot of fluff but little substance.
As you can see from my responsibilities, I was NOT focusing on many of the core aspects of product management:
- Talking to customers — We never seemed to talk to customers. It was mostly the heads who would identify market opportunities or major product improvements.
- Prioritizing features— The priorities were decided by the heads. You were only responsible for delivering a bug-free version on time.
- Planning —Whatever product roadmaps we made, we never referred back to them again (Because, priorities would change frequently).
The major reasons for these gaps were: 1)Little understanding of the product manager’s role among the higher-ups. 2) Centralization of decision making with others being viewed primarily as executors rather than equal stakeholders. 3) Absence of middle management, which helps bring structure and aids the planning process.
Moral of the story — If you are a PM, its not necessary that you will actually be doing a PM’s work.
How to identify if you are a tactical PM
My story is not unique. A lot of PMs are in the same situation. The problem becomes especially acute when random responsibilities are dumped on product managers.
The first step towards fixing a problem is to identify it. Following are some red flags to indicate if you are in a purely tactical role:
- You have little idea of the vision of your product/organization. You can’t recall being part of discussions around strategic priorities for your product.
- All the tasks you work on are top down. You rarely get a chance to take initiative on your own.
- You are not carefully tracking product metrics. The impact of your changes on product metrics is rather unclear.
- You are so overwhelmed with ad-hoc tasks that you rarely get time to identity new priorities for the product.
Becoming a more strategic Product Manager
The best way to avoid this situation is to understand in advance the culture of the company you wish to join. Talk to Product Managers(current and past) at the same level as you, who have been a part of the company. Understand their role and day-day responsibilities. This will give you a good idea of what to expect when you join. Avoid organizations where the PM’s role is purely tactical.
In case you already are in such a role, you should try to convince your company to add more strategic weightage to your role. Following are some tips on doing that.
- Identify PMs in your company who, in your opinion have a more strategic role. Understand how they reached there, the kind of experience they have and whether their initial responsibilities were similar to yours.
2. Take some initiatives on your own:
- For a feature that you have been given, don’t start scoping it out immediately. Research on it — articulate the pain point it is solving, try to see if there are other ways to solve that pain point, talk to customers to understand how big that pain point is, do a competitor analysis to identify how other products are solving the same pain point.
- Begin studying your product level metrics more deeply. Use an analyst’s help to gather insights and identify scope of improvements.
- Reach out to some customers on your own or with the help of the sales/support team. Understand their biggest pain points.
After you have got something solid to recommend, present your findings to your manager (in a separately scheduled meeting or during the weekly sync up). If you have done your work well, atleast a few recommendations should get approved. Even if they are not, your efforts will definitely be noticed.
3. Instead of just reacting to other’s requests, start becoming more forward looking. Draft a 90 day roadmap for your product and share it with your seniors. Regardless of whether you stick to it or not, you will atleast become aware of the strategic priorities for the team.
4. Talk to your manager and express your desire to take up more strategic responsibilities. Seek their guidance on how you can contribute on that front. Most probably, they will find a way out.
The above should start a virtuous cycle. Once you take the initiative and work hard to deliver results, your boss/super-boss will develop more confidence in your abilities. Gradually, the “strategic nature” of your role should expand.
However, if your efforts consistently fall on deaf ears, changing the company is the only option. You shouldn’t waste your time at a place that is 1) Run without a semblance of a strategy 2) Doesn’t value the skills you can bring on the table.
Getting a job is easy but the challenge is to find the one that fits your dreams and aspirations. Never get comfortable doing a job which is not constantly helping you become a better product manager. If you recognize that the role is not providing you responsibilities in accordance with your expectations, make a sustained effort to change the status quo.
After all, if you don’t take charge of your career, nobody else will.