When two PMs are better than one

Emma Townley-Smith
Apr 11 · 3 min read

Early on in my PM career, a resourcing hiccup led to me being “the second PM” on a fully staffed team. The first product manager and cross-functional leads had been collaborating for years before I arrived. For the most part, I was taking notes and writing bug reports, and not contributing much value. I filed this experience away under “Bad ideas: having more than one product manager.” And I avoided teams where multiple product managers might cross paths.

“Only one product manager” is easy to agree with and probably the correct default — one responsible party, one person to consult for questions, more autonomy and direct decision-making, less room for politicking. But since that staffing mistake, as I’ve moved into projects with greater scope and complexity, I’ve seen a few cases where two (or more) PMs really are better than one.

1: When managing a large, diverse set of stakeholder relationships

On complex projects, stakeholder management can be a monster task. You have not only the usual suspects (design, dev, senior management) but also support, sales, marketing, research, operations, and in the B2B case, clients. Once a project reaches a certain size, it’s no longer feasible to have everyone in the same room aligning on expectations. It puts additional pressure on the PM to be the one source of truth for everyone, in everything.

This is a place where having a second PM can add a lot of value. A “market-facing” PM with deep sales and marketing ties understands the storytelling needs of commercial stakeholders, while an internal-facing PM might have intimate product knowledge shared with designers and engineers. Internal/external is just one way to divide the work, but in any division-of-labor case, having a PM who is deeply embedded with a critical set of stakeholder groups can help distribute communication responsibilities, and ensure that stakeholders hear from someone who understands their language and their needs.

2: When a project spans multiple functional areas

In some of my recent work, I’ve been on a delivery team that needed to coordinate hardware, software, and services for a product launch. These areas require different expertise — the risks associated with shipping a new medical device are completely different than those with a new mobile app or staffing schedule. Having a specialized PM for each functional area of the project can help ensure success for each piece, while providing a reliable point of contact for coordination.

3: When a project spans locations and languages

Localization and internationalization also create an opportunity for PMs to collaborate. With both technical hurdles (like enabling the right designs and character lengths to accommodate different languages) and cultural hurdles (the right response messages, error handling, customer support needs), additional PMs can help handle requirements that are specific to new countries or locales.

4: When a project calls for new hard skills

Sometimes a project requires specific hard skills today, and you don’t have the right experience. With a time-sensitive client negotiation, or a critical-path compliance process, having another PM to turn to for support can make the difference between shipping on time and missing a deadline. Working closely with this partner PM — so that they have the right context to help you make decisions — can create a better outcome overall, even if you aren’t the one to personally deliver it.

Because so much of product management is about “ownership,” PMs are characteristically reluctant to share. The healthiest, most collaborative PM teams I’ve worked on:

  • Share prioritized business goals early to help create team alignment
  • Place those business goals above personal goals
  • Talk openly about the division of labor and RACI matrix
  • Acknowledge partners and share credit

The biggest risks that come with assigning multiple PMs are political — PMs place their need for ownership or recognition above the success of the team — and functional — PMs don’t communicate their responsibilities, so cross-functional teams don’t know whom to consult for a final decision. But with careful attention to business goals, and explicit responsibilities, multiple PMs can outperform one and help steer complex teams to success.

Path to Product

A community of early-stage and aspiring product managers sharing stories, insights, and product critiques

Emma Townley-Smith

Written by

Design-driven Product Manager (@Livongo; @CapitalOne; @omadahealth; @stanforddschool). Love learning how people and products work.

Path to Product

A community of early-stage and aspiring product managers sharing stories, insights, and product critiques

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade