The Product Manager’s Role in a Multidisciplinary Team

One of the most fascinating things about the role of the product manager is how resistant it is to definition. When talking to my family about my responsibilities, I often feel like Milton from the movie Office Space, answering to the two Bobs (in this case, my father and mother).

“Remind us again, what is it that you do?”

If defining the responsibilities of PMs is difficult, defining the value we deliver can be even more so. We know our value can be measured in specified step functions, yet even then the value can become a bit amorphous and shift over time. Earlier in my career, I had a decidedly functional outlook on my role as PM: I gathered and wrote product requirements, managed the creation of design artifacts, provided a product brief to the engineers, and ensured that deployments and releases were within quality, scope, and budget. In recent years, however, my PM experiences have broadened, particularly when working within our venture teams at Boston Consulting Group Digital Ventures (DV). As a result, my view on the role of the PM and the value we deliver has greatly evolved.

Reflecting on the role of today’s PM, I realized that the greatest value that a PM can bring to any team is coherence and alignment around the team’s vision. By this, I am not suggesting that the PM creates the vision, not by any means. The creation of a team’s vision must be driven by cross-functional thinking and the participation of as many perspectives as necessary. The PM is just one piece of that puzzle, which includes designers, marketers, engineers, and other tribesmen. Only after the team establishes the vision does the PM, in the role of the team leader, blaze a pathway for the team to execute on their agreed-upon vision. And this means more than just prioritizing and making sure that developers address user stories promptly and effectively.

Aligning a team around its vision involves breaking the vision down into more immediate and digestible objectives, establishing criteria for success, measuring that success, and driving a coherent, cross-functional work plan on which to execute. All this can be really challenging.

It requires a need to assess how closely to involve yourself in others’ workstreams, decide which project planning tools to use, and careful sensing of when the team gets the bigger picture. Doing all this requires balancing a mélange of structure, experience, and intuition. I have gone through this process many times and have grappled with it more often than not.

The most salient example for me came in 2015, during my first venture at Digital Ventures. We were building a mobile and tablet experience for children and their parents in mainland China. The team, marked by its multidisciplinary workstreams, struggled to agree on the simplest of product features, and a cascade of issues followed on that. (The indelible correlation between a team’s alignment issues and those amassed by its product is an amazing phenomenon.) Happily, however, we pulled it off. We launched our product on time and transitioned it over to an upstart startup team “acqui-hired” locally by our corporate partner. But the overall experience could have gone better.

Reflecting on what did not go so well, it is clear to me now that the source of our cacophony was a fundamental lack of process and structure, which I, as PM, should have done a better job of providing. We never aligned on a unified vision, we failed to have truly collaborative and cross-functional work-planning sessions, and many of us did not share the same benchmarks of success.

Flash forward to the venture I helped launch at DV in 2018: a mobile wallet with a unique retail experience for the Southeast Asian market. This venture went so much better. The reason is that we had a proper process in place. Each member of the team defined his or her role up front (a group exercise I strongly recommend). We aligned on our “North Star” vision; we did not merely set it and forget it. That vision statement became the centerpiece of our updates to our board members, and we revisited it continually. We broke down our overarching vision into more proximate objectives. Every week, we held a one-hour work-planning session to make sure we were all committed to the plan for meeting those objectives and to make sure that no team member was losing productivity by having to wait for others to complete their near-term goals. We created a value system, shakily set at the team’s formation but refined over time, and used it as the soil in which to cultivate the team’s growth and expansion.

Later, while reflecting on that process, I formalized it into a framework that I have continued to employ successfully in building subsequent digital ventures. And it continues to evolve over time. The exact framework you put in place, however, is not what really matters.

What matters is your understanding that the PM role covers territory far beyond the technical skills of preparing a product. It is our job and our imperative to make sure that our teams are truly aligned, and in many cases, it is we who must facilitate that alignment. So write down a process you think will work, and with an open mind check in with your team to get their feedback and support. Then put your plan in motion. Give it your best shot, and I know you will be successful — as will be your product.