04017 Product Management As a Counterbalance

The ideal company grows in such a way that it contains a balance of all the various strengths it needs: marketing, sales, technical knowledge, customer service, and management. Each function, such as Marketing, has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. One function’s weaknesses are balanced out by strengths from other functions.

Well, that’s the ideal, anyway. But we have all seen companies that are out of balance, due to a lack of manpower or ability in one of the necessary functions. This leaves them exposed to major failings.

Product Managers are in a unique position to act as a counterbalance when they find themselves in a company in such a situation. This is because the nature of their position calls for them to cross between functional boundaries in order to get the many moving parts to work together as a whole.

Read on below for some ideas on how to help improve a company situation when it is out of balance.


Walking a Thin Line

I certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to be a martyr to a lost cause. If a company has serious failings which nobody on the management team appreciates, your efforts to improve things may never be appreciated either. That would make them pointless.

In trying to provide a counterbalance, you’re walking a thin line where attitude makes all the difference. The goal is to use your Product Manager responsibilities to shore up an area of weakness in order to make your company successful. Your goal is not to be a self-appointed rebel looking for a cause and then finding a cause that nobody wants you to take up.

There needs to be a certain amount of support from the management team and from top management, even if it is grudging support. As a Product Manager, don’t try this on your own.


A Product Manager can serve as an ambassador between teams with very different perspectives. For example, you have a good enough understanding of the value of Marketing, and some of the specifics it produces, to be able to explain the value to the much-more-technical and detail-oriented members of the Development team.

Conversely, you can make a visit to Marketing to explain the validity and business impact of some of the very detailed concerns that Development has regarding a feature.

Being an ambassador is fun. You get to switch between languages such as Techese and Marketese.


Sometimes your role is more like that of a spy. You go over to visit Development in order to find out for the benefit of the folks in Marketing, or in Sales, exactly what progress is being made on a new capability. Because of your technical abilities, you’re the only person from Marketing who doesn’t set off warning sirens and cause everyone to clam up.


An even less enviable version of the Spy role is that of Mole. This is where you work in a department, such as Marketing, but your primary role is conceived as a way to back up Development, making sure that Marketing doesn’t overpromise on features and capabilities.

If you have a choice, try to make your role that of Ambassador, rather than Spy, and Mole falls even lower on the scale. An Ambassador gets credit for crossing bridges and facilitating agreements. A Mole just gets blamed for disloyalty.


Sometimes a Product Manager position serves as a kind of beachhead that brings much needed balance into a function at the company. There’s a big difference between this situation and being a Mole. If you are hired by Engineering to provide a full-time Marketing and Sales perspective to the development effort, with the full support of the head of the department and the management team, then you serve as the beachhead. And like a beachhead, you can expand your influence once you establish a foothold.

A beachhead situation is probably not as secure as being an Ambassador, where you can always call upon your native department for support. It’s more like you’re in foreign territory and will always be somewhat out of place in the department. That’s when it helps to try to expand by adding more people to help you.

If We Build It, They Will Come

Many software and technology companies share the same flaw. They are founded by a technical visionary who has an idea for a great product. And that person just knows that it’s such a good product that people will flock to buy it. Their motto is: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

And they certainly don’t see any need to waste money on market research.

The resulting company is usually badly in need of skillful marketing. As a Product Manager, you can bolster the market effort, helping push for solid product positioning and a roadmap, as well as educating the management team on the value of and realistic return on various marketing efforts.

Because in reality, nobody’s going to be beating a path to anybody’s door, at least not anytime soon.

Say It and It’s True

Another kind of out-of-balance situation is where a company has a strong marketing capability without the development capacity to back it up.

Good marketeers know that they can get the ball rolling on a product that doesn’t exist yet. Build excitement, generate buzz, position and promote. But good marketing pizzazz that is not backed up by facts is merely hype.

In this situation, as Product Manager you can emphasize the nuts and bolts of carefully planned development, with schedules and deadlines. Not to mention resources. Enough resources, and the right ones. You can help the marketeers understand how much development time will be required.

You can also help the team choose between capabilities when they’re all of the highest priority as far as Marketing is concerned.

If They Complain, They’re Just Whiners

Some companies build a good product, and promote and sell it well. It’s a solid product, in fact, it’s a great product. And they don’t see why people are calling to complain. They spend a lot of time justifying why the complainers are wrong.

This is a company that has failed to build a sufficient customer service, or customer support, function.

As Product Manager, you can help explain the dynamics of customer satisfaction, customer dissatisfaction, and customer support, so that the existing resources respond better to customer service needs.

For some good ideas on the psychology and dynamics of customer support, read the previous newsletter topic called “The Sport of Support.”

Why Can’t They Just Figure It Out?

The product is good. So is the marketing and sales. But inevitably, customers have a devil of a time getting it implemented. They have trouble with training, they struggle with a number of installation and new process issues, and they just seem to stay stuck.

This is a company that has neglected its professional services function. Perhaps members of the Development team were sent out to do some quick training and provide a little advice on the side. Maybe they helped install it, and rattled off a few instructions that left the system admin’s head spinning.

A Product Manager can help provide the vision and structure for a more systematic Professional Services effort. As long as the Professional Services function remains small, it’s likely that the Product Manager will need to help provide backup for such things as training guides, implementation templates, and define features to make installation and maintenance a little easier. It may even be the Product Manager that needs to deliver the implementation consulting or the training, or at least some portion of it.

How Hard Can It Be to Build?

Some companies can sell all sorts of software. They’ve got great sales reps that bond with customers and can just make that sale happen. But the capabilities they sell don’t exist anywhere in the product today.

This is a situation where Sales is strong, Marketing probably isn’t very strong, and Development is weak. It’s very important to channel sales activities in a way that fits realistically with the product positioning and its actual capabilities.

As Product Manager, you can provide the positioning and the sales tools that will help guide the sales reps toward selling benefits which match the product’s abilities. You can also reinforce the estimate process for customizations and new development, with realistic dates and costs.

Don’t Tell Us What to Do!

Some companies get started as a dynamic team of highly productive hands-on individuals who roll up their sleeves and get it all done, surprisingly quickly.

After awhile, they realize that they’ve been so successful that the last thing they want to hear is advice from anyone on how to get the work done better. The expectation is that every member of the team should be hands-on.

This is a company with not enough management structure to balance things out. As a Product Manager, you can help gently work with the team to better structure and separate roles and responsibilities, to build up a basic structure that helps people hand work off to each other a little more easily, and helps the company scale up as more people are added.

A Balanced Organization

On a good day, I feel like I have helped with each of the above problems at one time or another. On a bad day, I feel like I’ve mostly worked for companies that had these problems all at the same time.

But on a good day, I also know that the Product Manager role, because of its flexibility and comprehensive set of responsibilities, proves vital to successfully addressing each of these problems in a way that works well with the limitations of an out-of-balance company in order to bring it into better balance.

–Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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