June 30, 2020

Product Management without authority

Product management without authority is a reality. There are not many positions in an organisation that require leadership and confer responsibility without authority. Product management is probably the one that stands out most.

A product manager has no positional authority. However, the role is responsible for the success of a given product or portfolio of products. How is that possible?

Yes, the role has its ambiguities. The reality is that a product manager must lead through influence. And that can be tough at times. Just look at the diverse range of functions that a product manager must influence:

  • Engineering
  • Design
  • Legal
  • Marketing
  • Procurement
  • Project management
  • Senior management
  • Commercial
  • Sales
  • Pre Sales Support
  • Functional management

A product manager can’t make people do things, so must depend on the output form these functions. Of course, a strong project management team that can wrap itself around specific functional resource offers an effective answer to the lack of direct power and authority.

This project management approach, creates a virtual team. It creates an environment in which the product manager is the customer. For a complex product, without this bubble, the product management role becomes untenable.

This project bubble does not overcome all of the challenges. The product manager must adopt a position of leadership. It is their responsibility to define the vision for the product; one that is compelling enough to harness the enthusiasm and passion of the team.

This leadership position can only be achieved and maintained with the trust of the team.

The best way to go about building trust is developing a sense of empathy. This means building upon your emotional intelligence to lead the team. From there, your product vision and passion creates the meaningful direction for the team.

Trust through empathy

Trust can be built through empathy. For some, this can be achieved fairly quickly, for others it takes more time. And that much depends on your background.

For instance, if you are an Engineer turned product manager, your ability to build trust with the Engineering team will be stronger than with others. The same for a Procurement Manager turned product manager.

When you break that down, you find that the language you use to engage these functions and your overall approach are the trigger points.

The way forward is to understand the job each function has to do and the challenges they face. If you take the time to listen, understand and offer help to overcome those challenges, you can offer some value to that person. See it through and unblock the way. Don’t over promise; promise to help and get make sure you deliver on that promise. This can build trust.

Passionate product vision

As a product manager, the vision you create for your customer can be a driving force behind the success of a project.

Remember, you are the customer to the project team. Of course, a product manager has specific inputs to a project team but the leadership role is something that needs care and attention.

The product vision needs to offer up an inspirational goal. To achieve this, the product manager must look to cultivate a meaningful narrative around the product.

This can relate to the impact it will have on the market and specifically on customers, it can also relate to the positive impact it will have on the company.

Consequently, the positive impact it will have directly upon the members of the team is something to bring to the table.

Are they a part of something that will change the direction of the business?

Are they building something that will bring them new skills and value to the market?

One way to share this product vision in a way that decentralises ownership is to plan a workshop that will bring together key stakeholders.

As the product manager, your role can guide them to create that vision based on the research and analysis you have undertaken. If you can achieve this, then driving commitment to quality and delivery will be much easier.

Product Management without authority is a challenge that product managers face daily. Achieving this brings a wealth of benefits and insight for any product manager. Grow your emotional quotient.