The title “product manager” is the most commonly held marketing position. Product managers are essential to a company’s efforts, yet the position is fraught with frustration. Often, product managers are disappointed to discover that tactical coordination requires so many of their working hours. Why does the strategy-oriented job they thought they had accepted so often become lost among the rest of the position’s demands?

Most literature in the field has focused on factors affecting a new product’s success or failure, including the quality of market research or a product’s superiority. Mohanbir S. Sawhney, a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Rajesh K. Tyagi, an assistant professor at HEC Montreal, believe that too little research has looked at the role of the product manager and the relevant processes and organizational structures. They set out to explore the circumstances that affect, define, and ultimately determine a product manager’s effectiveness. In essence, what makes a successful product manger? The answer is simpler than you may think.

Product Managers at Work
Imagine the product manager as an orchestra conductor, and the product as the symphony being played, Sawhney suggests. “The conductor doesn’t play an instrument or sing, but needs to coordinate all the players,” he notes. 

However, he continues, the conductor is following a score. “The product manager doesn’t have a script to follow, but all the functions need to come together to make the product succeed. This means that market research has to provide the right customer insights, engineering has to build the right product, the supply chain must get the product to the customer, and the salespeople must be effective in selling.”

Product managers supervise the everyday marketing of a company’s products, both current and those in the pipeline. Despite the job’s pivotal nature, its roles and responsibilities can be very unclear—job descriptions are often poorly defined, and many product managers lack the authority to carry out their responsibilities effectively.

The position’s significance varies among industries, and is far more common in technology than in consumer goods. “Proctor and Gamble has brand managers, not product managers. Consumer products are not all that complex, so it’s all about the brand,” Sawhney explains. Technology companies such as Apple and Microsoft have more complicated, expensive products and therefore a stronger need for product management. 

Identifying Impediments
Sawhney and Tyagi developed a detailed, four-part questionnaire after lengthy interviews with more than twenty experienced product managers. Of the 198 survey respondents, more than 40 percent worked in business-to-business technology and nearly 23 percent in industrial products. The product managers averaged 7.4 years in the position and 42.3 percent of them held advanced degrees.

One of Sawhney and Tyagi’s hypotheses was that organizational barriers, short-term tactical focuses, and a lack of formal training impede communication and weaken a product manager’s performance. Another theorized that organizational silos and barriers affect roles, responsibilities, knowledge, and competencies, all of which can determine product management performance. They also anticipated that customer knowledge and strategic thinking were key competencies for the role.

In most cases, product managers have little influence on corporate branding, channel selection, or advertising. Rather, they have greater input in defining product specifications, launching the product, and positioning the product. Sawhney and Tyagi found that the marketing department is often brought into the product management process once the developed product is ready to enter the marketplace.

In Sawhney and Tyagi’s survey, product managers reported they felt that the sales function, followed by engineering, wields the most power in an organization. They considered corporate marketing the least powerful function, with comparatively little direct authority over budget and ownership.

More authority would increase a product manager’s effectiveness, Sawhney says. Usually, “the product manager must master the art of influence without authority—and that’s not easy,” Sawhney observes. The study identified the position’s two most important skills as product knowledge and customer knowledge.

Another critical factor—a product manager’s interfaces—is often managed poorly. “It’s hard for the product manager to get to either the people or the needed information, because so many interfaces are required, with sales, R&D, operations, advertising, finance, the supply chain, and executive management,” says Sawhney. “A good product manager should spend 20 to 25 percent of his or her time with the customer. We found they spend as little as 14 percent with customers, and as much as 38 percent on administration and follow-up.” Survey respondents would like to spend more than one-third of their time on planning and strategy, but can devote only about 25 percent to those activities.

Sawhney and Tyagi identified firms’ organizational structure as the biggest determinant separating those that perform high in product management from lower performers. “There’s no shortcut if you really want to fix the product management function. Where that does happen, leadership has to set the tone,” Sawhney reports. “The corporate culture has to empower the product manager. Jeff Raikes, who ran the Microsoft Office business for many years, was a product manager. So the product manager role is well-respected in Office business development [there].”

Empowering the Position
One study participant at Oracle said salespeople rarely take product managers on sales calls, fearing they will get in the way. When an Oracle product manager researched how their new product could compete against IBM’s, a salesperson who heard about the information invited him on what turned into a successful sales call. Word quickly spread that the product manager was the one to contact when competing with IBM. Soon he was getting frequent invitations to go on sales calls. “It’s all about what you know,” explains Sawhney. “If you have the credibility that comes with the knowledge, you’ll get a seat at the table—but you have to contribute something of value.”

“A product manager needs to gain power through expertise,” Sawhney asserts. “If you can make sales or engineering feel that you are the ‘go-to’ person for your product, you can become more influential.”

Product managers should not “be thrown into deep water” to learn on the job, Sawhney says. Instead, he recommends formal training as they enter the organization and as they begin climbing the corporate ladder there. Strengthening the position’s power can significantly contribute to improving product management outcomes.

The quality of the marketing process impacts a product manager’s performance. Sawhney and Tyagi suggest that managers of consumer products be directly involved in creating the marketing requirements. With industrial or technology products, marketing and engineering should jointly define the requirements. “High-performance firms … have a clearly-defined process for product launch, escalations, and need identification,” they conclude.

Making the product manager responsible for more of the total product functions can mitigate interface difficulties. Sawhney recommends “creating mechanisms for better communication across functions, or restructuring the organization” to remedy interface problems.

A realistic starting point for the employer is to define and sharpen the product manager’s job description. Sawhney has been consulting with Microsoft for some time on improving the product management function. “Microsoft is in the middle of a new program, Role Clarity, which goes across marketing functions, including product management. The impetus is coming from the top, acknowledging the importance of [defining] roles and responsibilities in product management.”

The study’s most important finding, says Sawhney, is that product managers encounter too many barriers, organizational silos, and vagueness about what they can or should be doing. “Once you reduce the ambiguity around things like their deliverables or specific authority, performance improves. The clearer the roles and responsibilities, the more successful the product manager.”