An ode to the naive courage of shell-shocked product managers


Observations on the benefits and drawbacks to tomorrow’s leaders in serving as a product manager.

The Buck Stops Here — sign on the White House Oval Office desk of President Harry Truman


Technology developer and entrepreneur John Saddington holds the trophy he won after being voted Best Presenter at Product Camp Atlanta 2012.

That phrase has been a virtual commandment on executive responsibility since the 34th president made it his motto in 1945. However, many C-suite occupants expertly make accountability a constantly moving target. For corporate product managers, often the best thing is to make sure the “buck” never stops.

Last Saturday, I was one of 350 business people at Product Camp Atlanta an annual day-long event where the agenda is determined and choreographed entirely by the participants. In 2008, the first Product Camp was held in Mountain View, CA. In 2012, volunteer teams are producing symposiums in 30 cities worldwide including New York, Chicago, Boston, London, Berlin, Toronto, Moscow, Melbourne and Bangalore.

Anchors of the corporate engine

Product Camp is designed for corporate product managers. Important in all medium to large companies (consumer product companies call them brand managers), these sharp, proactive young businesspeople oversee design, manufacturing, marketing, sales, budgeting, distribution, etc. They are charged with enormous responsibility.

At the same time, they are all but invisible to C-suite executives, industry analysts, business news media, investors and customers. In football, they are the offensive linemen who anonymously enable their coaches to be labeled geniuses and “skill players” to achieve glory, endorsements and huge salaries. In the army, they are staff sergeants, lieutenants and captains who direct successful missions and protect their units while following plans and orders they are powerless to influence.

When Product Camp began, attendees voted to select session topics, workshops, presentations and discussions. During the next nine hours, the participants engaged intensely. The value of the presentations and discussion was better than most corporate or association sponsored confabs that often cost up to $1,000 to attend. According to John Peltier, this year’s lead organizer and senior product manager at BLiNQ Media:

“When these busy, hard working people give up eight to 10 hours of personal time on a Saturday, the event must be valuable. Unconferencing inspires unusual dedication and passion.”

Voldemort is in the room; why can’t they see him?


At Product Camp Austin (TX) -- one of 30 participant driven events worldwide in 2012 -- business men and women sign up for sessions after voting on concepts proposed by presenters.

In the sessions I attended, the product managers (and other attendees including programmers, sales people, marketers, etc.) addressed problems and potential solutions to diverse management issues. Early on, I perceived a major cause of their struggles to properly coordinate people and projects. The boogeyman was implied and alluded to but never called by name. It was as though Lord Voldemort in mist form blanketed the rooms, but no one could see or define him.

Over and over, presenters and discussion leaders debated the pluses and minuses of formal processes such as Lean, Six Sigma, Agile. They sought answers in analytics, business rules and theories. They sparred over when and where a product manager should engage in sales. We used exercises to uncover causes of interdepartmental distrust, dysfunction and miscommunication.

No one, at any time said:

“All of these tactical issues are relevant, but the only solution to improving these problems is leadership.”

I discussed this assessment during a lunch break with a few intelligent, dedicated, sincere managers. “It appears to me that you have incredibly broad duties that need significant skill, judgement and control,” I suggested. “Yet, you do not grasp the critical roles of leadership and intuitive decision-making in everything you do.”

Bo Brown, Technical Lead Product Development for Wolters Kluwer, replied immediately:

“You’ve summarized the life of a product manager. All of the responsibility, and absolutely no authority.”

Know it all, do it all, MBA preferred

Afterward, I read dozens of product manager job postings. The terms responsible, work with, recommend, develop, serve, maintain, communicate, participate and similar keywords were omnipresent. The words leader and were used only in general descriptions of the ideal candidate. I found no use of the words decide or authority.

Selling products that meet customers’ needs is everything. Product managers know the most about how they are made, shipped, sold, delivered and perform. Yet, product managers appear to be isolated from executive decision makers. I sensed that they have neither the training nor supervisory support needed to solve business problems. They are charged with handling minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day details through the entire production and distribution chain while CxOs make decisions.

The fittest survive in different ways


Former President Harry Truman's desk top motto 'The Buck Stops Here' remains a virtual commandment for executive leadership, but it is easier said than done.

The Darwinian reality of business suggests that today’s best product managers will become corporate decision makers. An unfortunate few will suffer because a “buck” that should have stopped somewhere else was passed to them .

Those who ascend to real leadership will either regard their product management experience as simple dues paying or value it as a blueprint for change and improvement. The first will assume the perks and power of authority, then rely on consultants, reports and self-selected underlings to make decisions. The second type will have learned and will never forget the value of the people who every day tackle the overwhelming burden of details needed to satisfy their customers.

Those leaders will do more to assure that product managers can see the big picture. It is the only way to reduce dysfunction and assure that “The Buck Stops Here” is a guarantee that the CEO knows everything needed to run an excellent company.

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Ed Rutland August 27, 2012, 5:49 pm

Overall, your observations seem to ring true. However, it really depends on the organization and its leadership. I worked in companies where product managers were “marketing accountants” wheras other companies let you run the show – provided you met your sales and profit projections. But leadership set the rules! One CEO always said “I made a bad decision, you didn’t”. The buck always stopped there!

John Ribbler August 27, 2012, 6:14 pm

Ed, You are absolutely correct. My observations and discussions at the Product Camp showed a pattern in the companies represented of failure by leadership to articulate the rules. The results was people searching for all of the answers in one or more project management method such as Six Sigma, Lean, Agile, etc. I could see that a lot of internal time was being spent (wasted) debating the validity of a process stage or the accuracy of one analytic over another when what was needed was a judgement and decision made by someone qualified and authorized.