I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking about my own past experiences around managers lately. It all started with my reading the amazing (and old) book by the late Andy Grove called High Output Management.
Grove makes you realize how critically important good middle management is to an organization. He also places knowledge workers (aka “know-how” workers in his vernacular) as part of this key group of middle management.
Who is middle management?
Before I got further, not every middle manager directly manages people. Some manage through a matrix structure and some, less formally, need to lead through influence. This puts Product Managers squarely in the group of middle managers that matter here.
As I get my head around middle management, I have come to boil down the 3 key responsibilities of this key group of employees.
- Set and clearly communicate strategy and goals
- Enable the organization to work towards the strategy
- Remove obstacles and conflicts that arise
Set and Clearly Communicate Strategy and Goals
The most important job for management is setting a strategy and defining the current goals necessary to carry out that strategy. According to Eli Goldratt’s “The Goal”, the ultimate goal of a business is to make more and more money. However, there are certainly can be more near term and actionable goals that must be defined.
In Steve Tendon’s Tameflow Approach, when the manager articulates and effectively communicates strategy and goals this can create a “Unity of Purpose.” Everyone in the organization is empowered by this to row in the same direction.
If you are a Product Manager this translates to clearly defining and communicating the strategy for your product. This can enable the entire team and extended stakeholders to focus their efforts toward the goal.
When there is not clear product vision or strategy to get there, stakeholders and team members will feel rudderless getting pulled by the wind and currents in different directions on a daily basis.
When new requests come in, it is impossible to determine if they should be acted on. If the team does decide to act on them, determining their relative importance is like a game of darts.
Define a strategy and relentlessly communicate it.
Enable the Organization to work towards the Strategy
Second, managers must enable the organization to leverage all of their skills, intention, and energy to focus on executing the strategy and striving to meet the defined goals.
In some cases, the managers may have full direct authority to do this, but more often they must lobby for and continuously push the team and broader business to support the development of an organization built to achieve.
- Do you have the right people/skills on the team?
- Do you have the right support from executives and other stakeholders to focus?
- Are you focusing on hiring the right talent?
- Are you working to continuously develop the talent on the team?
- Is the team/broader organization designed to best facilitate goal attainment?
- Does the team have the right tools to work efficiently?
- Do team members feel engaged?
- Are they working effectively without ambiguity from poorly defined roles & responsibilities?
- Is there a culture of trust present?
- Is progress being measured in the most effective and innovation inspiring way?
Managers must continuously be learning and working toward developing an organization that is better and better prepared to execute the strategy. Grove speaks about gaining leverage through team contributions. Managers work with teams because they cannot do it alone. The more they empower and enable their organization to succeed the greater their efforts are being leveraged toward success.
Remove Obstacles and Conflicts that Arise
Everything can be working and defined perfectly…then conflicts arise. Especially across multiple product teams or other stakeholder groups. Small organizations will inevitably create some conflicts between departments. However, these grow as the breadth of portfolio grows and multiple teams are competing for constrained resources.
Here is the third and final major responsibility of managers. Constraints and conflicts are part of any business. Allowing them to work themselves out is a recipe for willfully ignoring your business and product priorities.
Good managers must actively be part of negotiating and resolving conflict when these points of friction arise.
Consider a business with a single product. The perfectly focused startup. Management has defined a clear goal of growing the user base. All activities conducted by the product team (and wider organization) can and should align to this goal.
Now consider, this same company has now grown and matured the Product A to the point where they now decided that the right now goal should be converting that growth into revenue. At the same time they have launch Product B newly into the market. This is a separate product from Product A and needs to gain an economy of scale before it is useful within organizations. For this product, the goal may by user adoption not revenue, as seeking revenue too early might slow growth and minimize the potential for network effects.
Conflicts arise in this scenario throughout the organization. Which product should sales be focusing on? Where should marketing dollars be spent? If the single company goal is revenue, then Product B will be starved of marketing budget and sales attention.
It is for this reason that we cannot have a single goal. That would defeat the purpose of the company and undermine its overall strategy.
Managers have a critical set of responsibilities within an organization. They may have some superior level domain expertise but what they should really be focused on is developing an organization that can effectively execute.
Defining the strategy & goals will be an iterative and ongoing process that must be supported by the organization they are fostering. As they execute, management must be out front ensuring that obstacle and friction inhibiting success are dealt with.
If you are a manager, you must focus on these three things. Don’t get distracted or lulled too easily into working on solo work that feels like progress. Always put the broader organization and its ability to execute first. That is where leverage comes from in execution to drive long-term success.