Product Management

4 min read

Scaling Your Product Management Team: When to Go from Lone Wolf to Pack

If there’s anything product management doesn’t want, it’s to be a roadblock on the highway to customer value. But as a company grows and product management is handed increasing responsibilities, the lone wolf product manager starts to run out of bandwidth and needs to consider scaling up his or her product team (excuse the mixed metaphors).“Teams need critical decisions made on a daily basis in otrder to maintain speed, and those decisions have major trade offs and/or conflicting interests among stakeholders,” says Brandon Chu of Shopify. “Driving those decisions is no one else’s job but the product manager’s.”When the time comes, organizations must figure out how to scale their product management capabilities. But who you hire and how you divvy things up depends on a lot of factors.

Determining How Much Product Management You Can Handle

product manager wearing many hats

When you’ve been the only product manager working on your product (or even the only PM in the entire company), you’ve already set the bar remarkably high for managing a large and varied amount of responsibilities. But if we’re all being honest here, you know that as the amount of things on your plate has grown, you haven’t been able to give each task the attention it truly deserves.In the world of product management, there’s no universal, magic formula for identifying how much (or even exactly what) your workload should entail. Rather, your bandwidth depends on your personal capabilities, the complexity of the products being managed, and the definition of “product manager” at your particular company (which we all know can vary wildly from place to place). It’s important to be honest about your capacities and time; while taking on extra challenges may sometimes be necessary (especially in a bootstrapped environment), overextending yourself can spell doom for your product. Know what you can handle, what you can't, and when it's time to scale up.[Tweet "While taking on extra PM challenges may be necessary, overextending yourself can spell doom."]

A Ratio for Success

In engineering-driven organizations, some subscribe to a mathematical formula to determine how many product managers are needed. Unsurprisingly, this is driven by the number of engineers involved.“Appoint one Product Manager for every 3 to 7 developers,” says software business consultant Allan Kelly. “Without a Product Manager to guide them a team will be guessing, success will be based on luck.”Aside from ensuring that developers always know what to do because there’s a sufficient quantity of product management guidance, some believe intimate knowledge and a personal relationship with each engineer is key to proper team formation and size.“For early-stage teams, the golden ratio of engineers to product managers is usually about 5:1,” says Jack Krawczyk of Pandora. “It facilitates a close enough relationship with the developers that product managers know instinctively what makes each developer tick. That level of understanding helps product managers motivate, structure their communication and get the highest production.”

Breaking Product Management Down by Product (or Feature)

Regardless of your PM-to-engineer ratio, your newly enlarged product management organization needs to find a logical method for breaking down the workload and establishing clear boundaries of ownership. The most common approach is to parse out the products (or specific parts of a larger product) to different PMs.This means there is now an owner for Product X or Feature Y, even if that PM ultimately reports up into a Director or VP of Product. Without establishing individual owners, you’re not solving the throughput issues that additional product managers are intended to address. Says Lex Sisney of Organizational Physics:

“To decentralize means that if you have multiple products, factories, or semi-autonomous sites, then a PM function should be assigned to each of them...You’re not trying to create a bottleneck where every decision must flow to one central person or team to make PM decisions. Instead, you’re pushing accountability down into the organization so that those closest to the customer can conduct their own product management.”

The product executive will still have their opportunity for input and can manage the individual product manager(s), but the single point of ownership is at the PM level.

Breaking Product Management Down by Role

domains of product managers

When you’re the only product manager on the scene, you’ve got to do everything from MRDs to wireframes to test plans to sales training. But as you add headcount to product management, there’s an opportunity to specialize based on the expertise of new and existing staff.Are you a former engineer who’s great on UI and data flows but can’t stand the spreadsheet and PowerPoint side of the house? You can shape your staffing plan to suit those specific needs.“One answer is to have a Tactical and a Strategic Product Manager – TPM and SPM respectively,” says software business consultant Allan Kelly. “The SPM does most of the customer visits, most of the conversations with management and does the long term roadmaps. The TPM spends more of their time working with the developers, helping sales and the near term roadmaps. Importantly the SPM and TPM talk regularly, they should sit next to each other. This arrangement also makes it easier to arrange visits to customers and debrief afterwards.”It’s also important to remember that as you’re growing a product team into a multi-member machine, you don’t need to hire an entire batch of multidisciplinary Swiss Army knives. Staffing up lets you assemble complementary team members instead of trying to clone yourself. Says Saeed Khan of On Product Management:

“When they need to scale – for example when looking to create a second product...companies look for yet another candidate with the same broad skill set...Not only does this make it hard to find suitable candidates, but it makes it very difficult for those people, once hired, to be truly effective and successful...Roles in Product Management should differentiate between technical and business focus; between short term tactical and longer term strategic activities; between internal (inbound) and external (outbound) responsibilities.”

[Tweet "If you grow your product team, you don’t need to hire more multidisciplinary Swiss Army knives."]

Breaking Product Management Down By Domain

Another slice-and-dice approach to divvying up responsibilities when augmenting your product management team is to take domain expertise and industry experience into account when hiring new staff. Says Pragmatic Marketing:

“An industry product manager must know the requirements of the industry. Domain knowledge in the industry allows the product manager to convert feature requests to the root problem. Domain knowledge is also necessary to define a go-to-market strategy. Typically, the industry manager performs both inbound and outbound functions although larger companies split these roles into the same basic product management triad described earlier.”

This approach allows the industry manager to work with product marketing to ensure that product positioning is on-point with the target market and go-to-market activities will reach the appropriate decision makers and prospects. Adding product managers who truly understand specific markets adds a level of insight to your requirements gathering and credibility to your sales efforts that can’t be duplicated, no matter how much a PM immerses themselves in an industry.“Domain expertise comes into play in a similar way for Product Managers as it does for Developers, but for Product Managers, domain expertise revolves around the markets that the product serves vs. the technologies used in the product” says Ivan Chalif of Boardspan. “Product Managers whose product serve diverse markets need to be able to understand those markets in great detail and that’s not always possible for a single Product Manager. When a single PM can no longer effectively manage a diverse pool of markets, it’s time to hire more.”

Adding Supporting Cast Members vs. Hiring New PM Stars

Whether you’re a Chief Product Officer, a Director of Product Management or a plain old Product Manager yourself, you face the tricky task of figuring out what level of product management expertise you need to acquire with that next hire. For some companies, it’s a “build vs. buy” question of whether you should try to create a product manager from the existing staff (generally a cheaper option that trades experience for subject matter expertise) or if you need to import another high-quality product expert. At SendGrid, they did a little of both: “We hired 5 PMs from the outside, and transferred in 4 from other internal functions. 5 of the PMs were more junior, and 4 had a Sr./Director level depth of experience in PM and email,” says Scott Williamson of SendGrid. “We like this combination, as it provides us with a rich mix of PM, email, and SendGrid experience. The ‘SendGrid-grown PMs’ can learn PM best practices from the more experienced team members, and the external PMs can learn from the SendGrid veterans about the customers and technology behind SendGrid.”Another tactic for bringing in help without breaking the bank is to grow by adding supporting product team members that don’t own products, but instead take ownership of supporting functions to free up the product managers to focus on the core aspects of their own roles. Says Bridgette Austin of Intuit:

“The Product Analyst or Coordinator helps create product documentation and sales collateral for sales and technical presentations. He or she is also responsible for updating databases, collecting internal and external requests for requirements and creating business-use cases...[he or she] may organize training sessions that educate staff on product messaging and prepare senior executives for speaking engagements by sending them sales collateral and product documents. A Product Associate is typically the most junior role and will take on various jobs and tasks to support the product team.”

Too Much Product Management?

should you scale your product management team?

When you’re so overwhelmed that you’re hiring a second product manager, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where there’s not enough work to go around. And while you certainly want to avoid staffing up so fast there’s simply not enough to do, the more common issue overstaffing (mis-allocating staff) may create is organizational overlap.This can be easily avoided by following one simple rule: You should never have more than one product manager for the same thing.“A few pretty independent streams of work and a single priority setter for each stream. This way each group works on their small chunk of work while you keep your finger crossed to avoid having too many integration issues,” says Pawel Brodzinski of Lunar Logic. “There should be a single product owner/product manager per team and per (part of) product. That’s because having multiple product owners is just a bad idea.”

Think of Yourself, Too

Whether you’re excited that you finally got the budget to hire a minion of your own or you’re tasked with building out a team that will define the priorities and strategies for your company for years to come, hiring additional product managers is an important opportunity to look in the mirror and figure out what you want to be doing on a day-to-day basis.Now that you won’t have to do EVERYTHING, you can figure out what you enjoy, what’s a challenge and what’s simply a bother, then factor that into your hiring plans. Figuring out what to delegate and let go of is what gives effective leaders the time to actually lead.