Product Leadership

Product Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and definitions of specific roles can vary widely depending on who you talk to. So to clear it all up I’d like to introduce you to the Product Leadership Spectrum.

The Product Leadership Spectrum breaks down the activities of product leaders into four distinct areas. Typically, no single person can span the full spectrum and it’s not always clear where specific roles spend most of their time. So let’s step away from individual titles such as Product Manager or Product Owner and dig into what Product Leaders of all types get involved in.

I use term Product Leader as an umbrella term to describe anyone involved in a leadership position, whether their title is Product Owner, Product Manager, Chief Product Officer or any of the other variants out there.
Product Leadership Spectrum

The Product Leadership Spectrum is broken down into four key areas.

  • Features - great ideas are nothing without features and enhancements being released to users. Activities here tend to be based on status updates, progress reporting, dealing with bugs and support tickets and if you’re not quite on the product team train, managing the resources required to build the features.
  • Team - great features are built by great teams and product leaders care about how their teams’ operate; what processes they should follow (SCRUM, Kanban, Chaos), decomposing larger pieces of work into manageable chunks, defining MVPs and supporting team members do their thing.
  • Business - working in this area means you’re away from the team as much as you’re in it. In fact, you may feel your primary team is the team of other product leaders. You might work with multiple product teams making sure they’re aligned to shared business objectives. You’re spending time with key senior stakeholders, understanding their needs and concerns. You’re leading the larger, trickier, prioritisation efforts. You’re working alone or with others to create a product strategy to reach medium term goals. You may even be line managing other, more junior product leaders.
  • Future - and then there’s the star gazers. You’re shining the light for your product teams to follow, inspiring them to bring the company’s vision to reality. You’re thinking about how to infuse a positive product culture into the company. You’re actively working on how to scale teams as the company grows, defining new roles, supporting product leaders’ career paths. You have coffee with the CEO.

While there are no clean boundaries between common product roles, it's true that the more senior your role the more time you spend in business and future affairs, necessarily delegating feature and team concerns to other members of the product leadership team.

Your motivation and attention changes as you move along the spectrum. From primarily caring about delivery to being more involved in ensuring the things being delivered have an impact now and into the future. The need for you to be an influencer changes too. If you’re defining a new future, you’ll need to be able to bring the hearts and minds of an entire company along with you, including the most senior and other influential people around you. Conversely, plotting features along a delivery focused roadmap is an important task but is primarily about communicating information gleaned from others and requires little influence.

While it’s unlikely you’re working in all four areas equally, you’re probably working across more than one. I’ve mapped where I believe four commonly used product leadership roles lie.

Product Leadership Spectrum mapped to roles

From the far left, Project Management, where the success of your role is measured by your ability to manage the work required to build and deliver features, to the far right, as the most senior product leader of a company or product line, where you’re required to think beyond the now and influence at the highest level of a business.

It’s common for those starting out in a product leadership role to spend a lot of time at the feature level. In fact, many companies make it very hard for them to do otherwise. If you're applying for a new product leadership role, make sure you and the employer are talking the same language and have the same expectations for the role.

The next time you're in an interview, take a copy of the Product Leadership Spectrum and ask the interviewer to show you where the role you're applying for sits - a great way to remove any confusion around titles.

It’s also clear that Product Management is a huge role, covering a lot of the spectrum. It’s no wonder, you hear things like this;

"The product manager role is usually very much a full time assignment. I don't personally know many who are able to do what they need to do in less than 60 hours a week". Marty Cagan, Inspired.

I don't believe anyone can remain productive working this many hours for very long, so please don't aspire to this, but it does talk to the potential breadth of the Product Management role and the need to have great teams and leaders around you. In some companies, Product Managers delegate feature and team concerns to Product Owners, to help them scale their impact. I'm not convinced this is always the best approach and can result in Product Owners relying too much on their Product Managers being the "voice of the customer" and in defining product strategy and direction. This can lead to very delivery focussed Product Owners who care more about meeting deadlines than outcomes.

So there you have it, the Product Leadership Spectrum in all its glory. What sort of Product Leader are you?