Product Management Marty Cagan

Value and Viability

There’s an adage about product managers that goes, “When the product succeeds, it’s because everyone on the product team did what they needed to do; but when the product fails, it’s the product manager.”

I am fairly certain that I first heard this from Ben Horowitz many years ago, but I’ve no idea if he coined the phrase, or if he learned it from others.

In any case, a few people recently have asked me about this, and if it’s really fair for the product manager to take the blame but not the credit?

It seemed to me that this is a good excuse to highlight the essential difference between the role of the product manager on an empowered product team versus a feature team.

As a reminder, on empowered product teams, the product manager is responsible for value and viability, the designer is responsible for usability and the engineers are responsible for feasibility.  Together we make a product.

Note that if you’re a product manager on a feature team, then you’re not responsible for value or viability (the stakeholder requesting the project or feature is), so this doesn’t apply to you.

But for those on empowered product teams, this adage is trying to remind product managers of two important points:

First, since product managers don’t actually build anything, it should be obvious that they would never get sole credit when something succeeds.  They certainly share in the credit, and they are generally well-rewarded for success, but good luck trying to create a successful product without the help of designers or engineers. 

Second, since value is in no small part a consequence of viability, usability and feasibility, if a product fails – in other words, if the product does not succeed in demonstrating the necessary value – maybe because the solution wasn’t viable, or wasn’t usable, or wasn’t feasible, or maybe the solution wasn’t any of these things, yet somehow the product still shipped.  When we say that “the product manager is responsible for value” we’re saying that we’re counting on the product manager to ensure that all of these risks have been addressed.

There is no question that being accountable for overall value is a significant responsibility, and not an easy one.  

Standing up and taking responsibility for mistakes is something good cultures encourage.  We can learn a great deal from mistakes, and it’s the foundation for improvement.  It’s also the foundation for the critical sense of ownership that we try so hard to nurture in empowered product teams.

But put yourself in your CEO’s shoes for a minute.  You have product teams asking to be empowered to figure out the best solution to the problems they’re asked to solve, and saying they are willing to be held accountable to the results.  

But who exactly is the CEO supposed to look to for that accountability?  If it’s not the product manager, then who?  Most designers and engineers certainly didn’t sign up for that (and haven’t been trained and coached for that).

In companies where the product managers are not willing or able to take responsibility for value and viability, then the leadership ends up looking to others to take on that responsibility.  Sometimes it’s a stakeholder or a line manager, and sometimes someone is named a GM or other form of business owner, and they’re given the responsibility.

Unfortunately, now you’re a feature team there to implement what that stakeholder or GM considers valuable.

While I don’t want to understate the difficulty of taking responsibility for value and viability, and I know that some people are not interested in that level of responsibility, I also know that for many people, this is precisely the role they are looking for, and gets right to the core of why the product management job on an empowered product team is so rewarding.

This article is primarily about ensuring value, but the discussion makes me realize that I also need to elaborate more on what it means to be responsible for viability.  

For a product to be viable, our marketing organization must be able to effectively market it, sales must be able to effectively sell, finance needs to be able to effectively fund and monetize, and our offering needs to be legal and compliant with relevant regulations, as just some of the most common examples.

When a product manager says, “not my fault” that sales can’t sell, they are not only mistaken, but they are missing the point of their role.

But that’s another article, or more likely a series of articles.