Delegate tactical responsibilities

If you want to be a bad product manager, do everything yourself. You’re the product manager, after all, so you should be the final authority on everything related to the product. You should be the one answering questions from salespeople, drafting press releases for marketing, defining all of the processes for suppliers, and poring over every detail with engineering. Sure it takes a lot of your time, but that’s what a product manager should be spending time on. What other more important things are there to do?

If you want to be a good product manager, delegate tactical activities to allow you to spend time on the strategic aspects of the job. Effective product managers pass on product knowledge and responsibility for tactical decision-making as much as possible to others on the product development team. By leveraging the rest of the team, the product manager can focus on the strategic role of product management.

It is difficult for many product managers — especially new product managers — to effectively balance the strategic and tactical priorities of product management. With so many competing priorities, the minutia and day-to-day tends to take over. To extend a common metaphor, it’s not just that product managers sometimes focus on the trees instead of the forest — they go so far as to end up focusing on a specific piece of bark.

While it is easy to say that product managers should be more strategic and less tactical (see Spend your time in the right places, for example), actually accomplishing that is a significant challenge. Pragmatic Marketing recently released the free ebook “The Strategic Role of Product Management,” by Steve Johnson, which describes why product management is a strategic role and why product managers need to think and act strategically. Buried in the “Final thoughts” section is this beautiful nugget of wisdom (emphasis added):

Product management is a strategic role. Yet as experts in the product and the market, product managers are often pulled into tactical activities. Developers want product managers to prioritize requirements; marketing people want product managers to write copy; sales people want product managers for demo after demo. Product managers are so busy supporting the other departments they have no time remaining for actual product management. But just because the product manager is an expert in the product doesn’t mean no one else needs product expertise.

Product managers should take heed of this last sentence. Think about all of the tactical activities in which you engage — documenting details, answering questions, describing functionality, responding to feedback, tracking down responses, and the like. How much of your time is taken up by these activities? Why are you engaged in them? Is it because

  1. you are the only person in the company who knows how?
  2. everyone else is busy and you are the only one who has free time?
  3. they are so important that they must be done by you and only you?

The answer to these questions is probably an emphatic NO in most cases. The real reason that product managers are engaged in these activities is because they have done them in the past, so others assume they will do them in the future. Every time a product manager writes copy for marketing, or conducts a demo for sales, or investigates some technical issues for development, the product manager creates the expectation that he or she will do that in the future. Obviously, there are some occasions where this may be appropriate, However, the vast majority of the time, the product manager can and should be giving the necessary direction, context, and guidance to allow other people to accomplish these tasks themselves.

Most product managers do not have staff reporting to them, so it is not necessarily as easy as delegating tasks to a direct report. Instead, product managers need to leverage others and teach them to be self-sufficient. This is not to say that product managers should ignore requests or haphazardly push off their responsibilities, of course. Instead, product managers should look to make those around them more effective by providing them with the tools, information, or resources they need.

Every time you as a product manager are presented with a task, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this helping to advance the product strategy?
  • Does this support one of the high-level goals for my product?
  • Is there anyone else within the company besides me who can accomplish this task (e.g. answer this question, investigate this problem)?
  • Is this something that has come up before or is likely to come up again?
  • Is this a valuable use of my time?

It’s never easy saying “no,” though it may be easier to look at it this way — every time a product manager says “yes” to something that is tactical and routine, they are saying “no” to something that is forward-looking and strategic. Which would you feel more comfortable telling your boss — or the CEO — that you said “no” to?

So what do you do with the tactical activities — those requests for copy writing, operational meetings, responses to customers, and discussions of detailed product minutia? Ask yourself — and others — whether they are really necessary, or at least whether it is really necessary for you to be included. Going back to the three questions posed earlier, look at why you are engaged in tactical activities:

  1. If you are the only one who knows some vital piece of information, figure out some way to rectify that. Document it, communicate it, teach it to others, pick someone to transfer knowledge — find some way to make sure that someone else has the information. Beyond just providing better use of your time, this can be vital for business continuity and succession planning.
  2. If everyone else is claiming to be busy and is offloading responsibilities, the same can be doubly true for a product manager. Help create ways for people to answer questions or streamline tasks on their own, rather than passing on their additional work for you.
  3. If there really are activities that appear to be vital enough to be performed by you and only by you, analyze those activities closely. Some may seem critical at first glance, though upon review you may notice that they are not as important as originally thought. Also, other people may be turning to you because they think you want to be involved, or because they think you would be offended if you were not consulted. Just because someone else thinks a task is crucial enough that it must only be done by you does not mean that you have to agree with them.

Lastly, if you are involved in these activities only because you have always been — well, then make it a resolution to stop today! The more product managers can think about their role as being strategic and market-focused, the more they can add value to the organization and to customers. Effective product managers help create more product expertise within the company. This gives the product manager as much time as possible to focus on the reason the company created the position — to add value by creating and improving market-focused products.

Note: This post is part of a Pragmatic Marketing’s BlogFest. Other posts as part of previous BlogFests include:

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22 thoughts on “Delegate tactical responsibilities

  1. Very good article – and SO true. I will start delegating first thing in the morning.


  2. Great point. Remember that you also need to manage the expectation of stakeholders from a product manager role- some folks who hire product managers like to see them everywhere all the time. 🙂

    There was one point missed in the delegation checklist- does doing a particular task get me closer to the customer?

    You could roll it up under “is it a valuable use of time?”, but this deserves seperate mention.

    I have rolled up my sleeves and dug into tactical stuff at times simply because it was a great way to connnect with the customer- little brownie points I could leverage to gaining better insights into “The World As The Customer Sees It”.

  3. Nice write up, I also feel Product Management is strategic role but normally engineering is highly dependent on Product Manager. Another issue can be if PM does delegation of work to some one else he may not be much visible to engineering team that may lead to lot of assumptions by engineering in development. In my experience any assumptions by engineering will lead to lot of rework as techies are not driven by business need.

  4. Oftentimes the ability for a product manager to delegate action items, or push back on endless requests is tied to how well product management is positioned within the company. The best experiences I had in PM were when my functional role reported directly to the general manager and each product manager was viewed as a mini-GM of their particular area. This sent a message to the organization that product manager called the shots. However, if the PM role is lacking that mandate, you may ending having to wear your internal sales hat more than you like. (not to mention doing a lot of the work yourself)

  5. Hi Jeff,

    Very helpful & intresting article for Product Manager’s.

    Recently I switched my stream from marketing to Product Develoment and was Googling for some good articles and resources to go thru, to understand the role, work flow, how to deal with other departments in order to help me serve better.

    Your article has really made me come up with some good working ethics at the starting phase my new job profile, which will surely help me to justify and perform well with my job.

    Thanks for your efforts.

  6. I don’t know that I’d deligate. I’d set expectations, and enable others to get what they need to do done. They are not doing my work. They are doing their work. Lead, don’t manage.

    I don’t remember our product manager getting into the job of the tech lead.

    I do remember a product manager that didn’t spec in detail. He was usually upset that he didn’t get what he wanted.

  7. I think David Locke, above, makes a good point. Good product management isn’t always about delegating responsibility. It’s about making sure your team members know their own responsibilities, and how to fulfill them.

    When you use an integrated product management approach, you look at where people fit in the process, and their responsibilities. I think it’s good to have an idea of where you want others to fit in during the process.

  8. These are superb comments here on the original post. I don’t think David Locke and Jeff Lash are really differing, but approaching the same idea from different perspectives.

    Having been involved in a massive product turnaround, I can attest to the fact that you will find ample opportunity to get sucked into fires (reference to “The Goal”)- not just high visibility issues, but also cases involving process variance/ risk factors where you have contingency plans in place.

    The other end of the product management spectrum is that you get complacent thinking you have the right “chess pieces” with the right processes in place, despite the business’s environment being more dynamic.

    A product manager is likely to find himself working toward building levers and and an ecosystem that improve outcomes.

    This is essentially change management. Similar to the decisionmaking of a good general manager who realizes the limitations of the environment he operates in, a good product manager will wisely execrcise judgement in taking up tasks (even choosing tactical tasks) toward change.

  9. “managers should do everything they can do enhance the job satisfaction of their employees”? do you agree or disagree?

  10. A product manager only has influence over the employees. If a product manager does anything to diminish job satisfaction, their influence diminishes as well. That said, it falls to the line managers to ensure the employee’s job satisfaction. It is the line manager that enables and assures alignment between the goals of the organization, and the goals of the employees. The employee should be able to find and express their alignement with those goals.

    A product manager doesn’t have the time to do everything a product manager must do. Their contact with any particular employee will be very slight.

    A product manager can’t arbitrate the war between sales and marketing, or marketing and R&D. A product manager can’t be permissive towards one department, and lax towards another. As a product manager, you don’t have time for the numerous wars that errupt within the business.

  11. Dear All,

    Special greeting to the author “Jeff Lash”. It is really a courteous job. I must appreciate that you are spreading knowledge, but it is not complete. Following points may give fruitful thought for every reader,

    Most of the strategical opinions comes out from tactical stuff.
    I dont mean that you dont have to delegate but review is important.
    All the knowledge which is going to others ( Marketing Deptt, R&D Deptt, Customers, Vendors) definitly going through you.
    Product management also covers the area of product development. Development comes from the “most hectic knowledge” gain from bad or not satisfactory (Not going according to the expectation) product.
    Write ups gave you another feel about the product, so you can contribute in overall business with different perspective.
    Last but not least as a PM mostly we are only obeying the company policies and marketing Deptt requirements. Actual problem starts when you come up with a diverse solution in quite diversified market.

  12. Delegation of your work helps you to uplift your professional capabilities. A good Product Manager must delegate his/her responsibilties to his/her subordinates.
    You should also keep balance between tactical and stretigical issues as well.

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