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How many products should a product manager manage?

Posted on August 20, 2008 · 2 Comments

Question: How do you work out the ratios of Product Manager : products?

For example, When is a Product Manager’s capacity full? Is it

  • X number of products generating revenue in excess of $xx per year;
  • X number of products generating revenue less than $xx per year;
  • X number of products to launch in the year;
  • X number of products in maintenance

Answer from Derek Britton, Independent Product Management consultant: If there was a standard formula, life would be a lot easier, but if you stop for a second, you are going to realise that there are many variables involved in determining the “right sized team”. The good news is that several big brains have attempted to tackle this issue head-on and there is quite an array of supporting material.

First, let’s turn our attention to the professional bodies for a steer. Many of them survey their members to get a sense of the reality of team size and ratios. The latest information might require a membership of the relevant organization, but for the purposes of illustration, here’s what Pragmatic Marketing got back in 2006:

For each Product Manager (PM), we find:

  • 1.0 Product managers
  • 3.0 Products
  • 5.0 Developers
  • 0.8 Development leads
  • 0.4 Product architects and designers
  • 0.4 Product marketing managers
  • 0.6 Marketing communications
  • 3.2 Sales people
  • 0.8 Sales engineers (pre-sales support)

Reference: http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/publications/survey/2006

What this shows us is an overall footprint of team size in ratio with the rest of the company. This is an important yardstick. Another yardstick is just a simple view on the number of products – the following quote talks about a one-to-one mapping; I’d be surprised if this is an industry norm, however, and indeed even in this scenario the ownership was moving more towards 1 per 3 products (because of a specialist skill restructuring).

“One company had nine product managers and nine products, one product manager per product. Yet the sales people hated some of the product managers and loved others. The ones that the sales people loved were hated by developers. So we created three product lines with a Product Line Manager for each and then assigned a TPM and PMM to each product line.” (Steve Johnson)

Reference: http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/publications/magazine/1/2/07sj

Next, let’s now consider the products themselves. Products follow a natural life-cycle from a release and revenue perspective. These life-cycles are well documented, often referred to as the adoption curve, and you will read masters on the subject such as Geoffrey A. Moore’s ‘Crossing the Chasm,’ which talks about the effort required in moving from the “early adopter” phase (self-starter, low-volume of interested customers) to the large-scale, high-volume “mainstream” adoption by the pragmatist and conservative majority customer-base. It is widely-held that the tasks involved in product management are heavily biased towards the initial release and ‘crossing the chasm’. The guidance appears to be that if you are headlong into major new product releases, the amount of PM bandwidth required is significantly greater. Clearly, a larger customer base brings with it a larger workload.

Thirdly, and this is more from a personal perspective, a lot can also depend on the definition of the PM role in your organization, and the tasks and expectations set of the incumbent product manager. Let me give you a couple of examples of how this might have a profound effect.

The first example is where the PM team is being asked to provide genuine “line of business” management and the role includes product vision and strategic business planning. Business planning is a notoriously lengthy exercise, requires tons of research, and invariably needs board approval. It shapes the destiny of the company’s resources for a given period. This is hard-core business management and can be, not always, part of the PM remit. If it is, the ‘role’ might be defined as something else (strategic planning, CTO, product line owner), and this kind of activity will suck up practically all available resource for a lengthy period every time plans are required (a quarter per year, as a rule of thumb).

On the flip side of this, it could be that a relatively modest pool of PM resource has relinquished (deliberately or otherwise) some hitherto core tasks to other functions who are more comfortably resourced – reporting and governance could be farmed off to a central Project Management Office; older product ‘management’ (including sundown policy, extended care contracts) could be shifted to support; new technology acquisition could be in the hands of the acquisition team; and the classic “who does the demo’s and the internal SE training” question could have been solved by a professional services team. These task ownerships dictate many of the day-to-day tasks, which then affect the resource requirement of that role.

One final example is the amount of “content” expertise there exists in the marketing organization, which does affect how much time is spent writing for the PM. Sometimes turnover and skills in marketing dictate that PM is writing virtually all collateral and copy – not ideal but sometimes a genuine issue.

Finally, and notwithstanding the above, I’m afraid a lot of the basis for decisions on team size is nothing to do with any scientific measurement of tasks, products or customers. That rather sordid thing, company politics, also plays its part. A strong VP who is truly bought in to the value and therefore need of the PM team will probably support and promote a healthy resource pool, and invest in appropriate training, talent acquisition and infrastructure. But in periods of flux or a downturn in fortune, or where there is something as primitive as a clash of personalities or a weak VP, things are not necessarily so positive. I’ve seen both, and for no other reason than who is calling the shots, the size of team has been night-and-day different.

So while I haven’t been able to give you the math of an answer, I hope this gives some indication of the number of variables in that equation. Talk to YOUR VP and find out how they view PM; this could be your first indicator of what sort of resourcing you can expect to see going forward.

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