April 6, 2017 Shelley Iocona

What should you do when your title isn’t ‘product manager’ but you need to manage the product?

It’s a confusing world out there! Digital product management as a function happens in one form or another in all kinds of industries and companies around the globe. But there is little consistency regarding the responsibilities, roles, and people that contribute throughout the product development lifecycle. That makes for some awkward conversations and an uncomfortable culture at times. It’s important to provide an overview of these various roles and apply a framework for how you can be effective in any one of them, championing the product to success!

Project Manager

So you have the title of project manager? Great! You are responsible for managing what the industry calls “triple constraints”: scope, schedule and cost. You understand that meeting those constraints while delivering a quality product is challenging. You add tremendous value to the success of the product because you help stakeholders identify requirements aligned to clear and achievable objectives.

When partnering with product management, be clear about the risks to these constraints and provide trade-offs when appropriate. For example, if a product manager adds scope to a project with a defined timeline, facilitate a discussion around the impact to the schedule and help product management assess the importance of adding that feature or function. Protect your delivery team by assessing how the schedule will be impacted. Project management is like being the coach in a football game — you have to know when to call the plays and are continually assessing risk, protecting your team, and focusing on the objectives at hand.

Program Manager

You manage several related projects or projects with many related dependencies? You’re a program manager. If this is you, you may work with multiple product managers and have the added challenge of balancing their definition of scope across the execution timeline for multiple projects. In some companies a program manager has a technical function and gets intimately involved in how something will be delivered.

Product managers love having you on board because you take functional specifications and add levels of detail that are beyond typical user stories. You think of error cases that have to do with the implementation, and you partner with development to ensure the right solution is being developed that meets the business case provided by the product management team.

Product Owner

Are you the primary user of a product, service or system in an organization that employs agile methodology? Then you may have the title of product owner. You understand users, the market, competition and future trends of your industry.

You add value by having the vision and keeping everyone focused on that vision of the product. Your bring a business savviness and can clearly articulate what features and functions should be delivered, and you often participate in user acceptance testing before the product ships and conduct product demos for customers.

Product Marketing Manager

If you are responsible for the market position of a product and conduct competitor analysis, market research and help create or inform the marketing collateral you are probably a product marketing manager. Your role is critical in the product development lifecycle because you help tie the strategy and support sales by driving adoption.

Effective partnering with product management means you are in lockstep with one another since you both work to ensure a product exceeds customer and market expectations.

What to do when there is no ‘product manager’

Not every organization has a designated product manager. In fact, many companies wait until products become complex enough or the company grows to a certain level. When there is no one with the official title, there is a tendency for everyone to become conflicting ‘voices of the customer’, often creating confusion and inefficiencies.

This is undoubtedly a difficult challenge to solve, even for the most seasoned product people. My recommendation is to step up and fill the void, or at least acknowledge that there is a gap that needs to be filled! Initiate the creation of a product management plan for how responsibilities are distributed across stakeholders. Your efforts will empower designers, developers and business people to own and be accountable for specific functions and tasks at different stages in the product lifecycle.


You can use this guide as a way to clarify your role in your organization. Keep in mind that many companies have not standardized these descriptions, in part because industries vary, company size differs, and the number of products may influence which roles are needed. In a small startup working on one product, for example, a product owner may also function as a project manager. A large enterprise will often have departments to cover each aspect of the product lifecycle, and include a much larger stakeholder list.

Building anything great is never by chance and is always the result of a committed group of people with varying skill sets. Delivering products is no different! Whichever title you have, if you are managing the product in any aspect you are needed and bring value. Partner with your product teams and revel in your success together!