Leadership in Product Management (3) – Functional Organization

In the first post I laid out the case for leadership in product management and outlined three primary aspects of a company [Leadership in Product Management – Effecting Organizational Alignment].  The second post addressed the importance of effecting leadership within the context of the two aspects of people and organizational culture [Leadership in Product Management (2) – People & Organizational Culture].  This final post in the series will address the importance of effecting leadership within the context of functional organization.

Let’s consider two notional functional organizations.  While all departments play important roles within a company, arguably those most relevant to product management are Sales, Marketing, R&D and Products.  Aligning the objectives, much less the activities, across these disparate departments is a challenging proposition.  More often than not they have discrete objectives, agendas and measures of success that compete rather than complement each other.

In Figure 1, I have depicted an organization that is largely sequential in its information flow – the departments are discrete with hand-off points clearly delineated.  Sales controls distribution, Marketing owns positioning and marketing, and R&D retains development.  Overall coordination is provided by Products.

Given this functional organization, the leadership style most congruent would most likely be one of command and control.  Products would assume positional authority over Sales, Marketing and R&D, directing their activities towards common objectives.  While some product managers may aspire to this model, I have no personal experience with it.  I do however have experience with discrete departments, but with less-than-clear hand-off points and no productive level of overall coordination.

In Figure 2 on the other hand, I have depicted an organization towards the opposite end of the spectrum from that above and is more representational of the matrixed departments with which most of us are likely to be acquainted.

Within this functional organization, Sales, Marketing, R&D and Products are discrete departments but have areas in which there are distinct responsibilities as well as those that overlap.  While each department retains primary responsibility for their function, ideally they are complementary and supportive.  An example in this figure is positioning and marketing developed by Marketing, some of which goes directly towards targeted markets, while other is developed specifically for use by Sales in support of their efforts in distribution (direct and indirect).

R&D is more engaged with the market facing activities of the company, and while still receiving direct market input, also benefits from additional feedback from people who are market facing informed by the perspective of Sales and Marketing.

Products would provide overall coordination but in an overlay manner.  In this model Products would also have a direct market-facing role and provide input to R&D.  The most congruent leadership style for this functional organization is one of collaboration.  Collaborative leadership is a much more complex affair and is defined by Wikipedia as, “an emerging body of theory and management practice which is focused on the leadership skills and attributes need to deliver results across organizational boundaries” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_leadership).  As most PMs find themselves in organizations similar to this model, the need to effect leadership to bring about alignment extends beyond people to include separate departments as well.  Organizational collaboration has become a necessary fact of professional life.

The above are overly simplified representations but in so doing, I have attempted to depict two points on a continuum of functional organizations – each company will be unique in both its layout as well as resulting inter-organizational dynamics.

Returning to the subject topic of leadership, a successful product manager will need to assess the lay of the land – particularly with respect to people, culture and functional organization – and develop an appropriate leadership approach that will serve to attain the overall objective of organizational alignment towards common goals.  There is simply no formulaic answer or definitive methodology such as pitch, business case, executive fiat, etc. that will meet continuously evolving needs.

Nor is this a fixed proposition once a line has been determined.  Each change in the market, stakeholders and/or organizational alignment or composition will often require an adjustment.  Think of it as a finely balanced Rube Goldberg device in which the various components are always in motion and therefore the center of balance always shifting.

Leadership is not without pitfalls and failures.  The issues and challenges are far too complex.  Rather it is marked through being able to align the organization more often than not so that objectives such as successful entry into a new market and sustainable attainment of market share are achieved.

Successfully developing and launching a solution or product requires tight organizational alignment around company initiatives and its go-to-market plans.  You as PM will be called upon to drive alignment around how your company goes to market.  Success in this effort will require organizational alignment.  Only in delivering upon the internal challenge of organizational leadership can there be any expectation of product or market leadership.

Examples of people within business who embodied successful leadership have become icons of American business – names such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Thomas J. Watson, Bill Gates, Andrew Grove and Steve Jobs.  And the latter is also quite arguably the best product manager in living memory.


Leadership – has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”.


Collaborative leadership – describes an emerging body of theory and management practice which is focused on the leadership skills and attributes need to deliver results across organizational boundaries.


8 years later, HP does it Fiorina’s way


HP developed its strategy under the guidance of former CEO Carly Fiorina. But it wasn’t until Mark Hurd took the helm that the company’s plans were made a reality.


HP Way


Shackleton – The true story of Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance expedition to the the South Pole and his epic struggle to lead his 28 man crew to safety after his ship was crushed in the pack ice.


The best depiction by Hollywood of the dynamism involved with leadership was Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Sir Earnest Henry Shackleton, the British Antarctic explorer.  Shackleton (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0272839/) is a film testament to this unorthodox leader who was adept at continuously adjusting his leadership approach as required in the face of unimaginable challenges – environmental, organizational and crew.  His success was ultimately measured by leading his 28-man crew out of Antarctica following the crushing of the expedition’s ship without a single loss of life.