In most tech companies, Product Marketing and Product Development/Engineering are managed separately. There is usually one VP over the Product Development function and another VP over the overall marketing function, which usually includes future product marketing/planning.
While this is certainly an appropriate way to organize a tech company, there is a great danger in one are when it comes to these separate operating “silos”: the planning of new products.
I have a particularly strong opinion on this topic, with an extensive product marketing background and also having worked as a product developer earlier in my career (albeit in a non-tech business).
With respect to current products, the silo approach isn’t much of an issue. The day-to-day activities of the marketing and engineering departments are very different, and can be managed separately quite successfully.
It’s in the future product area that things can get messy. Product Marketing and Product Development both have a key role to play here, if the company is to optimize the process of planning, developing and introducing the best new product possible. The problems is that at every level, from the VP-level down to the engineering project managers and marketing product managers, the product marketing and engineering functions are often staffed by individuals with very different world outlooks when compared to their direct counterparts in the other department.
Inevitably, if care isn’t taken, these very different personality types can lead to some pretty intense conflicts. I’ve been a soldier, captain and general in this war–and let me tell you, at times it isn’t pretty. The battlefield often is the company’s strategic plan, which ends up in a trampled mess. I have seen this battle play out all too often in the companies that I have worked for as an employee, as well as at many of my clients in eight years as a consultant at PJM Consulting. It sometimes gets so ugly it paralyzes a company, putting it at a severe disadvantage vs. competitors who have less conflict.
THE “WRONG” WAYS TO HANDLE THIS POTENTIAL PROBLEM
Unfortunately, most CEOs that I meet are not all that tuned in to how damaging these conflicts can become.
Often they will ignore or deny the problem, thinking it is a responsibility to be handled at the VP level.
Another strategy that I have seen companies put in place is to extract the product planning function from the marketing department, and put it under engineering. This will often greatly reduce or eliminate the conflict, but it is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As I said earlier, both marketing and engineering have a key role to play in product planning. This strategy effectively removes the voice of the customer, which is a key role that the marketing department should be playing in any successful software or tech company. As much as product developers think it looks easy, they seldom have the mentality or experience to accurately read markets or customers. Almost no one is great at everything; monitoring and reading markets and technical product development are two very different skill sets. Having both mentalities involved in a positive way via both departments leads to far better products in the end.
Finally, if they happen to have come from one side of the battle or the other, CEOs sometimes “take sides” in the battle–predetermining the winner. The problem is there is never any real winner in this battle–and the only certain loser is the company and its shareholders.
A CEO can choose to let Marketing have the upper hand–and this may work out adequately in commodity products where there is very little engineering differentiation. In any other circumstance, results will likely be sub-optimal.
Or he can let Engineering win and dominate the planning process–which is a very common occurrence in early stage, technically-driven software and hardware companies. But this generally only works well for products made by engineers, built for engineers (the early days of Hewlett Packard are an example of this strategy working successfully). For every company that has used this approach successfully there are probably hundreds or thousands that failed in large part because of it.
Ultimately, to make sure that this conflict and its dire consequences are avoided, there is one key thing that needs to happen:
IT IS THE CEO’S RESPONSIBILITY TO PREVENT, RECOGNIZE AND FIX THIS PROBLEM
So what steps can a software or hardware CEO take to be on the lookout for this problem–and more importantly, what can they do to prevent it from developing?
- It’s all about relationships: closely monitor the personal relationship between the VP-Marketing and VP-Engineering
- Make sure that the VPs are monitoring the relationships below them
- Make sure they are both VPs are open and honest with you about the relationship between the departments
- Plan activities which allow engineering and marketing counterparts to get to know each other as “people” outside of their project activities
- Be careful that you don’t inadvertently make decisions or set up policies that reward or tolerate politics
- Design goals and MBOs to reward the two departments for working together
- Don’t ever allow one department to “get ahead” by blaming the other–tie them together as much as possible
- Hire marketing personnel that can talk the language of engineers
- Screen product development hires who will interact with Marketing without the not-uncommon attitude that engineers are “superior” human beings
- Encourage the marketing department to get product developers in front of customers
- Watch out for arrogance when screening potential new hires for either department that will need to interface with the other –arrogance is often the trigger which starts the battle rolling
Marketing/Engineering conflict over the product planning process is a common problem that is often overlooked by tech company CEOs. A certain amount of creative tension can exist between the two departments and be totally healthy. All too often, though, this tension turns into a bloody fight which is destructive to the company’s prospects. It is not “fait accompli”, however. It can be minimized and even prevented by a watchful and proactive CEO.
That’s my take on a common issue which is rarely discussed out loud. Have you had your own issues in this area? Post a comment below to add to this discussion.