In most tech companies, Product Marketing and Product Development/Software Development/Engineering are managed separately. There is usually one VP over the Product Development function and another VP over the overall marketing function. This usually (but not always) includes both current product management/marketing and future product planning.
This is certainly an appropriate way to organize a software or hardware company. However, there is a great danger in one particular area when it comes to these separate operating “silos”. That’s the planning of new products.
I have a particularly strong opinion on this topic. I have an extensive product planning, product management, and marketing background. Previously, I also worked as a product development engineer earlier in my career (albeit in a non-tech business).
For 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.
FUTURE PRODUCT PLANNING IS WHERE THINGS FALL APART
It’s in the future product planning area that things can get messy. Product Management and Product Development organizations both have a key role to play here. They must work well together if the company is to optimize the process of planning, developing, and introducing new products. I often refer to the ideal product planning relationship as a “two-headed monster” between engineering and product management. I believe it’s an accurate, if inelegant, term.
The problem is that at every level you’ll find differing world views when comparing counterparts across these two departments. This applies from the VP level down to the engineering project managers and marketing product managers. Product management/marketing and engineering functions are often staffed by individuals that “speak different languages”.
Inevitably, if care isn’t taken, these very different personality types and world views can lead to some pretty intense conflicts. I’ve been a soldier, captain, general, and CEO in this war. Let me tell you, at times it isn’t pretty. The battlefield is often the company’s strategic plan, which can end up in a trampled mess. I have seen this battle play out all too often in the companies I have worked for as an employee and at many clients in my consulting practice. It sometimes gets so ugly it paralyzes a company. This puts the company 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 in many ways, it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As I stated earlier, both marketing and engineering have a key role to play in product planning. This reorganization strategy risks effectively removing the “voice of the customer”. Providing the “voice of the customer” is a crucial role that the marketing department should play in any successful software or tech company.
Having one manager trained in the technical part of product development overseeing both development and product marketing management can reduce or eliminate this crucial customer input. Even if that manager recognizes the need for customer input, this may not be optimal. As much as many product developers think it “looks easy”, they seldom have the skills or experience to accurately read markets or individual customers. Almost no one is great at everything. Monitoring and reading markets versus developing technical products represent two very different skill sets. Having differing mentalities involved via participation by both marketing and product development departments generally leads to far better products in the end.
IT’S IMPORTANT TO NOT MAKE IT WORSE
Finally, if they happen to have come from one side of this battle or the other, CEOs sometimes “take sides”. This at least can reduce conflict by determining the winner, giving one department the upper hand. The problem is there is never any real winner in this battle. The only loser is the company and its shareholders if product planning isn’t optimally balanced.
A CEO can choose to let marketing have the upper hand. This may work out adequately in commodity products where there is very little engineering differentiation required. But when innovation plays a key role in the market, results will likely be sub-optimal.
Or he or she can let engineering win and dominate the planning process. This 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/developers and also built for engineers/developers. The early days of Hewlett-Packard are an example of this strategy working very successfully. However, for every company that has used this approach successfully, some likely hundreds or thousands failed in large part because of it.
Neither of these approaches usually leads to an optimal result for the business. So a shared approach to product planning with minimal conflict should be the preferred approach. Ultimately, to make sure any 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? More importantly, what can they do to prevent it from developing in the first place?
- The biggest key to success is in the relationships. Closely monitor the personal relationship between the VP-Marketing (or VP-Product Management if it is a separate function) and the VP-Engineering.
- Make sure that the VPs are monitoring the relationships below them.
- Ensure both VPs are open and honest with you about the relationship between the departments
- Plan activities that allow engineering and product management/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 incentives to reward the two departments for working together.
- Don’t ever allow one department to gain an advantage by blaming the other. Tie them together as much as possible.
- Hire marketing personnel who can speak the language of engineers/developers.
- Screen product development hires who will interact with marketing folks for the not-uncommon attitude that engineers are “superior” intellectually.
- Encourage the marketing department to get product developers in front of customers. This often is more effective than simply telling them “what the customers are saying”.
- 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 that starts the battle rolling.
- In addition to relationships, processes can also be very important. Make sure any process includes balance so that all voices are heard. However, added weight must be given to input provided by individuals in their area of expertise. Product planning ideally is collaborative. But it’s not a “one vote per man” democracy.
Marketing and 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 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 that is rarely discussed out loud. Have you had issues in this area? Post a comment below to add to this discussion.
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