I’ve been a product manager for three and a half years after being an Army officer for eight. Never in that time have I felt like I truly owned all of the products I’ve worked on. I’ve never had the final say in everything, and I’ve never sat to review that every single story met all of the acceptance criteria. Time, team dynamics, and the nature of working on large complex products precludes any single person from being able to exert that level of control. I’m largely in agreement John Cutler about the overload of product manager responsibilities and the danger of centralizing them. I’m here to propose that product managers should think of themselves as good scouts rather than all controlling owners of the product.
I spent two years as a communications officer (S6) for a Stryker reconnaissance cavalry squadron (1-14th Cavalry). I learned to love the concept of the cavalry not just because they wear Stetsons and spurs, but because reconnaissance is a truly challenging role in the battlefield. Lightly armed and few in numbers, scouts ride ahead of the rest of the army to find the enemy and report back any information they can before the main forces make contact.
Scouts must be agile, to stay out of sight but still have a view, they need to move quickly to avoid being getting into a fight with an enemy bigger than them, and they need to be great communicators to describe what they see in as much detail as possible. Not only do scouts tell the rest of the army about the enemy; they will tell you about terrain, the quality of roads, and the civilians in the area. It is not uncommon for the cavalry to be dispatched before more than a basic plan is formed for the rest of the unit. Their job is to find the answers the rest of the unit needs to form a plan.
All of this information helps the rest of the org make good decisions about what to do next. The rest of the organization will still make contact with the enemy eventually and will learn a lot in the process, as they get close they will start collecting their own information, they will send out their own skirmishers, they will study the terrain they are going to fight on and decide how to make it work to their advantage, but all of this starts with scouts going ahead of the Army to paint the first picture of the situation.
In the Army larger units have progressively larger reconnaissance organizations. Much as a startup may only have one product manager or simply the founders, an infantry company might have single scout sniper section. But a battalion has a scout platoon and a brigade a whole squadron. These increasingly larger teams give the commander the ability to reach farther forward and get more information from more places.
How you deploy your scouts or product managers can vary greatly by what you need for each operation. Concentrate the scouts on a high value route reconnaissance and you will know everything about a given piece of terrain. Do you need to get some general details on a broad area, spread your scouts out and get a broader but less detailed view of the world.
One thing neither the cavalry nor all the product managers in the world can do for you is to answer all of the questions your organization might have. The fog of war is real and good scouts can only lift a little bit of it for a limited amount of time. If poorly deployed or organized they can leave you blind and let the rest of the team walk into the unknown.
In this analogy our Product Managers are you scouts, and the engineering, UX, UI, marketing and support teams are the troops following behind. the enemy might be your competitors, or it could be your users, the terrain might be your tech debt and current features. Regardless of how you fill in this analogy, I think that product management can and should be filling the role of scout in lot of product organizations.
We don’t have to own the outcome, that is a team effort. But Product Management can and should be helping chart the course by telling everyone else what lies ahead and helping them form a plan about how they are going to solve the problems that they will encounter along the way.