Program managers can learn a lot from product managers.

You’re running a multi-billion dollar company. All the numbers trend in the right direction. You’re savvy and insight got you to the pinnacle of corporate leadership. The view from the summit looks sunny and clear as far as you can see.

Now there’s some program manager telling you to change. Why? Because success is a huge risk, Mr. Fancy Pants.

The Framing Problem

Managers tend to frame problems in self-serving ways. If this is done at a high enough level in a large company, most everyone in the company comes to believe the self-serving frame of reference. Middle managers and program leaders get out of step.

Both market incumbents and competitors are incentivized to bend the truth in self-serving ways. Incumbent businesses try to protect themselves. They don’t want regulators and clients to see them as exploitative, even though the incumbent enjoys dominant market power. Entrepreneurs are always biased to understate the scale of competition. that’s how they secure ongoing finding and investment. But underestimating the competition is the biggest mistake a startup can make.

We’re interested in the lies big companies tell themselves. There’s usually a public frame and a private frame. Publicly the incumbent frames the competition as powerful and threatening to the incumbent’s business. Conveniently, the incumbent has an ongoing program to counter those threats.┬áPrivately, senior leadership see those sunny skies we talked about earlier. They know they have the upper hand, and so they find no good reason to really change anything.

This mismatch between public and private frames of reference can cause untold confusion. This is how departments get out of step. How reports get sanitized. How executives get out of touch. How programs fail.

Who is supposed to prevent this from happening?

Entrepreneurs Depend on Product Managers

In startups, product managers pull the circles together. They are the stakeholder with cross-business concerns, looking after the go-to-market process. They know the customer, the tech, and the business. They set direction as much as align and influence. They often have responsibility without complete authority. They have to make better arguments and tell better stories to get things done.

Doesn’t that sound like enterprise program management? We can learn a lot from today’s enterprising product managers.

Enterprises Depend on Program Managers

The entrepreneurial product manager tries to discover valuable, feasible, and desired products. Enterprise program managers – especially in the mobile development space – try to find valuable lines of business that no one is building. There’s a lot of crossover between product management and program management, but there’s also a few key differences.

  • Product managers have fewer stakeholders. Program managers can have massive issues managing internal expectations.
  • Product managers can make decisive decisions. Program managers usually have to operate through standards, processes, and gates.
  • Product managers are closer to the customer. This is one that program managers need to fix. There is no reason program offices cannot get direct feedback from clients, sales, and marketing.

The practices of our colleagues in product management have a lot to teach us in the enterprise space. It’s time we took their contributions more seriously.


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