July 23, 2020

What core and growth PMs can teach each other

As product becomes intrinsically related to business outcomes, the product manager role has evolved to reflect its more direct influence on business growth. One element of this evolution is the emergence of a new kind of product manager (PM)—the growth PM

While still relatively new, this role is quickly gaining traction in a world where agility and adaptability are crucial capabilities. Organizations that have adopted this role are now trying to define and fully leverage the relationship between core PMs and growth PMs. They are looking to see where the two roles are aligned, where they are different, and how they can work together most effectively to optimize the customer experience and drive positive business outcomes in the short and long term. 

My first foray into product management was before the Dotcom crash, but even back in those days I really liked the way the PM role focused on making decisions about what was most important for customers. I loved the empathy and appreciation for user needs that came from a deep desire to really understand the “why” behind a product. 

After a long and varied journey that included a wide variety of roles in industries from music to publishing to finance and beyond, I am now a Product Excellence Consultant for productboard, the product management system that helps more than 2,600 product-led organizations understand what users need, prioritize what to build next, and rally everyone around the roadmap. I still think of the product manager as the “Owner of the Why,” but now I’m also interested in understanding exactly how the traditional PM role and new growth PM roles are living up to that responsibility.

How product management has changed

In the early days, PMs were more focused on the “what” than the “why.” Their main currency was ideas, many of which were biased based on individual opinions about what should be built. There wasn’t a lot of time spent on why you were building something or even if building it would actually drive a specific outcome like increasing revenue or improving user engagement with a specific feature or functionality. 

This unbalanced focus was partially due to the fact that, back then, PMs didn’t have a lot of accountability for delivering results. Not only do PMs often lack the tools to measure things, when they did have access to data, it was often extremely difficult to mine it for insights. In addition, there wasn’t a lot of cross-functional collaboration. The product development process was the opposite of agile. It mostly involved throwing ideas over the fence to design and engineering with instructions on how to basically paint by numbers and fill in the blanks. 

Today, the entire PM conversation has finally shifted to be more about outcomes than outputs. Companies are under more pressure to quickly demonstrate value in the business and achieve meaningful success. And they are looking to product teams to play a pivotal leadership role in these efforts. Product now has much greater influence within an organization because customer experience (and, ultimately, customer happiness) has much more influence with customers outside the organization. Product-led business models, for example, lean heavily on the product to engage users and eventually convert them into customers. To successfully deliver on that responsibility, product needs to be empowered to affect change that drives actual results.

Core PMs versus growth PMs

While the role of all PMs has been changing, a new product manager has come on the scene—the growth PM. This new role emerged to help mitigate churn and improve retention in order to increase revenue. In other words, the growth PM is designed to answer the classic question of how to plug a leaky bucket. Compared to the “core” PM, a growth PM plays a very different role and has very different goals.

Core Product Managers

Core PMs are typically responsible for vertical slices of your product, which might be defined by a particular use case, audience, or functional area such as a specific integration or channel. Within their area of focus, core PMs focus on driving larger deliverables, bigger pieces or work including distinct features and capabilities. 

Because the deliverables are large and the stakes perceived as high, core PMs tend to be less able or willing to veer off course in pursuit of smaller wins. They aren’t likely to engage in incremental experiments because to do so creates friction in the overall development process as well as making things unpredictable. Core PMs tend to steer clear of unpredictable situations because they are under pressure to constantly show that they are delivering value. Failure is not an option in the core PM’s arena. 

Growth Product Managers

Growth PMs, on the other hand, take a broader perspective that spans all the different domains within a product. They look at problems and opportunities not through the lens of a particular use case or audience, but in the more expansive context of the core business problem they need to solve. And they have the freedom to design solutions for that problem without being constrained by any particular boundaries within the product or the audience. 

The growth PM has the ability to immediately impact revenue and retention outcomes in a substantial way through rapid and iterative at bats to test incremental changes.

To sum it up, growth PMs are like high rollers who aren’t afraid to roll the dice. They have no problem slapping down bets in quick succession because they are completely comfortable knowing they will win some and lose some. For them, that’s all just part of the game. They may burn through a lot of cash one day, but deliver major winnings the next. 

Core PMs, on the other hand, take a much more cautious and pre-planned approach. They may put five dollars down, and if they lose it leave the table for a few rounds before coming up with a new plan. They are less willing to take big risks because they aren’t conditioned to be comfortable with failure. 

What core and growth PMs can teach each other

The two-role PM model gives you the best of both worlds. Each role travels its own path, but—ultimately—they are both pursuing similar goals and outcomes for the company, primarily to do with revenue and retention. In general terms, growth PMs deliver smaller (but still valuable) wins by using data-driven insights to make strategic changes to existing features and functionality. And while growth PMs are “growth hacking” nuanced pieces of the existing product and experience, Core PMs keep moving steadily ahead on building out central features.

While each type of PM brings their own kind of value to the table, they can both learn a thing or two from how the other operates. 

What Core PMs can Learn from Growth PMs

  • How to embrace small bets and MVPs (minimum viable products): Core PMs could benefit from realizing that it’s okay to squeeze in some work that’s not tied to major milestones. What’s the smallest increment of work you can deliver? Sometimes, that can make a big difference. 
  • How to fail: In all fairness, core PMs need permission to fail, both from their organizations and themselves. Accepting failure as a reasonable cost for potentially moving forward opens up a whole world of possibilities that most core PMs don’t regularly access.
  • How to improve speed, adaptability, and flexibility: Growth PMs are able to move mountains quickly because they have permission to focus on demonstrating the value of something without worrying that everything is all buttoned up behind the scenes. In the growth PM’s world, chaos is okay in service to the ultimate goal. 
  • How to treat experimentation as a learning method: Rather than thinking of experimentation strictly as a risk, core PMs can look at it as a way to collect valuable insights and validate concepts. 

What Growth PMs can Learn from Core PMs

  • How to incorporate the qualitative side of things: Growth PMs are very focused on quantitative inputs: data, numbers, and metrics. But building a truly delightful product requires that you get to the root of what your customers need. There’s a qualitative dimension to that question that core PMs understand intuitively. 
  • How to provide core PMs with measurement: Growth PMs can also put their quantitative expertise to work to help core PMs accurately assess whether they’ve delivered core value to the customer. Many core PMs really struggle with the world of data. It can be overwhelming. Working with growth PMs, they can learn a lot about which data to look at and how to analyze it so it becomes actionable. 

The question of future role convergence for PMs

The growth PM might still be a fairly new role, but already people are wondering if the core and growth PM roles will eventually converge. After all, we once had “digital marketers” and “growth marketers,” but over time those titles have basically become synonymous with “marketer.” I hope that eventually we’ll see the same confluence between core and growth PM roles. While most organizations are still working in the two-role model (and that’s fine for now), ultimately there isn’t a ton of value in breaking these roles apart. 

For now, the focus of each remains distinct—core PMs focus on owning a specific product or piece of the product while growth PMs focus on improving a specific business metric or commercial goal. But as time goes on, and core and growth PMs collaborate more closely, the Venn diagram of their focus areas, goals, and methods will start to look more and more like a circle. 

The most important thing core PMs can do to support closer alignment and working relationships with growth PMs is to start getting into the data and learning how it can help them. This means finding the right partners and collaborators within an organization. That might be the data team, an analytically inclined member of the product team, or—if there’s one on board—a growth PM. Core PMs should tap into these resources to learn more about the data patterns that can illuminate their best path forward. Engaging in this kind of strategic discovery requires being intentional and making a commitment to put time aside, despite an already over-full plate. That’s no small effort. 

For their part, growth PMs should proactively help educate core PMs on both the hard skills (like working with data) and the soft skills (like learning to take risks, collaborate, and create transparency) of the growth PM role. In PM, a lot of us learn by doing, so opportunities to partner up or shadow each other can be really valuable. 

The short-term mission: Share PM knowledge for maximum effect

At the end of the day, both types of PMs are focused on the same thing: getting customers to experience that core value or aha moment as quickly and as often as possible. The best PMs achieve this by talking to each other—core PM to growth PM and vice versa. Having open, transparent conversations provides an invaluable chance not only to uncover specific opportunities, but to learn by following your curiosity. 

We shouldn’t treat either PM domain as a silo. That’s not the most efficient way to lead customers toward the product’s core value. That’s a task best done together. Core and growth PMs each have unique value to contribute, and when you combine their skills and efforts, it’s a win for the customer and the organization. 

These two roles may converge in the future, but until we reach that point there’s plenty of work to be done bringing them together to support and learn from each other.

Scott is a product management leader and a long-time member of the Vancouver product community with a deep interest in helping others find their opportunity in product management. He’s currently at productboard leading their product excellence practice and previously led teams at Thinkific, Finning Digital, Central 1 Credit Union, Inovera Solutions, and Blue Zone Entertainment.

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