The Journey From Product Management To Portfolio Management

Managing a portfolio of products is more than managing the sum of its parts. For most of us as product managers, as we gain experience and responsibility, we do start owning a portfolio of products. This is a step in one’s career that often comes without training. Many vendors will sell you portfolio planning tools, but most of these portfolio planning tools assume a linear lifecycle journey from incubation to new product introduction and optimizing for profitability. However, the reality is more complicated than that.

The Role Of A Product Portfolio Manager

A product portfolio manager (PPM) can have the title of group product manager, director or VP. Regardless of the title, this role has broad responsibilities. The PPM’s objectives are to take the set of products under the portfolio and deliver greater market share or other relevant success metrics. The toughest challenge facing the PPM is often not in making individual products successful but in aligning the various products and, more importantly, their product managers to a common framework and value propositions for go-to-market. Without these, you would not be able to activate your salesforce and achieve maximum market impact.

In the worst-case scenario, the opposite happens. Different salespeople sell against each other. Instead of achieving growth, customers are confused into inaction or worse — they decide to go with another company with a more coherent story.

Managing a product portfolio requires constant attention, measurement and tuning. In addition to objective metrics, it is important for the PPM to be aware of what each product’s management team has as their goals and their challenges. I’d like to share my experience with product portfolio management. Hopefully, these points will provide some food for thought as you consider your product portfolio strategy.

My Younger Days As A Product Manager

Some years ago, I was working at a large company. The B2B product that I managed was included into a portfolio. This happens at a regular interval with strategic initiatives.

The directive to me was to support the development of the product bundle with other products in the portfolio. However, that was all that I was given. I had existing customers from the current go-to-market to whom I had committed certain road map features. I still had my revenue target, so I could not drop those customers immediately, especially when their satisfaction with the company was still important given that they bought multiple products from us.

I was in a conundrum and confused about how I was going to move forward with my road map. I had diverging requirements, an increase in customer personas and still the same set of engineering resources. Eventually, with help from my manager, I figured out how to navigate this dual identity. I reframed my product platform and value proposition, started shifting away from previous go-to-market, but still managed my existing customers through the end of life of my legacy product. It would have been helpful if the portfolio manager had provided some pointers and considerations to help me navigate this.

What A Product Manager Cares About

A product manager cares about the P&L of their product, what they have committed to customers and the ecosystem that they have cultivated to support the products (engineering, support, sales and more). When a product is included into a portfolio, whether it is through a reorg or the creation of a bundle, it is a drastic change for the product manager.

As a portfolio manager, you should anticipate that a product manager will have the typical human response. They may be highly unhappy about the loss of autonomy and route to market. They may play their cards to gain influence over the direction of the portfolio. I would do it too if I were in their shoes. After all, they are looking for ways to achieve their business goals and targets.

What I Would Do As A Product Portfolio Manager (PPM)

As a PPM, I would anticipate the various reactions from the product managers, especially when the portfolio has just been put together or reorganized. I would work with the company leaders to define the market area that the portfolio addresses (e.g., application modernization in the context of migrating to public cloud). Then, I would work with each product manager (or a group of them) to figure out what role their products play in the portfolio story.

Product managers will jostle for positions, which I fully respect. I would treat each of them respectfully and channel their energy toward the portfolio and company-level goals we need to achieve. Not everybody will get to play the starring role. One example I have used was that if you have a cool product with $10 million annual revenue and limited growth potential, your place in the portfolio may be as an add-on feature rather than a base product.

Additionally, I would invite the product managers to contribute their ideas to shape the overall portfolio, including how the products could fit together and how the go-to-market should be coordinated. After all, they would need to operate and deliver results under this big tent (portfolio) that we are defining.

In this article, I have left out incubating new product ideas and features under a portfolio (that’s a topic for another day). Today, with business becoming increasingly more dynamic, corporations take on frequent M&A and portfolio realignment to respond to change. Many product managers would be exposed to the scenario I described above. Have you managed a portfolio of products? What were the challenges and takeaways that you can share?

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