Thriving as a Lone Ranger: 7 Tips to Working as a Product Team of One

Product managers are usually outnumbered in an organization. There will always be far more salespeople, technical types, operations folks, and administrative staff due to the work’s nature. This usually means there’s a small team of product people. Sometimes they are in their own department or reporting into marketing or engineering. In some cases, there’s a product team of one.

In a product team of one, an individual bears the full burden of product management. They have no product peers and no dedicated product leader above them.

Is it Possible to Be a Product Team of One?

For such a cross-disciplinary, multi-faceted role, going at it alone is a tall order. You stay busy by setting the product strategy, prioritizing work items, soliciting and processing customer feedback, keeping up with the competition, and maintaining a product roadmap.

While some may struggle with such broad responsibilities, others manage to thrive in this environment. Those take on the challenge and relish being the face of product. They appreciate their unique influence in the direction and success of a product.

But making it work when you’ve got no help on the horizon doesn’t happen by accident. It takes an intentional investment in building relationships and trust, creating clear and repeatable processes, and continually ensuring stakeholder alignment.

Who Are These Solo Practitioners, Anyway?

Product Teams of One aren’t too different from their peers in larger product organizations. In our most recent survey, we can identify some common characteristics. If you’re interested in learning more about the typical product manager, download our free report.

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Company Size

Company size does play a role in whether you’re the only product person in the house. Our survey found 4% were in companies with five or fewer employees, 31% were in the six to 25 employee range, and 23% had 26-50 employees. But a surprising 15% of lone PMs worked at companies with more than 1,000 employees.

Product Team of One What size company do you work for?

Biggest Challenges

Their biggest challenge is a lack of resources (35% of respondents. This isn’t surprising as product managers wear many hats with no help. Internal politics ranks second (19%), which might be more acute when you don’t have any peers echoing and reinforcing your positions.

Having tiny people management authority tied for third (15%), which makes sense since, by definition, these lone wolves don’t have any direct reports. Needing to spend time on reactive tasks versus proactive strategy (15%) also rings true, as there’s no one to share the burden or delegate to.

Biggest Wishes

A product managers team of one’s biggest wish for 2021 was having a larger product management team (23%). A good chunk of lone product managers would prefer working in a team.  For teams of all sizes, the number one wish of product teams is to have a clearer purpose and company strategy in 2021.

Product team of one challenges and wishes | ProductPlan

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Metrics

Individual product managers’ metrics for success were most commonly based on business-oriented metrics (38%) such as CAC and ARPU. As well as customer-oriented metrics (27%), including Net Promoter Score and retention rates. Only 19% of solo practitioners were judged on actual product metrics, such as usage and adoption.

This heavy skewing toward non-product metrics illustrates that these companies are not product-centric. At this time, these companies don’t value the product itself. Instead, they value its ability to support business goals, which is not necessarily a bad thing. A product’s goals and objectives should be tightly aligned with business strategy.

Imposter Syndrome

Without a supportive team of peers, individual product managers are also likely to experience imposter syndrome. Whether it’s all the time (11%), frequently (27%), or occasionally (35%.) The lack of fellow product people providing positive reinforcement and conducting similar activities can make these folks feel like they’re a bit over their skis.

Past Experience

Looking at these solo product managers’ backgrounds, it is an even split between those with a bachelor’s degree (42%) and those with a master’s (42%). Their experience also trended toward the shorter side, as the majority (54%) had six years or less time in the field. But there were plenty of 15+ year grizzled veterans that also hold full product management responsibility for their organization (23%).

Benefits

With so much on their plate, solo product managers value benefits that emphasize better work-life balance. Their number one requested perk was flexible working hours (35%.) Unlimited PTO also ranked high at 19%, and paid paternity/maternity leave was the top pick for 8%.

Happiness

Despite their complaints and wishes, it turns out the majority of solo product managers are pretty happy with their jobs. 62% were extremely or mostly happy, with only 11% citing their unhappiness with their role.

Ever wondered if your peers are happy in their roles? And if so, what are those product managers doing that makes them happy? In our 2020 product manager survey, we discovered common patterns that lead to job satisfaction as well as issues many product managers deal with on a regular basis.

 

6 Tips for Surviving and Thriving as a Product Team of One

For solo product managers to last and succeed, they need to do a little extra on top of the typical duties the role entails. Here are six tips on making the most of being the product team of one.

1. Continue your education.

While it certainly helps to keep learning, what we’re talking about here is schooling the rest of the organization. Because you are literally the only product manager in the company, there will be far less institutional knowledge about what product management does. Or even why it’s important and what it means for your coworkers.

Holding some lunch-and-learns on Product Management 101 might answer some of those questions for the curious and motivated. But to truly permeate the organization with an understanding of what product management brings to the table, you’ll need to conduct an ongoing education campaign.

The best way to do this is to share and socialize what you’re up to. This includes recapping customer interviews, sharing competitive intelligence and analysis, and explaining how market trends influence your industry, company, and products.

2. Make product plans with a roadmap.

Regardless of their role, everyone in the organization should be somewhat interested in what’s in the works for the product(s) you manage. This is the best chance to showcase yourself and your importance to the company as a whole.

Some coworkers may limit their inquiries to specific delivery dates of particular features. Such conversations open an opportunity to re-frame the discussion. We all know the underlying product strategy and long-term plans for the product are far more important than which day a specific enhancement ship.

To hammer this home, product plans should always hit the why. To be presented in terms of strategic goals, desired outcomes, and the broad strokes to help the product achieve those objectives. One of the most effective ways to do so is, of course, via the product roadmap.

The roadmap shows everyone where the product is, where it’s going, and how it’s doing to get there. Themes connected to specific goals and the key metrics that track progress are the most important roadmap elements.

This approach puts strategy front-and-center and helps get people out of a myopic focus when Thing X is shipping. Using all-hands meetings and similar forums are great platforms for bringing everyone up to speed.

In the first 90 days of your new product manager leadership role, you have the opportunity to discover and propose new directions for your team. It’s vital not to waste this time. To be most effective, it’s wise to go in with a plan. But do you know where to start?

 

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3. Be the silo buster.

As the lone product manager, you must deal with colleagues across the organization. Each of those groups lives in their own worlds at times, and information may not be flowing to other departments that might benefit from it.

By skittering like a waterbug from one team to the next, you can connect the dots and fill in the information gaps for others. You can be the one creating consensus and avoiding dependency-driven pitfalls others might not spot. Over time, people will view you as an essential confidante given your broad, silo-spanning knowledge.

Include representatives from various teams in planning meetings, prioritization sessions, and strategic deep dives. By doing this, you’re bringing together individuals that might normally have the opportunity to interact. They’ll all gain a better understanding of the challenges each team faces. They will understand the why behind decisions and sets of internal priorities.

As the lone product manager, you’re not reporting directly to the CEO. You’ll have to continually reinforce the perception that you don’t only represent the interests of the department you’re in but the product and organization as a whole. Involving others in your processes enforces this.

4. Earn the trust and secure buy-in.

When you’re used to going it alone, it sometimes seems annoying that you need to make others comfortable with ideas and strategies you’ve already spent so much time wrestling with. But there might be no more significant mistake than leaving key stakeholders out of the loop.

If you move too aggressively without building consensus, colleagues from the rank-and-file and executive-level might view you as a loose cannon that doesn’t value their opinion. To counter this, you’ve got to put in the work to build up each stakeholder’s trust in your judgment by NOT going rogue, even when you think the right decision is a foregone conclusion.

As you slowly build a track record of success, you’ll get a longer leash to operate independently. Even then, you should still check in early and often with coworkers impacted by a decision or with the potential to throw a wrench in the works.

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5. Don’t try to do everything.

A product manager’s job description seems impossible for a single human to handle. This is further compounded when you’re the only product person, as there’s no opportunity to divide and conquer.

So, don’t hold yourself to a lofty-yet-unachievable standard. Limit the scope to what matters to the organization right now. Skimp or skip the rest, realizing that those prioritized duties might change as the product matures and the organization evolves.

It’s more important to do a great job on less than a sub-par job on more, assuming you’ve covered the essentials. Concentrate on what adds value and solves pain points for your coworkers (just like you would for your customers) and save the rest for when you’ve got the cycles to do it well.

If you’re concerned that you’re not tackling something that might be important, check with your managers and share that worry. They can help clarify the expectations of what the company needs from product management at this moment.

6. Career growth is on you.

As a lone product manager, you don’t have any real role models within the organization. Your manager isn’t a PM and likely never was one, so they’re only going to add limited value in this department.

Instead of relying on others, this is another responsibility that is yours and yours alone. While there may be opportunities to build and grow the product management team if the business takes off, you’re just as likely to remain on an island for your entire tenure with this firm.

Figure out your own career goals, network with other product managers outside the company, and lobby for the training and tools you need because no one else will even realize you need them. Identify the areas you need to work on and then create opportunities to hone those skills.

Being a product team of one isn’t for everyone. Still, a motivated, entrepreneurial product professional can be a happy place to exist for a motivated, entrepreneurial product professional since you get to help define your role. And the job’s broad scope can also serve as a springboard for bigger and better things.

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