What Does Strategic Misalignment Look Like (& How Can Product Managers Avoid it?)
For a product professional guiding the work of a team, strategic alignment should be the holy grail. Achieving it won’t be easy. To get...
When you find yourself wondering if it’s time to scale your product team, you have what we’d call a high-quality problem. The need to add product management resources probably means your product strategy is succeeding. But, it also means you may be struggling to give your products the strategic attention and expertise they need to continue growing. Rather than talk about the ideal product team size here, we’ll address some observable signs it’s time to think about hiring.
So, let’s jump right in and discuss some signs it might be time to scale your product management team. We’ll also discuss a few common inflection points or product milestones when it often makes sense to hire. Finally, we’ll suggest a few things to do before scaling your product team—so when the time comes, you’ll know you’re making the right decision.
One sign you might need to scale your product team is that you are no longer your customer.
In other words, your startup began when you built a solution to a problem you’ve faced yourself. You wanted to address a single issue with this product, an issue you knew intimately because it affected you. And it worked. You understood your user persona well, because you were that person.
But, as your product has grown more successful, and more customers have signed on, you’re finding a widening list of user needs and requests you can no longer validate or manage. Time to bring on a dedicated product manager to help strategically drive the product.
Product managers are a dedicated, hardworking bunch. The good ones do everything in their power to advocate for their products and keep them succeeding.
But those powers are limited. It’s not uncommon for product managers responsible for fast-growing products to find themselves overwhelmed. Too much data to analyze. Too many customers to interview. Too many requests to prioritize. Too many development details to track. If you see your product manager looking more and more stressed out, it might be time to hire some reinforcements.
Let’s say you have a dedicated product manager, a great one, who helped take your flagship product from those early whiteboard brainstorming sessions to a successful market launch. That’s terrific. Hang on to this gem.
But if your company is considering adding another product to your suite, you might first want to make sure that product will have its own gem—a dedicated product manager—before you greenlight the project. The massive amount of work required to validate, develop, launch, and manage a whole new product may be more than your existing product manager can handle.
Even if you don’t encounter the specific scenarios we just described, as your business grows it will hit other milestones or inflection points. You don’t want to enter a new phase of growth understaffed. During these transitions, pause and ask yourself if the time has come to scale your product team.
We’ve written previously that founders should not be product managers (at least not for long). We know it’s often necessary for an entrepreneur to serve as product manager for the company’s initial product development. When getting a startup off the ground, especially if you’re bootstrapping the project and don’t have big VC money in the beginning, this makes sense.
But for a lot of reasons, a founder/executive should transition out of the primary product management role eventually.
If you find your startup growing, that’s great news. It means you’ve done something right with your product, probably a lot of somethings. At the same time, though, it means you need to at least share the strategic product management responsibilities with a dedicated product manager. That way, you can tend to your other important executive duties while making sure your product keeps getting the attention and advocacy it deserves.
Another milestone that suggests it’s time to scale the product team is if your SaaS company decides to move from offering a single product to a broader online platform.
Under a platform model, you’ll need several product-management skill sets and product managers who can bring (or develop) expertise in different types of functionality that can span multiple product lines. This means even if you already have a dedicated product manager, you will want to consider adding more product managers to your team.
Among the five stages of a product’s lifecycle, the second stage—growth—is often considered the most important. The growth stage represents a company’s chance to establish the market position of its product as well as increase sales and profitability.
The growth stage also represents a whole new set of scaling challenges, such as making sure the product can support its growing user base and that the sales and support teams are able to field the increased level of incoming requests.
At this stage you might need to offload some of this responsibility from your existing product manager—who has been dedicated to product functionality and meeting user needs—and bring in a growth product manager to take on these new strategic challenges.
Of course, even if you see one or more of the signs we’ve discussed so far, hiring more product managers might not make the most strategic sense. First, you need to make sure whatever challenge you’re facing does in fact stem from understaffing.
An assessment of your current team’s roles and responsibilities might reveal you can solve your issues by moving people around, reprioritizing their workloads, or even replacing some, rather than simply scaling up your product team with more staff. You’ll want to ask yourself questions like these:
Maybe you’re lacking a dedicated product manager, but you do have a small marketing team, and one of those team members is actually an experienced product manager. Could you move that person into a full-time product management role, rather than hiring a new person?
Business leaders often find themselves needing to hire more people because their existing team seems overwhelmed. This might be due to a workload that is legitimately growing beyond their capacity, but it could also stem from the fact that the existing team isn’t strong enough. In this case, you might have to replace an underperforming or inexperienced product manager with a more capable one.
If you examine your product team’s priorities and workload, you might discover they are focusing on the wrong things. Maybe your product manager has been caught up analyzing data or spending too much time joining sales reps on sales calls. These might be worthwhile endeavors, but maybe they’re also keeping your product manager from devoting enough time to working with the development team.
And perhaps that is why your developers are complaining the product manager isn’t accessible enough to them. Maybe you don’t need to bring on another product manager—you just need to help your current product manager with time-management skills.
Bottom line: Don’t hire for the sake of hiring. You need to make sure scaling up is the right move, and that takes a careful review of your situation.
When you think it might be time to scale your product team, take a step back and examine your company’s existing teams and how they spend their time. You might find your challenge isn’t understaffing but rather a misallocation of existing resources.
If you determine that, yes, it is time to scale your product team, you’ll want to take a smart, strategic approach to bringing on those new resources. To help you with that, we recommend reading our post on how to hire a great product manager.