Program Managers: Linchpin of Product Development Agility

The rate of technology and market change today is staggering. For example, who could have imagined Google and Apple displacing auto companies? Yet, too many companies lack a Portfolio Management process that enables them to respond effectively to such shifts in markets and in the labs. Even many companies that have an adequate portfolio process lack the ability to make the decisions that allow them to alter course quickly. This results in products that lose competitive market position and fail to meet revenue targets.

Program Managers are a key to meeting these competitive threats. They are playing their proper role in portfolio decision-making when and if:

A) Program Managers are a part of the groupthat decides if changes in a project’s course are indicated.

B) Executives understand and support Program Managers' decision-making role.

C) Program Management’s role in decision-making is communicated to the wider organization and the organization buys into it. Program Managers have a platform if and only if they have a decision-making role and everyone knows it.

The Problem: Poor Portfolio Management = Slow Decision Making

Consider a division of a large communications company that had developed a concept for an innovative mobile security product targeting apartment dwellers. The product involved a wearable piece of hardware (something like FitBit’s products) and an app.

Since this was a new business for the company, they began by writing a detailed strategic plan. Their plan seemed to have included everything: market capital, a go-to-market strategy, a service and support plan, the works! What this company failed to do, however, was to create comprehensive roadmaps that showed the product’s technology and platform evolution.

A small Silicon Valley start-up that had developed an elegant solution to a key technology challenge then appeared on the scene. Because the larger company did not have a detailed roadmap, they didn’t know if the technology to compete with the new entrant was in the current or the next generation platform. They didn’t know when a competing feature set would occur. Consequently, they couldn’t accelerate their development process to meet the competitive threat.

The result: the company lost three months of reaction time. They permanently ceded this feature to the competitor and had to focus on different types of differentiation.

The Solution: Empowerment + Roadmaps

If your company faces similar challenges, then the solution is two-fold. First, empower Program Managers to have input in decision-making when mid-course corrections are required to meet competitive threats.

Why should Program Managers enjoy a broader, decision-making role? Because they are close to the day-to-day operations, and understand the program definition, resources, risks, and financials.

While such mid-course decisions are usually the domain of General Managers, it is necessary to have cross-functional input. Business development, corporate development, product development, and marketing are usually at the table. Program Managers, however, are often left out. They need a platform and they need the authority to make decisions and not sit on the sidelines.

Empower your Program Managers to weigh in and strongly influence decision-making. Write this decision-making authority into the job descriptions and program plans. Make sure that all stakeholders understand that Program Managers have this authority and responsibility, and that higher management buys-in.

A roadmap like the one below is also an effective portfolio management tool when unexpected competitive threats arise. Place your markets, products and technology categories, on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis. Diagrams like these provide your teams and managers with a visual guide for decision making when unexpected changes or risks occur.

Conclusion

Your portfolio process is the lever of agility. If your company does not have a portfolio process for its products and technologies, it needs to start by developing one. Portfolio management, however, is necessary but not sufficient. Your company also needs a clear map articulating which features are brought to market on which platforms. Product and technology roadmaps are among the best tools for tracking programs and enabling decisions around them.

When meaningful change occurs in markets or technology that affect individual programs, it is also essential that the Program Managers are involved in the decision-making. They own the global view of their programs. Don’t leave the question of mid-course correction to GMs or heads of Marketing alone. Program Managers must play a key role in framing a competitive response.