A product manager stepped on my toe

I was sent this question from a list member:

Product managers and devs tend to work very closely together - but have you found that product managers sometimes end up setting the technical direction as well as the product direction? If so, how have you dealt with this?

A nice juicy difficult question here. Thanks a lot!

First up, I’m assuming that the product manager in question hasn’t actually been officially tasked with setting the technical direction, and so this is an overstep on their part.

It’s important not to become immediately defensive here, whether they acted deliberately or not. Try to understand why they’ve seen a need to get involved in the technical side.

It might be that they have a technical background and just can’t resist ‘helping out’. Or they may have had a previous role where technical leadership was weak and they picked up the habit. It can also be hard to spot the point at which product direction steps over into design and technical direction.

Take your company’s product engineering culture and history into account. Is there a history of strong product leadership, or is this person the first product management hire into a strongly engineering-led culture? They may be trying to assert control where they perceive they have little.

As a technical leader, it’s important that you have a private conversation with them as soon as possible to discuss it. Assume the best - that they acted without malice or ignorance and have just misread the situation.

You can avoid making this conversation about personal blame by framing it in the context of team ownership and responsibilities.

Specifically, understand the differences between ownership and responsibility, and how tasks are distributed among the team.

It might be that there is a difference in opinion over who has ownership over technical direction, and who is responsible for it. Those are two different things.

Only one person or role can own or be accountable for a task or area. For technical direction, that’s usually the tech lead.

However, many people on the team (and outside it) can be responsible for technical direction. They contribute to it and work on it collectively. This includes developers, but there’s no reason why it can’t also include non-technical roles. Responsibility for design, product direction and technical direction can often be a collective team responsibility.

When this kind of thing has happened to me in the past, it has almost always been because of an innocent misalignment in understanding of ownership and responsibility in the team. That’s quite easy to resolve with a conversation or two. But it’s useful to be up front about this with the team and make sure everybody understands it and how they’re expected to act.

If after having spoken to the product manager in question you suspect that there is malice, politicking or manipulation in play, the next step is to discuss it with your line manager. It becomes a wider concern at that point.

I hope that helps!

All the best,

– Jim

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