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Projects-to-Products: Chief Product Officers

By Brian Nathanson posted Jan 28, 2020 12:41 PM

If these first couple dozen or so posts are intended to lay the foundation for future conversations -- and, maybe...hopefully...the groundwork for starting up new standards for the product management profession, then this post is probably the single most important if you are looking to really make this whole product management thing work for you.

In a nutshell: You NEED to have a Chief Product Officer that oversees each product (or related group of products).

Who is a Chief Product Officer (CPO) you ask? We're not talking about yet another of the innumerable CxO titles that have spawned out there at some firms. No -- this definition of a CPO centers on a very critical role within product-based organizations that satisfies a number of needs. Many of these needs relate to an organization's ability to successfully scale agile.

So again, who is a Chief Product Officer? The defining duties of a CPO are:
  • Oversight of all the Product Owners (POs report directly to the Chief Product Officer)
  • Works with Product Management to determine realistic development goals for each development cycle
  • Reports to the head of Product Management, not Engineering (for reasons that will become obvious in a second)
  • Coordinates across development teams for a particular product by working with the Development managers
  • Monitors development activity to determine whether it is proceeding in an intelligent fashion and identifies any potential gaps from a customer or end-user perspective (this is one of the key differentiators from a VP of Engineering role)

In theory, you could call this person the "Chief Product Owner," but that title doesn't fully reflect the significance that this individual will have on your overall success. If the head of Product Management sets the product vision & strategy and enlists customers in support of said vision/strategy, the Chief Product Officer is the one responsible for tactically making it real. A talented CPO sets up your organization for great things; not having one -- or having the wrong person in the role -- will cause you to struggle mightily with many coordination or tactical delivery challenges.

If you're wondering how all of this works in practice, take a look back at the organizational chart I included in this post. It outlines where the CPO sits -- and illustrates how much of a cornerstone they are to the organization because they sit at the intersection of everything and everyone.

In my next post, I'll concentrate on the characteristics of a strong CPO...the type of person that you want in this role.