The Product Manager vs. the Product Portfolio Manager
March 30, 2021

The Product Manager vs. the Product Portfolio Manager

by Brian de Haaff

Ambition is in your nature. It is why you got into product management. You have an innate desire to find ways to improve and drive value. And you are eager to advance in your career because career growth means more responsibility and more opportunities to achieve. Growing into a director-level role and managing a portfolio of products is a natural next move for many product managers — especially if you have a hunger for driving even greater success across a business.

Both roles require strategic leaders who work to deliver great products and drive business growth. But they do it in different ways.

Product managers define the strategy and build the roadmap for a single product. Product portfolio managers oversee a group of product managers who are each responsible for a product. These folks set the strategic direction for the portfolio as a whole — ensuring that collectively, the products contribute to moving broader organizational objectives forward.

Product portfolio managers typically exist at large, complex organizations. They are usually brought on as companies transition from a few to dozens of products and need someone who can take a broad, strategic view of the portfolio against the market landscape. They provide value by identifying new product opportunities, deciding how to improve existing products, and optimizing resource allocation (e.g., money and people) across the suite.

This person might come into a growing organization and quickly identify unmet customer needs in an adjacent market. They might look to add a new product to the portfolio that can meet those needs. Or they might shift resources to existing products that can be enhanced in such a way that it serves new users better. They will also determine which products are under-performing relative to the rest and identify ways to reallocate some of the team working to support it.

Product portfolio management can be incredibly rewarding — if you are an experienced product manager you might be curious about what it takes to grow into this type of role.

You already have what it takes to build and deliver a lovable product — you just need to learn how to flex your skills on a different level in the organization. Here are five skills that every great product manager already has and how those skills typically play out at the product portfolio level:

Strategic planning

A product manager determines the direction of a given product. You work backwards from the high-level product vision, setting goals and defining themes of work that will help you achieve it. You plan releases, determine what features will get built, and visualize how all of this work connects to your strategy and the timeline for implementing on your product roadmap.

A product portfolio manager determines the direction for the portfolio of products. This requires applying your strategic planning skills more broadly. Be ready to start with the business-level vision and identify where you need to invest across the portfolio to get there. You will then need to define an umbrella set of objectives that span across multiple products and link the suite to the business strategy. The resulting portfolio roadmap visualizes each product's progress towards these objectives.

Market awareness

A product manager is an expert in the market landscape for a single product. You know your industry, market size and characteristics, and competitive landscape. You understand what your customers need and want — because you speak with them often. You use this information to set the direction of your product, vet ideas from your community, and define which features you will build next.

A product portfolio manager deeply understands the market that each product in the portfolio serves. You will need to know each product's current market share and be aware of the opportunities that exist in untapped markets. This will help you identify where customer needs are going unmet and determine how you can fill those gaps by adding new products to the portfolio or increasing investment in existing ones.

Business acumen

A product manager knows how a single product impacts the health of the business. And you use this understanding to make smart product decisions. That means you do not succumb to shiny object syndrome. You build features that you know will meet your customers' needs and generate return on investment (ROI) for your organization.

A product portfolio manager has to know how the entire portfolio impacts the health of the business. You will need to think beyond the impact of individual features and assess the overall risk and opportunity profiles of each product within the suite. That insight will inform business cases for which products to invest in and which to pull back from. Your objective is to maximize ROI for the portfolio as a whole.

Analytical expertise

A product manager tracks and analyzes product-level key performance indicators (KPIs). This typically includes detailed user data, such as time in app or features used. You are skilled at finding patterns and uncovering the "why" behind the metrics. This helps you better understand your customers' problems and needs and informs your decisions about how to best meet them.

A product portfolio manager analyzes portfolio progress against business-level KPIs — such as customer acquisition within certain segments or profit margins. These metrics help you identify which products are performing best and which are lagging. You will then have to make prioritization and resource adjustments to keep the portfolio on track towards achieving those high-level objectives.

Communication skills

A product manager is great at leading without explicit authority. You rely on different cross-functional groups contributing to the product. This includes product leadership, developers, marketers, and salespeople. So you are adept at knowing what details each functional group needs in order to best contribute to building a lovable product.

A product portfolio manager translates critical information to different groups too. You will need to share the right details about the portfolio-level strategy to each product manager on your team. But you will also communicate regularly with your company's leadership. You will likely be asked to speak to the "why" behind your strategy, funding decisions, and resource allocation when meeting with executives — as well as sharing the progress of the portfolio as a whole.

If you are passionate about strategic alignment and you love seeing how your work drives business growth, you have a real opportunity to do that even more at the product portfolio level.

Meaningful career growth starts with thoughtful consideration about your current strengths and where you see yourself five or ten years from now. If product portfolio management is the right next move for you, start planning concrete steps for how you can grow and expand your existing skills and gain some exposure at the portfolio level.

You will enjoy many of the same aspects of product management, such as strategic planning, roadmapping, and data analysis. But you will have the privilege of doing so on a much broader scale — working with multiple product managers and alongside business leadership.

What do you think it takes to manage a portfolio of products?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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