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Product and Project Competencies and Roles

In 2011, two organizations – McKinsey and Egon Zehnder – kicked off a large-scale survey to assess the competencies of more than 5000 leaders in companies that were performing poorly and companies that were exceeding expectations. The results of the survey indicated that average organizations focused on the common approach of identifying and improving the weaknesses of leaders to make them well-rounded. Top tier organizations, on the other hand, encouraged “spiky leadership” where individuals excelled in certain areas and met the bare minimum in other areas which were not directly relevant to their role. These individuals then surrounded themselves with a team that complimented their areas of weakness, resulting in spiky individuals and well-rounded teams.

Image by Ravi Mehta on his website

An individual competency mapping exercise can be a nice way to kick off the conversation about the expected areas of a role. The image above shows the areas where specific roles tend to focus on and develop their spikiness in. As your role evolves, your focus areas should shift into different areas of the chart.

Similar areas of competence can be mapped for product design, UX, quality assurance, and development roles by altering the title of the different areas of the diagram. These areas would vary from organization to organization. A Product Designer in one organization may be asked to focus on designing large scale systems where another organization would ask the role to focus on user research.

Rather than jumping into different product titles, it’s often a good approach to first think about the competencies that are needed from a product person in a given context. Ravi Mehta does a nice job of explaining the different competencies for a Product Manager in this article. He argues that product management roles are either builders or architects and product managers or leaders. We’ve talked about the competencies, now let’s get into the roles, namely those of Product Managers, Product Owners, and Project Managers. Marty Cagan‘s article describes the differences between Product Managers and Product Owners quite well, as does Roman Pichler‘s post.

The role of a Project Manager, however, is also often thrown in the mix. While a product has a lifecycle that can be extended for long and unknown periods of time, a project is a temporary endeavor that has a clear start and end timeline. A project should be a part of at least one product/service and can often include other products or sub-products.

Similarly, a single product can often have different projects.

Products and Projects

The project manager manages one to many projects across their different stages of initiation, planning, execution, performance/monitoring, and project close. They are often required to work with product roles that the project relates to, to try and ensure it aligns and supports the goals of the different products that it’s part of.

Product designers are integral to the product trio and support in prototyping, wireframing, leading discovery activities with customers, and creating user journey maps. Sometimes they may also be referred to as UX designers who are responsible for the user’s experience while they are using your product/service.


How do you find out which competencies and roles would be needed to build your product?

  1. Start by defining the vision and mission of the product or the scope of the project. What do you want to achieve with this product/service? How will it deliver value to the customer in a way that other products can not?

    For example, I would like to make it easier for people to refer brands to one another and get reimbursed for when they do so. I could try and build an app that generates an unique url for each user to track which other user had recommended the product to them and whether the new user has used that recommendation to browse around the website. The brand can then track and compensate the user who recommended their product with discounts, offers and monetary compensation.
  2. Once you have an idea about the scope, list the different skills that you think will be needed in order to achieve that goal.

    Let’s say for our app that includes coding in Python and Java, setting up and conducting user interviews, creating and adjusting visuals on the app, and creating and measuring different indicators of success of the product.
  3. Once you’ve listed those skills that would be needed, map them to the existing roles that you have in the team. How competent are the individuals across the different skillsets? Use the five levels highlighted below between “no clue” to “can mentor others”.
Team Competency map

The example above indicates that while the current team is skilled to create and monitor success indicators, as well as create and conduct user interviews, it lacks expertise in Python and Java software development. This is a signal to bring in people that specialize in Python and Java development prior to kicking off the work.

Conduct competency mapping at the individual level to better understand your role, and at a team level to better understand the skillsets that would be needed to build a product or complete a project. This enables individuals to be spiky and teams to be well-rounded to better tackle your goals and challenges.


Want to continue the conversation? Connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s chat about how I can help you and your organization out.

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