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Brandon Gardner on demystifying the Fractional Product Manager Role
Product State Q&A
EC: In which situations is it wise to consider Fractional Product Managers?
BG: It is a great question because many people still don’t understand when they would be better off leveraging a Fractional Product Manager (FPdM).
To start, let’s define an FPdM as someone who is working part-time for a set duration (typically months).
Fractional product work is such a new concept within the discipline and practice that it is important to define what it is.
AND The knee jerk reaction of most product leaders when they hear ‘fractional’ is that without a full-time person working 40-60 hours a week for the next 1-2 years, how can you get work done?
That is a truth.
However, the other truth is that you have products and projects that have full-time PdMs when you only need part-time FPdMs. There are too many benefits to a FPdM to not consider its fit.
Before answering specific scenarios, what I have found is that FPdMs are best suited for situations where you as the Product Leader have two simultaneous needs — flexibility and focus.
Flexibility: You are in a situation where you need flexibility for a limited time and duration.
Focus: The lack of focus yourself and your team is starting to hurt your goals, objectives, product and team morale.
Here is a list of some of the more common scenarios. However, note this list is not exhaustive:
Mature Products: When a product has reached its peak in the business lifecycle, it may not require extensive investment or attention. A FPdM can manage such products, allowing the organization to focus resources elsewhere. An Example would be any product that has been in the market for many years that has already saturated the market and is very well understood by marketing, sales and support. There isn’t much more to differentiate the product, but needs to retain its customer base.
Startups: Early-stage startups juggling numerous responsibilities can benefit from having a Product manager that has flexible time. The Startup can manage their cost and expenses while still have an experienced Product manager.
Temporary Absence of PdM: In cases where a full-time PM is on extended leave (e.g., maternity, paternity, or health-related), an experienced fractional PM can step in to maintain the roadmap and ensure product continuity.
Zero-to-One Products: For new opportunities that have initial market validation and promising business potential, a fractional PM can collaborate with developers to rapidly iterate and explore the market potential before taking the risk of hiring a full time PM, and without overburdening existing PMs working on revenue generating products already.
Preventing Burnout: When teams are stretched thin managing multiple products, a fractional PM can alleviate the workload and prevent burnout, while buying time to secure the budget for a full-time hire.
Interim Replacement: If a full time PdM departs, a FPdM can fill the gap temporarily, ensuring a smooth transition while the organization searches for a strong long-term replacement.
Short-term side projects:FPdMs can manage side projects that demand attention, without distracting the core team from their primary focus. See Case Studies
Budget Constraints: When an organization has limited capital, hiring a FPdM can be a cost-effective solution, providing expertise and management capabilities without the commitment and expense of a full-time hire.
The bottom line: When evaluating your own situation, understand if you have a high need for flexibility and focus, and you will most likely find the best answer in a FPdM.
EC: What are some of the challenges that fractional PMs have to overcome to ensure they create meaningful impact rapidly?
BG: Rapid impact is critical to being successful as a Fractional Product Manager. You have to come up to speed and start delivering value extremely fast. —Otherwise, you might not be called back. There are several challenges you have to overcome, but with the right approach, they can be managed.
Every company operates differently, so you must quickly adapt to their product operations. I recommend to draw on your experience with various operating models, demonstrate flexibility, and swiftly align with the company's processes.
Trust is another important aspect. Building trust takes time, but from day one, You will be evaluated and scrutinized. I like to establish credibility by providing evidence and data in discussions, seeking daily value-add opportunities, and aiming for short-term wins within 2-3 weeks.
Also, admitting when you don't know something and commit to doing further research will demonstrate humility and a willingness to learn. This helps enhance trust and strengthen relationships with stakeholders.
Acquiring in-depth knowledge of the company's product is vital. Leverage your expertise in identifying similarities and patterns across products to quickly understand the new product landscape.
While fostering relationships is essential, you will need to balance this with your primary objective. My recommendation is to focus on being kind, getting to know others — while you are familiarizing yourself with the project. Remember that you are there to deliver results, which will naturally lead to forming connections.
Ownership is important, but as a fractional PM, you don't have the final say. When facing disagreements with the client, support your recommendations with data and reasoning. However, be prepared to commit to their decision quickly while maintaining a focus on delivering value.
Finally, navigating and adapting to the company culture can make or break a fractional PM. You are going to see a lot of different cultures, good and bad. Embrace the company's values, and stay aware of organizational nuances to facilitate smoother integration. Make sure you have an understanding of the org chart and you identify the real decision-makers.
EC: Why should an experienced PM consider going fractional?
BG: Well, fractional product management isn't for everyone. In fact, many people would absolutely hate it. So I think it's important to have a strong ‘why’ before embarking on this journey. But there are definitely some benefits to consider.
One big benefit is flexibility. Fractional work allows for greater control over your schedule. You don't have complete freedom, but it does offer more flexibility than a traditional full-time role. Plus, a lot of fractional jobs support remote work, so you can work from wherever you want.
Another benefit is entrepreneurship. If you're developing your own product or business and need to balance your time, fractional product management can be a valuable option. This approach allows you to work part-time for another company while dedicating time to your own venture.
Going fractional can also provide a lifestyle change. It gives you more time to pursue your passions and interests outside of work, whether that's personal projects, hobbies, or family commitments.
Working as a fractional PM allows you to gain exposure to different companies, industries, and product types. This variety can help broaden your perspective, enhance your skillset, and help you understand your passions. Plus, engaging with multiple clients or organizations in a fractional capacity can help expand your professional network. Building relationships with diverse stakeholders can lead to new opportunities, collaborations, or potential full-time roles in the future.
So while it's not the right fit for everyone, there are certainly some compelling reasons for experienced PMs to consider going fractional.
“Rapid impact is critical to being successful as a Fractional Product Manager. You have to come up to speed and start delivering value extremely fast.”
- Brandon Gardner
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