The Complex Boundary Between Product & Engineering Leadership

Effective product and engineering leadership is all about creating clarity, increasing capability, and improving the system, and doing that through active collaboration. The responsibilities of product and engineering leadership are tightly coupled and represent important trade-offs.

In too many organizations, the product and engineering teams operate in an adversarial, dysfunctional way. Great products never result from this setup. In this episode, Richard and Peter share the antidote to such a situation, clarifying where to draw the line on specific responsibilities for product leaders and engineering, and where (and how) to collaborate effectively. It’s a complex boundary, with lots of trade-offs, but great organizations constantly improve how they navigate those in service of their vision and strategy.

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Episode transcription

Peter Green

Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show!

How do the best product and engineering leaders collaborate to create amazing products? Today, we’re sharing the approach we’ve seen used by the most successful organizations we’ve worked with.

Richard Lawrence

In our consulting work with product development orgs, we’re often working with cross-functional leadership teams that include a head of product and a head of engineering, among others. And a common challenge these teams face is teasing out what belongs to product leadership and what belongs to engineering leadership. And, there are some things that are pretty obvious. But there’s also a lot of complexity. Areas of responsibility that span the two sides of the org and decisions that have tradeoffs and cascading effects.


So, in this episode, we’ll talk through how we use the Humanizing Work 3 Jobs of Management model to help our clients think through product leaders’ and engineering leaders’ responsibilities.

But before we get into it; this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company.


Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. So, to that end, we do training, coaching, and consulting in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work


If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on and schedule a conversation with us.

In a product development org, what is product leadership responsible for, what’s engineering leadership responsible for, and what requires active negotiation and collaboration at the boundary?

At Humanizing Work, we believe leaders with empowered teams and individuals have 3 jobs:

  1. Create Clarity
  2. Increase Capability
  3. Improve the System

Let’s break down how each of these jobs—creating clarity, increasing capability, and improving the system—play out in the dynamic between product and engineering leadership.


When it comes to creating clarity, product leadership and engineering leadership have distinct yet complementary roles.

Product leadership is responsible for clarity about the customer, their biggest problems, and the product vision, strategy, and typically backlog that describe solutions at different levels of granularity. They ensure that everyone understands the direction the product is headed and why.

On the other side, engineering leadership owns clarity about the technical values and standards for engineering work. They set guidelines and quality standards that engineering teams follow.

Engineering is also responsible for bringing deep technical expertise on what’s possible in the product. So, the backlog is often created collaboratively. Product says, “Well, here’s a problem worth solving and what a solution might look like for our customers.” Engineering says, “Well, here are some ways we might solve that and their relative costs and other tradeoffs.” And then they come to some alignment, typically with product making the final call if there’s disagreement.


Almost always, there’s additional engineering-focused work that should be prioritized—technology upgrades, technical debt cleanup, architectural improvements. Strong engineering leaders make the business case for those efforts so that they get prioritized accordingly.

If the collaboration between the two groups isn’t healthy, things can get unbalanced. For example, tech debt might grow in the product because fixing it never gets prioritized above new features. Or every feature may be more expensive than it needs to be because engineering insists on a stronger definition of Done than is really required for a sustainable product. The sweet spot comes from healthy collaboration and negotiation.

Next, let’s look at the role of each side of leadership in increasing capability.

Product leadership is responsible for developing the capability to do effective discovery, customer research, and managing the backlog. They ensure that they are hiring and coaching product managers to build the skills and tools to understand customer needs and then translate them into features delivery teams can build.


Engineering leadership, in contrast, is responsible for the capability to deliver on the backlog. This includes an awareness of and ability to address non-functional requirements and quality concerns. Engineering leaders hire and coach engineers that evolve the organization’s overall technical capabilities, keeping up to date with what is just now possible in the rapidly evolving technical landscape.

It’s crucial that people in the product organization understand enough about the technology to work effectively with the engineering team on tradeoffs, costs, and non-functional concerns. Conversely, people in the engineering organization should understand enough about the problem space to act as strategic partners. They should be able to propose cost-effective and efficient solutions to customer problems, rather than just executing orders.

If the division between product and engineering is too pronounced, it can create an adversarial culture. In such a culture, product might push features without considering engineering’s needs, while engineering might focus on their own goals without aligning with the product vision. Effective capability development requires a collaborative approach, where both sides work together to achieve common goals.


Finally, let’s talk about improving the system. Some systems might clearly fall within the domain of one leadership area or the other, but most systems—especially those around authority, information, workflows, and collaboration—span both product and engineering. To optimize these systems for the whole organization, product and engineering leaders must work together closely. They need to co-create systems that facilitate seamless collaboration and efficient workflows, ensuring that the organizations function as a cohesive unit.


In summary, effective product and engineering leadership is all about creating clarity, increasing capability, and improving the system, and doing that through active collaboration. The responsibilities of product and engineering leadership are distinct, but they’re tightly coupled and there are important trade-offs.

This, by the way, is why we like to work with leadership in a product development org as a leadership team, not just as individuals leading their own silo, and why we use the 3 Jobs model to ensure everybody knows how to contribute to that leadership team. This approach doesn’t just resolve ambiguities but it fosters a culture of collaboration around a shared purpose.

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Humanizing Work Show. If you found this discussion valuable and want to learn more about how to lead empowered teams, turn ideas into actionable plans, and foster better collaboration, visit and schedule a conversation with us.







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