Updated: April 11, 2023 - 6 min read
A couple weeks ago, a blog was floating around in the online Product Manager space. It’s entitled, “Are product managers an expensive luxury now?” This provocative question set off threads of debate in the LinkedIn comment section.
The original post was created off the back of Meta’s “year of efficiency” announcement, an update from Mark Zuckerberg on Meta’s strategy in the face of the current economic environment. While it’s true that we can interpret phrases in Meta’s announcement as a resurrection of engineers and death to Product Managers (i.e. “we’re focusing on returning to a more optimal ratio of engineers to other roles”), this is only one narrow interpretation. It’s also the case that Zuckerberg mentions products the same number of times he mentions engineers. Product is a priority for him, and for good reason.
A move towards efficiency doesn’t mean that Product Managers aren’t needed; in fact, it means they’re needed more. Here's why:
Product Managers Are at the Intersection of Everything
Product Managers are at the core of everything. They take on many roles. Everyone else in the team is specialized, but the point of the Product Manager is to have a broad scope and keep their eye on the big picture. Their main functions include:
Making sure users are kept top of mind throughout the company
Collaborating to drive high-impact work that is tied to business goals and user needs, setting direction for outcomes and strategy
Creating cross-functional alignment and buy-in so everyone can work together with transparency and efficiency
It’s challenging for someone in a specialized role to take on these responsibilities. So no, Product Managers aren’t a luxury. They’re a necessity, but their purpose is often misunderstood and their talents can be wasted on things that aren’t always high-leverage for the business or their teams . That’s where this narrative of luxury and inefficiency comes from.
Why Are We Giving Strategists Nonsensical Roles?
The problem is that things have gone awry in the past couple of years in the tech space, affecting our collective perception of Product Managers. Many companies made investments in areas that are neither strategic nor aligned with business outcomes, then hired PMs to manage those areas. That spells trouble for those Product Managers, because a significant chunk of their job is supposed to include driving strategic business outcomes.
So what happens when companies hire a Product Manager to manage an unstrategic product? The Product Manager wastes their time trying to understand how their product goals fit into strategic business goals. And they don’t figure it out, because there is no connection! There’s no clear direction for the product to move in. So of course there are no outcomes. Of course everything takes a long time. You can’t get results and move efficiently if you don’t even know where you’re going. In these cases, I agree – there’s not a real reason for those Product Managers to be there.
This is a far cry from saying that Product Managers are unnecessary for creating excellent products. This is saying that Product Managers become unnecessary when they’re put in charge of initiatives that do not have clear alignment to business objectives or user needs.
This happened to me when I was working at Spotify: there were 6 Product Managers across the organization working on nearly the same thing (with some nuances of course), and we didn’t realize until we started stepping on each other’s toes. We uncovered we were all working on a very similar problem, but the insights that we were leveraging and solutions that we were building were all happening in silos. More problematic, is that we realized we were all building a variation of a similar product that would ultimately create redundancy (and user confusion) if they were all released. The issue here was a lack of alignment, poor communication, and unclear goals and outcomes at the top level – not the Product Managers per se. This also isn’t the fault of tech companies: these are turbulent times for everyone, and we’re all trying to figure it out.
The Evolution of the Product Manager Role
The good news is we can take this moment of disruption in the tech world as an opportunity for Product Managers to decide the direction they want to take their role in the next few years.
We need Product Managers, but we need them in strategic places. It’s less about, “Product Managers are a luxury,” and more about, “How is this role evolving? Where do Product Managers fit into the new landscape?”
The role inevitably will evolve as the world evolves and technology advances. How do we want to shape it?
In the future, this is what I expect to see from Product Teams: We’ll see a move towards empowered cross-functional teams whose work directly ties into discovery and execution, as related to macro strategy. In this case you need a Product Manager who understands the separate parts and brings them together to leverage shared expertise. That’s Product Managers’ super power: to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
But in order for this to happen, companies need to expand the scope for individual PMs so they can be innovative. PMs need to have a scope that’s larger than just a feature; they need to have the reach to clearly 1) see the big picture and 2) drive outcomes towards the larger strategy.
Currently, some people are hired as Product Managers only to be relegated to Product Owners, feature pushers, scrum masters, and backlog groomers. They’re not empowered to think about the end user or business needs strategically. Their day-to-day becomes about driving the team to finish the sprint in front of them.
We don’t need Product Managers in that specialized role. We need Product Managers to align the specialists. We need them to coordinate parallelization of work, dive deep into discovery, and create a plan for efficient execution. When they work on roadmaps and timelines, it’s not to project manage. These are strategic, far-looking roadmaps. These are the roadmaps that say, “hey, we have to build this feature in Q1 if we want to meet our business goal in Q3.”
Product Managers are in charge of the why behind the what. When Product Managers are connected with customer needs and business strategy, they are able to better plan ahead with foresight and communicate across teams. This alignment results in transparency, trust, and team members who understand the larger purpose behind their daily tasks. That means everyone becomes empowered to make better, informed decisions. And guess what? This leads to increased effort and buy-in to the vision.
We still need Product Managers as we move towards efficiency, but we need them in strategic places that make use of their talents. The article “Are product managers an expensive luxury now?” concludes that Product Managers are clearly worth hiring “when you can afford them.” I’d argue that if you want your products to be competitive in the market and user aligned, you can’t afford not to hire them.
Updated: April 11, 2023