We need more Product Managers. Ignore the haters.
Seriously. In the past few years, there has been an increased call to restrain the enthusiasm around Product Management and what they bring to the tech business. Some people claim the role is over-hyped, over-sized and even meaningless. They argue that its functions should be undertaken by more specialized professionals, leaving so-called “generalists” aside.
These criticisms are entirely legitimate, but if any organization were to follow them, they would be making a grave mistake.
Product Managers: Plenty of Problems…
If you are a sensitive Product Manager, cover your eyes and wait for the happy ending. If you are ready to face the truth, keep going.
There are three factors that make PMs vulnerable targets to criticism. Popularity; job title inflation; and technological transformation.
First, admit the obvious. Anything that becomes too popular can die of its own success. Tech is a sector where trends emerge and die quickly. This applies to everything. For instance, there was a time when video marketing seemed all the rage. Then, Facebook switched its algorithms and it was live video that became important. Suddenly, all those actors that had transferred assets to this strategy found themselves without a viable way forward.
Similarly, there have been hundreds of books and articles published on the product revolution. How the digital world demands a new kind of professional, somebody who can juggle the technical, business and design requirements found in Silicon Valley operations. How these product people are the glue connecting these teams, adaptable and forward-looking. Does this sound familiar? The popularity of the position has created a coalition for those who feel displaced by it. For some marketing people, they might just seem glorified engineers; for some engineers, PMs could look like geeky marketers.
Another particular trait connected to tech is “job title inflation”. What does this mean? Long gone are the years of building digital empires out of university facilities, public research departments or garages. Today, the key tech actors are big. They emerge out of alliances with established corporations. They command some of the world’s largest funds. And, of course, they come from very diverse backgrounds. Perhaps software engineers like Bill Gates were a bit too modest with their early ambitions. Or, maybe, there are just way too many Vice Presidents out there!
Job title inflation has elevated some individuals to Product Management (as a title) without granting them actual PM responsibilities. PMs are supposed to be in charge of a particular product or feature from the beginning to end. Sure, they still respond to a hierarchy; but they are meant to be autonomous and have a certain degree of “creative freedom”. Sadly, in some enterprises, executive teams are either mistrustful or simply oblivious of the PM role. They skip the chain and communicate directly with lower functions; this makes some PMs irrelevant: but not all. Other Product Managers are simply not up to the task and this creates a negative perception around their performance.
Finally, technological transformation is the driving force of this whole sector. However it might affect some people who cling to the old paradigms, digital leaders are disruptors. We have covered in the past how Product Managers superseded Project Managers right when the economy began turning towards the virtual world. No longer seeking to be limited by industrial era methodologies; PMs developed their own set of rules. Agile, Jobs-To-Be-Done, the switch to mobile… all of these changes were both led and created a necessity for product people who could understood them.
But, now, we could be at the cusp of an even greater transformation. Ironically, it could make current PMs look as obsolete as elevator operators or video store owners. Increased global connectivity and computing capacity has brought more and more people into the virtual world. However, at the same time, everyday objects are becoming “smart”: the Internet of Things (IoT) will involve the reunion of twentieth-century physical design and twenty-first century digital design. This greater need for data analysis, user experience design and awareness of coding language to navigate our lives will almost require Product Management 2.0.
Those who are not ready to discuss these problems openly, they should really keep quiet about Product Management. In fact, leading tech voices are already figuring out ways to integrate physical and digital products, obtain better data or extend Internet coverage. Thus, these issues are not insurmountable. They just need better Product Managers.
…But Product Managers Are Problem-Solvers
Remove all. Get rid of the trappings of a modern office. Fly above, beyond Silicon Valley. Go back in time, before machines. What can you see? What is the basis of human progress? Exactly. The division of labor: the separation of tasks for their efficient undertaking. To each according to their skills. While we remained tied to natural cycles, tasks went unchanged through most of our lifetimes. Tilling the soil or mining the earth, it was really simple to organize our work. It was a matter of sheer numbers and time.
Fast-forward to today, and this makes no sense. Throwing time and money to certain problems is not going to solve them tout suite. It is thinking, first; and doing, second, which actually determines success in today’s economy. If brute force was the ultimate key; Microsoft would have dominated the PC market forever and Nokia would have equally reigned over smartphones. It was not the case: superior design from Apple broke both of them. The company redefined an entire market via the popularization of smartphones.
And, below executive levels, those enacting ambitious operations like these are Product Managers. All firms have certain inherent tendencies: isolation between teams, loss of innovative thrust, broken communication with users… It just so happens that, in the ensuing decade since smartphones were picked up by everybody, our entire lives are being redefined by apps and other software. Uber, Airbnb, Tinder… these platforms have been able to escape the “valley of death” and grow exponentially. All thanks to effective Product Management.
What is the secret?
Above all, the cross-functionality that is precisely criticized so often. “You cannot cover it all!”. “PMs try to do too many things at the same time”. These critics are missing the point!
A single User Experience expert cannot connect dots with Marketing requirements. An isolated Software Engineering team will not be able to switch timelines if needed. But neither will regular managers be able to integrate all these demands, consider their appropriateness and redefine them for the entire team. Particularly in large operations, executives are too busy with general developmental lines to be able to understand these horizontal concerns.
It takes someone like a Product Manager, who is able to move horizontally and vertically, to lead these companies to success. Usually, these professionals have led transitions from positions that later became internal stakeholders. They understand the struggle involved in the daily execution of menial tasks. In fact, their technical-prowess and business acumen can save firms a lot of money. This is because they focus on efficiency; they are willing to break their own roadmaps to prioritize product success. This is their ethos. If it were up to Marketers, the feature would launch today; if it were up to Engineers, it would launch next year. A PM knows when to say no, when to keep going and (most importantly!) why.
Yes, Product Managers are becoming increasingly linked to effective data management. If founders are the purest creatives; and execution teams the most attached to targets; PMs sit in the middle. They reconcile the Product Vision with its execution, allowing ambition to be broken up into doable, measurable goals. Equally, they are at the connecting point between Product Marketing and Development. This is because PMs always keep in mind that “empty chair” which is so often forgotten by development teams; but also over-emphasized by sales and executive teams.
All of these factors make Product Managers a useful if not vital asset for any contemporary operation. Certainly, there can be badly described positions on job ads; there can be dysfunctional offices; there can simply be bad Product Managers. This can make it hard to understand the value PMs bring into an organization. Every time anyone doubts your worth, however, show them the description above. Did they even know that PMs are behind some of the most revolutionary digital applications from the last decade? Probably not.
We Need Fewer “Product People”, We Need More Product Managers
Tech people are usually very humble. This is a sector in constant reinvention, and you never know what the next steps will be in the next five, ten or twenty years. Thus, no one is really essential. However, calls for the irrelevance of certain positions also sound a little bit presumptuous. Even if they are innocent opportunities for debate, questioning the usefulness of Product Managers because they “cover too much ground” is mistaken.
Perhaps the problem is that there are too many “product people” out there. Some companies have thought that it is enough with a change of name to enact a transformation in their way of doing things. But any such efforts must be guided by an adequate understanding of the theory and practice behind product. They are doing a disservice to the discipline, the tech world and the professionals they hire if they disregard the essential body of practical knowledge developed by industry leaders.
Are you a “product person”? Or a Product Manager?