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Career - BLOG

Product Management Is Dead

Ayman Jawhar (INSEAD MBA ‘12J), INSEAD Lecturer in Product Management |

Long live product management – but not as it has been conceived up till now.

As a business leader, you probably think similarly to McKinsey about what makes a great product manager (PM): a perfect combination of skills like business acumen, market orientation, technical skill and soft ones… the usual suspects.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your position), just as our management thinking is becoming outdated and requires reform, we also need to update our view of this ultimate management role.

We need to understand and re-define this role from a more meaningful, tasteful and human-centred perspective, so that we’re able to leverage its full capacity and avoid costly mistakes such as the following:

  • Overwhelmed MBA candidates or start-ups making their first product hire often ask me what a product manager does, how to prepare for an interview and how to secure the best person/role fit. Many end up paying thousands of dollars to random product education outfits only to learn stale frameworks they could have picked up from Medium articles, for free.
  • Employers struggle too. As one of them, you probably grapple to define career ladders for your PMs. Despite everything you read on the topic, it’s still hard to pinpoint exactly what makes an amazing product manager and how that person is expected to grow in your company.
  • Hiring product leaders is not any easier. The director of a top C-suite recruiting agency in London recently reached out to me for help, saying that the Chief Product Officer role is one of the hardest positions to fill and it’s taking her team ages to fill those roles for her clients. For some reason, company founders struggle to define what kind of a profile they want for the ultimate product leader position. She said it takes longer to recruit a CPO than a CEO!

Misunderstandings

To begin with, the main myth to debunk about Product is: Product is not a role.

In fact, it’s more accurately described as a range of activities (and behaviours) in constant flux, which are becoming the centre of value creation in modern companies.

For example, a product manager running a fintech product at a 100-person company in a highly regulated market spends her time optimising features and scaling infrastructure as the start-up grows. However, her equivalent in a five-person consumer tech company would be running discovery sessions to uncover customer needs and finding the product/market fit. From a hiring manager’s perspective, these people are both product managers, but upon closer look, they hold completely different jobs.

The cross-functional behaviours and activities of PMs further distinguish them from other team members as their work exists within and around the work of others. The PM focuses on how people work across domains, co-creating value and, while doing so, embeds a new set of activities and behaviours at the core of each department as a by-product.

Watch your PMs closely, and you can see this continuous cycle of value creation in the following cross-functional interactions:

  • Summarising user research to propose roadmap changes
  • Coordinating deliverable timelines between sales and engineering
  • Resolving execution differences between lawyers and engineers
  • Keeping their teams motivated and focused
  • Spreading emerging practices and product language across the company

Their cross-functional, adaptive behaviour is why it’s hard to standardise product management as a role, organise it into a job description and therefore, find the right person for the job.

A graph showing Product Managers at the intersection of nodes in a company’s network

Product is culture

With the reasons for lack of clarity clear, how do we move towards a solution?

Decouple product management from outdated organisational theories, and stop thinking about it as a role – instead, think of it as a culture.

We waste time trying to retrofit Product into old definitions of work, getting distracted with role boundaries, tactics and day-to-day mechanics. We end up missing bigger outcomes and value simultaneously taking place behind the scenes.

Of course, the expected outcome of a PM’s day-to-day work is still visible and measured: seamless co-creation, decreased costs of coordination, communication and cooperation (classic performance metrics).

But the bigger (and often unnoticed) value of product management is that the department-agnostic behaviour of “product people” means they are the centrepoint of value creation across the company. Product people are responsible for stitching and building the fabric of an organisation – foundations which include vision, constitution, values, systems, language, beliefs and habits.

Together, these elements form a shared understanding of why and how we work together. And they help bring that to life in the form of the company's organisational culture. That’s the real value of product management.

Recently I saw a product leader’s tweet that captured this nicely: What difference would you see between a team of only product people, and a team made up of product, design and engineering? With the first example, nothing new but with the second, both designer and engineer would become more like product managers, as product people build culture at every point of interaction. That’s why we now hear the terms product people and culture, and why multiple London start-ups I know are experimenting with PM-less teams, where team culture replaces a role.

Building the future

Furthermore, thinking of product management as just a role is akin to looking at it from a strict performance/efficiency/output perspective, when it is so much more than that.

We need to strengthen our knowledge around management with the ‘soft sciences’ such as design, creativity, psychology and human science. These add a diversity of perspectives and move focus beyond output and pure performance, which we know can provide a misguided view of success and longevity.

The World Economic Forum provided a good stage for such an example, when a corporate CFO was publicly challenged on his top metric being low unemployment. The Head of Oxfam reminded him that some workers in the United States were forced to wear diapers on their shifts as they weren’t given toilet breaks. Clearly, even our greatest leaders are focusing on the wrong things.

At a time when we see stock markets rally in countries ravaged by the pandemic, as the death rate accelerates globally, it’s clear that the long-term view has decoupled from the short-term, that people have decoupled from the corporation, and that the economy has decoupled from reality.

That is why we need to rethink what and why we build things. Since the people making these future decisions will be product people, we have an obligation to think about and develop that talent beyond foundational mechanics and performance so that they’re more equipped to start building a better future.

Product management as we know it is dead.

We need to move beyond it as a role and instead embrace it as culture, and as the future of work.

Takeaways

So, with this in mind, what should we be doing to embrace the future of work?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Students: Read a book on organisational behaviour. Focus on learning strategies for working with others, culture mapping and psychology. These fluid ‘meta’ competencies are as important as your standard operational responsibilities.
  • Universities: Provide opportunities for cross-functional teams to practise product management on real problems – it’s the only way they’ll get a real flavour of the complexities of working in product.
  • New PMs: Join a product community (domestic and international). Expand your network and learn the craftsmanship of product from diverse teams.
  • Senior PMs: Future-proof your career by getting experience in product coaching and entrepreneurship. The next level of growth for many of us will be in building new product people or new businesses.
  • Hiring managers: Change your view of talent. The ‘meta’ competencies (like social intelligence, empathy and cross-cultural flexibility) are just as important for culture building as ‘traditional’ ones (like product strategy, data analytics) and domain experience.
  • Leaders: Get a coach. As with all management jobs, being successful in the business of changing people’s minds requires strong self-awareness and self-management. The path to both of these is tricky to find on your own. An excellent coach will guide you there quicker, so make use of this shortcut.

Ayman Jawhar (INSEAD MBA ‘12J) is a Lecturer in Product Management at INSEAD.

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Comments
Paul,

Just because the role hard to define and the skill set is hard to find does not make the role obsolete. This is crazy! it is very hard to make Product mgmt a culture as everyone else is stuck with their own execution. You need someone to overlook the product end-to-end and make sure customer needs are being met. While I understand for simpler products this role may be an overkill, complex products and organizations cannot stay away from this role.

Alex911,

Agree with Paul. Come on author, it’s just a bunch of air and clickbaiting here. Get some arguments that make sense before posting such provocative thoughts.

Ayman Jawhar,

Thank you Alex911 for your passionate response and taking the time to read and engage on this topic. Trust me, the intention was no clickbait and if its coming across, feedback is well taken. This stems from pains we have in the product community. Please let me know what doesn't make more sense so I can create value for you be elaborating more?

Ayman Jawhar,

Thanks a lot Paul for your kind thoughts. What we're suggesting for people is to think more about some elements of Product more than other. The point is not claim that things are not there but that they are less important than others. In a not too dissimilar spirit to the agile manifesto (when we say Individuals and interactions OVER processes and tools
), with product, meta-skills are MORE important than tactics and overlooking things end to end. All of this is very area and geography-specific and depends on the maturity of the market/domain. Totally see that some of this nuance is not yet a problem for some domains.

TechGirl,

The title of this article is misleading. I’m waiting for the part where it’s like, ok, you say PM is dead. So what’s the alternative, what’s the future for this job/role? It surely won’t be obsolete anytime soon. Those who read know that soft skills are essential in the workplace and it’s becoming more and more important, but that doesn’t mean PM is dead. Not by a long shot. Better title would be something like: “PM is not just a role, it’s a culture”.

Sks,

The article is highly focused on challenges specific in IT or Technology product mgmt issues. Product Mgmt in other non-tech fields is highly stable and evolved and speaking from experience in both sectors, I would say IT folks should stop complicating product management as if they were the first people to discover it! Couple of key ingredients are a very strong general management grounding (strong MBA programs have a role here) and willingness of the company leadership to listen to their product managers. And product managers need to have courage and heart to speak up for customers - this rarely happens in a world of 'yes sir & yes madame'.

Ayman Jawhar,

Thanks, SKS for your comment. Yes, the article definitely approaches the topic from a software (prefer that wording rather than IT) angle as we believe all sectors will sooner or later digitize completely and the core value would come from the software. SVPG's Marty Cagan writes a lot about the old terminology of IT vs Product mindset (https://svpg.com/product-vs-it-mindset/) which you reminded me of it and Id recommend it for you. And thank you for pushing for healthy management practices which sounds like you are doing.

Ashish Bhasin,

Not only the product is getting complex and integrated with new the ecosystem but also conceiving new product methodology has changed. In a new paradigm shift, would consider product development itself is obsolete terminology. The new world system is moving on to the service methodology. However, the article seems to touch the right point but seems to lack direction "what next."

Ayman Jawhar,

Thanks a lot Ashish for your comment and feedback. We'll hopefully work a series of follow up articles as there are many implications on hiring, perf review, job and company creation, economic policy.. and future of work among other things. Would be keen to hear your thoughts about whats of interest to develop more? And yes, some of the concepts are still lagging behind and need a refresher. I'd start with a network/system methodology even above a service (Buchanan's theory might be relevant here as a starting point with moves from products-> services->network)..

Jagadish,

Even though it is a good idea to encourage product as a culture...it is highly impractical to minimize the role of a PM...as commented by some others here...each role is engrossed in thier own work..and seldom people look at the larger picture...a PM is highly needed .
Also could not understand the future career advise the author is giving for current PM... entrepreneurship..???..

Ayman Jawhar,

Thanks Jagadish for thinking about this and your comments. The point is not to maximise or minimise but in true product spirit, ask ourselves 'why'. I totally appreciate a lot of companies have not even started their digitization journey with embedding engineers through the org let alone thinking about the next level up of injecting product thinking into the mix.
As for the career advice, im often asked by PMs about what are my exit or next options as a PM; i recommend focusing on entrepreneurship or coaching (if you're an individual contributor type) as PMs have a greater advantage in those skills than the average worker due to their 'building' skills --> these are good areas to grow your career capital in as you'll stand out there more than others.

Anonymous,

I don't understand the purpose of writing this, as it does not suggest an alternative and leans towards PM role as a solution. A PM has to play diverse roles and responsibility and none of them is dead.
I guess the author needs to do a bit of research (if not gathering practical experience) on what a PM role is before posting such a false and fake arguments.

Ayman Jawhar,

Thanks Anonymous for your comment. A PM means many different things in different companies which is why we're trying to re-define some concepts. You're very right, PMs do have to play diverse roles and what we're trying to identify what is the ultimate outcome for all of these roles thats a common denominator across all.

Vivek Gopalakrishnan,

Product Management as a function is needed to enable continuous assessment of product life cycle, identify opportunities, consolidate customer feedback, align technology roadmap and provide vision.
Based on the present stage of the product in the life cycle, he or she has to provide options/ solutions to customers. Its a critical role that needs cross functional skills. Not so easy to replace in my opinion.

Ayman Jawhar,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Vivek and I especially appreciate it coming from an engineer. Many a time, I've seen team engineers and designers step up to do PM work. In the best teams we've run, the PM was able to span a broad number of teams as the latter were nearly autonomous and driving themselves. Quite a few emerging startups are getting organized that way. The activities and the need for those activities you mention will be needed and will continue to evolve. Whats emerging is that the skill to enable and empower those teams to behave as a 'single' PM is what we're talking about here. That's a skill to watch out for.

Anonymous,

Love that the comment is more high quality than the article itself. Really, Insead, I think you can do a better subject on this subject matter!

Ayman Jawhar,

hello Anonymous, thank you for your comment. Any detailed points or feedback would be much appreciated so please feel free to get in touch if you fancy sharing your views: ayman@rockwae.com.

KER,

I have to say I do concur with some of the sentiments here, and as I understand the article the author actually implicitly argues for the role of PM. PM provides the much needed lubricant in the corporations gears, and the very reason it has emerged as a separate field, requiring a separate role and is notoriously hard to fill is precisely because the rest of the gears are not capable of being the motor oil themselves. Managing customer expectations, setting strategy, managing development efforts and providing executive insight will require a dedicated mandate and role, all the way until the fundamentals of doing business slowly turns to a new way of seeing the world.

Ayman Jawhar,

Thanks, Ker for taking the time to read this. You're correct in that we're definitely advocating for this new 'thing' which we happen to conceptualize as a role. Your last comment 'new way of seeing the world' is spot on and captures the spirit of this piece very nicely. Thank you for that.

Anonymous,

A few of the comments so far show that some readers are getting butt-hurt over this blog post. That's the point -- this perspective is supposed to challenge your existing notions and think forward. Obviously product management is not truly dead (or won't be for the next few years in its current role form, given how slow industry changes take), but the point of the controversial, clickbait-y title is to get you dig into the blog post and think about the perspective being presented. The author even calls out in the first line the nuance of what they mean by "dead".

This perspective, like many good blog posts, are supposed to be thought-provoking. If you're reacting defensively, stop to think about if that's coming from a place of fear of change/growth in your role as a product manager. If you're wondering "what are the next steps based on this blog post?", the point is for you to imagine what could be possible next. That's what good product managers do regularly anyway! The author is already kind enough to provide some suggestions of practical next steps from an ecosystem perspective to get you to think more broadly.

paul elosegui,

Disingenuous - product function is an evolution not a revolution. You take too much credit.

1. Product function fits a matrix organisation framework. The old project management office role evolves nicely into product management. They both deliver measurable value to the customer at a profit. Measure it however you like OKR, KPI or simply product/service cost-centre profit.

2. Cultural maturity is a progression, typically in 5 stages. Check out Watt Humphreys Capability Maturity Model. You can't move to stage 5 maturity, where product responsibility is holistic, without going through stage 1.

Nick,

Nice article. Good to see the worth of a product manager (PM) being articulated.

What I am interested in is your assertion the PM role is being removed from some teams. How, what is the make up the organisation, its maturity, what roles and responsibilities fill the gap?

I only ask as the PM has many hats and in smaller start ups will often be doing many things but not be called a PM. In fact as organisations mature the PM will often come into their own as they help bring structure to lean delivery processes. And those start ups will not and cannot scale properly without the skill sets good product management brings.

I would argue the reason why they don't have the PM is because they did not need it in the first place as their role is being done by the founders of the organisation or the heads of department.

I would also argue that if you create a team and you are not embedding a culture of value - then whether or not you are a product manager you will at worse fail and best be dis-functional. Be it a tech, services, operational, marketing, business development team and so on. Of course I am ignoring blind obedience or robotised work places!

Oh and you have caused a product management discussion in Australia. Thank you!

Chris,

I agree strongly with Nick's statement that it's highly likely that lack of PM or difficulty hiring CPOs in some companies is probably because of inability of founders or invested stakeholders to share responsibility and authority.

As to whether they may not need it in the first place, that is determined by how well the product is meeting the organizations goals for growth, CSAT, and profitability. Many founders get stuck on a vision of the product that ends up going against one of those three.

Chris,

The author certainly stirs up a few things with both the title and the positioning, but there's a lot I like in here.

The Takeaways are good, though I would add that any good PM needs to establish and grow a persona whether through internal company leadership, sales presence, or blogging/writing (or all of the above). It's hard to be taken seriously if no one knows who you are.

The graph, while a one-off for a particular company, is a great illustration of a problem that we often face. Agile coaches, so-called Product Owners, and some lead project managers or designers think that they are able to be judge and jury for requirements yet they are too distant from market issues. Product Managers end up being the brokers for negotiation among diverse parts of the organization through process and documentation... work that these more tightly functional staff don't want to handle.

I would add a few things to the list that I don't see, including:

* Identifying partnerships and M&A targets - The most significant acquisitions and mergers I've seen at three large IT companies in 10+ years of PM have initiated within PM
* Identifying paths for and driving execution - Often development teams only know what they know. The PM is often required to stick his/her neck on the line to find other teams, go outside the company, or sometimes even prototype something new by hand just to get teams to think differently about how to move forward.

Lastly, I've seen a fall off in the number of new MBA candidates asking me for advice and saying that they 'always wanted to manage great products.' What kinds of products? I'm glad for this fall off as I feel good product management comes from a place of deep knowledge of customers, tech, or business/entrepreneurship that isn't obtainable in class.

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