We Need Fewer Product Managers

Note 1: This post may read like an attack on product management. That is not my intent at all. I love all things product. This post has been brewing as I interact with more and more companies struggling to define (and scale) product “management” in increasingly complex organizations.

Note 2: Part of this is response to the refrain “there aren’t enough experienced product managers out there!” I disagree. There aren’t enough people who can magically fill the completely unreasonable and scattered roles being posted. There are, however, awesome people out there. Hire them to solve actual problems.

We need fewer product managers.

We need MORE internal startup co-founders, UX, customer advocates, domain experts, service designers, complexity untanglers, researchers, and reliable ways to interact directly with users/customers. We need more product thinking, and less product managing.

You don’t need a product manager to:

  • “Get work done”, and keep the team focused
  • Manage projects, and give status updates
  • Manage a team, and advocate for the team
  • Have “accountability” for shipping features/projects
  • Facilitate standups, planning meetings, and retrospectives
  • Talk to customers and users
  • Measure the impact of work, and design experiments
  • Write user stories and requirements
  • Test work with customers and users

We have roles (hats) for these things: project managers, UX, researchers, data scientists, business analysts, team managers, coaches, etc. Do product managers often wear these hats? Sure. Do you need a product manager to wear these hats? No.

Product manager has become a catchall title. Which makes it meaningless for daily use.

You need a product manager when there is a product to be managed…when there is P&L, a clear link to revenue, a business model, pricing, and marketing. In the case of many SaaS companies, it is fair to say that the whole company is “the product”. Yet we insist on calling anything and everything — every project, touch-point, set of screens, and app — a “product”, and anyone who oversees that “product”…a product manager.

Why? I tend to hear:

1. Because “every team should have a product owner!” We’re programmed to think that having a product manager/owner is the hallmark of a “real team”. A team without a product manager is rudderless. They’ll build what they want to build. Things will go off the rails. We need someone to be accountable!

2. Because “we need product thinking!” We equate the word product with value. Products are better than projects. Product thinking gives us a seat at the table. We want to be like Apple. We want the team to act like a mini-startup with their mini-CEO. We want VISION. And developers don’t want to build crap…they want to built the RIGHT THING, right.

I can empathize with those hopes and fears, but few of these things touch on unique product manager “hats”. In fact, I think we use product management as a crutch here when we should be focusing on team health, hiring user experience/design, focusing on core business problems, and facilitation.

I’d argue that most product managers are not product managing. They are white-space filling. They are “filling in”. I say this because I have seen teams with the right hats in the building — UX, data science, Agile coaching, self-organization, research — take high-level business goals and deliver results without a product manager micromanaging their work. The PM was free to focus on doing unique and valuable things… things that the team would hire them for if they controlled the budget. Not to mention product strategy and product leadership which are different beasts.

If you need advocates, evangelists, analysts, persona specialists, domain experts, coordinators, strategists, stakeholder herders, project drivers, etc. then hire them, and give them the right title (e.g. [Some Actor] Advocate, [Some Actor] Experience, Project Manager, [Some Domain] Specialist). Of course this doesn’t happen…which leaves the role all the more vague. And I know this because it is rare I can speak to a team, and get a clear picture of the product manager’s value and role. “It depends.”

But…but…but…how about Lean Startup, new products, assumptions to validate, figuring out pricing, interviewing customers, etc.? Congrats. You are the founder of a mini-startup (along with your co-founders, the team). There is no “product” to manage (yet). There’s a saying that startups are not mini-companies. Startups are a “search” for a sustainable business model. The rules are different. Same goes with a ideas and products. Get it out into the world. Make some money. Then you have a product to manage.

My friend works in a big company, but works on new products. Her business card says “Co-Founder”. That’s awesome (and very appropriate to their model which “funds” internal startups).

Here’s what I’ve noticed while out there talking to companies. There’s a progression. First you have project-centric companies with NO “product thinking” or UX whatsoever. Hiring a product manager for each team is a big step up, though at this point things still typically resemble a project factory.

Hiring UX and giving them responsibilities beyond pixel pushing is the next huge step up. Engaging developers in actual problem solving (vs. building prescriptive features) is the next HUGE step up. Fully self-organized and cross-functional teams tasked with a goal — a GINORMOUS step up. So now you have your “product teams”. All the while, the product manager is doing a mix of “core” activities, and a whole bunch of a white-space filling (check out the average PMs calendar).

But this is just a midpoint in your journey. You’ve hit an odd point: as the teams become more self-sufficient at directly solving customer/user problems, and as UX does more of what they do well, you must adapt the product manager role (if for no other reason than to keep the role interesting and challenging).

This is where I see companies get stuck. The product organization has inertia. They’ve hired in layers of associate product managers, product managers, senior product managers, etc. Everything is somehow a product. In some cases, teams have become overly reliant on their product managers for non-core functions (e.g. facilitation). The COMPANY relies on product managers for non-core functions (e.g. internal stakeholder “management”). So…change is not easy. Before you know it you have oodles of local-optimization and kingdom building that does no one any good. The shift to more holistic, end-to-end, value-stream based thinking is elusive and impossible from a structural perspective. And the product org is often part of the problem. It is too rigid. Not good.

So what am I saying?

First, I am not suggesting you fire product managers. Please don’t. I know they are very, very talented, but perhaps not set up to be successful.

I’m thinking…

  • Use the word “product” very sparingly (in titles especially)
  • Use the word “manager” very sparingly (in titles especially)
  • Think critically about what you are asking front-line product managers to do. Can we rename this hat to be more descriptive and accurate?
  • Use product manager when there is a product to be managed. For most SaaS companies, there are far fewer products than we think (if we take the long actor — >goal view).
  • What would it take for a team to share ownership? Do you really need a single wringable neck?
  • Consider hiring in apprentices/interns to fill “mixed” hats — research, data science, UX, etc. Most young people should not be tracked immediately into formal product management. This is a great way to help people grow in a safe setting.
  • Hire UX and let them do UX. Same with Data Science.
  • By all means hire product managers, product leaders, and product strategists to do product management, team leadership, and strategy.
  • What does product management look like when “the product” is a mix of technology, departments, ecosystems, touchpoints, etc.? It’s probably different from how we current structure product teams.

In closing, I recently had a great chat with Jared M. Spool about his UX school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We ended the call talking about Product Management. Jared said something interesting. Paraphrasing:

We’ll one day be able to do a product manager program. But it was take some convergence of that role. Right now things are messy. It depends. But just as we saw with UX, we’ll see that convergence.

That’s food for thought. Maybe it is that convergence — going from “it depends” to [xxxxxxx] — that I’m getting at.

What do you think? What is “a product” in your mind? Do all of those products need to be “managed”?