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If Product Management is good for business, why isn’t it everywhere?

As a former product manager, management consultant, agilist, and self-confessed questioner of all things, I sometimes catch myself thinking about big, hairy questions scraped straight from the very bottom of the “too hard” basket. On sensible days, I catch these thoughts, acknowledge their existence, and move swiftly on to the next shiny thing in my vicinity. On less-than-sensible days, I latch onto them — give them attention, time, space, and explore them.

There are two such thoughts which I’ve recently found hard to let go of: the first, which I’ll go into some other time, is the dynamics between finance and agility. How do they work together and against each other? The second (which ironically I’m writing about first) is this; why haven’t all organisations embraced Product Management yet?

Before I get started, let’s define what is meant by Product Management in the context of this article. Whilst there are many definitions depending on where you look including some popularised by individual quotes or articles like  “What, exactly, is a Product Manager?” by Martin Eriksson1 and others as defined by certain frameworks for scaling organisational agility, for the purpose of this article however, I will describe Product Management as;

 

The accountability for generating value, for both organisations and users, through conscious creation, curation, leadership, and intervention of solutions to needs, through a development and adoption cycle from idea to end-of-life.

 

Now, considering this definition, let’s ask the question again. Why isn’t Product Management happening everywhere? Weirdly, I believe the answer might be, “it kind of is.” 

Hear me out, Product Purists!

I struggle to think of any organisation which exists that doesn’t aim to generate value for itself and its users in some way, shape, or form, nor can I think of one which doesn’t manage some kind of solution to some kind of need through some kind of lifecycle as the mechanism of value creation. What isn’t necessarily happening however is the understanding of this construct and the consolidation of ownership of value creation, meaning unfortunately that in many cases, the creation of value for one, other, or both parties falls short of expectations. Product Management as a capability is therefore geared towards addressing these things with intent.

So here are my theories which may explain why some organisations (still) aren’t embracing Product Management:

  1. Product Management is hard to understand
  2. Product Management is hard to do
  3. Product people are unicorn people

 

1. Product Management is hard to understand

When writing this article, I deliberated carefully over how exactly to articulate what I consider Product Management to be. In my career I have been fortunate enough to work with products at all stages of maturity: from idea, hypothesis, prototype, through go-to-market, growth, and maturity, even retiring several end-of-life products and features from market. 

Yet despite this experience, I still found myself agonising over choosing suitable words to use to convey the concept effectively. Couple this with the plethora of definitions, explanations, and opinions (of which mine is one) out there. Small wonder that there are differing levels of understanding and perceptions of value within organisations! 

Without a shared understanding and common taxonomy, uniform support or adoption are difficult to achieve. Whilst some of this exists within product circles, I’m not certain that’s true for the outside world.

 

2. Product Management is hard to do

Or maybe it’s hard to do “well.” 

In my experience, I have seen numerous examples where organisations have designated “Product Owners” who are empowered with neither the tools, accountability, nor authority to truly own their product. Often, true product ownership is hampered by technological constraints (whether perceived or real), centralised command and control structures, limited understanding or definition of value, and possibly worst of all, chasmic separation from users.

 

3. Product people are unicorn people

Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be a unicorn!? That’s great and all, but when you’re trying to recruit star product people into your business in a challenging labour market, it’s probably not so appealing. 

Product Manager is in strong contention for the title of “Most Broad and Varied Job of the Year” (assuming that’s a real thing?) due to the nature of working at the convergence of multiple fields (e.g. users, business, technology, leadership, marketing, operations, etc.), and the significant difference between what’s required of the role depending on where a product is in its lifecycle. 

Fortunately, there are often existing passionate people within organisations who perform elements of the role already. An alternative to finding new unicorn people is to develop these humans already within your organisation into the unicorn people you’re looking for, empowering them with appropriate support structures, guide-rails, autonomy, and authority, backfilling their previous positions with more readily available skillsets.

The three theories I’ve shared here are based on my thoughts, experience, and observations on the topic. It would be naïve of me to suggest that there aren’t other reasons, theories and research which go some way towards explaining why more organisations are yet to adopt a Product Management mindset. If you have some to share, I’m keen to keep the conversation going and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

This blog is the first in a series in which I will be exploring Product Management adoption, and what we can do to uplift this space.

 


References:

  1. Martin Eriksson. What, exactly, is a Product Manager?