5 Things Product Management Isn't

What we should NOT expect from our product managers to ensure they do their best job

Product management as a profession has grown up and become a critical part of modern digital product development practice. There is a fluidity though around what a product manager is and what we should expect of them on the job. In reality, each organization molds their product managers to fit their domain, industry, market, corporate politics, regulations, technology and culture. The result is that a product manager from Citibank doesn’t look exactly like a product manager from Zalando who, in turn, doesn’t look exactly like a product manager from Netflix. This does not, however, mean that there aren’t similarities between the company-specific roles. These similarities manifest in the various things we expect product managers to do. There are an infinite number of articles on those similarities. This month’s newsletter will focus, instead, on the explicit things product managers should NOT be expected to do, regardless of corporate culture or environment.

Product managers are not project managers

Project managers, in the traditional sense, are tasked with putting together a predictable plan for an initiative. They scope out budgets, timelines, necessary resources and combine that into a visualization (Gantt chart anyone?) that provides a level of comfort for leaders of when the work will be completed and how much it will cost. In contrast, product managers deal in the reality of digital product development. They embrace the uncertainty that comes with building continuous systems in a market defined by continuous change. They manage to outcomes – not a predefined set of features – ensuring that the positive impact on customers is the ultimate measure of success. Like project managers, they work to set proper expectations but unlike them, they regularly inject doubt into these plans.

Product managers are not JIRA jockeys

A product manager is responsible for helping the team prioritize their work. The tool the team uses to prioritize their work, be it JIRA, Trello, a physical board, spreadsheet, etc, is irrelevant. It’s a means to an end. Too many organizations define product management as the management of the project management tool (I know, that’s a lot of “management” in there). The value of a product manager should not be measured by how many cards they can move into the “Done” column (or the “Done Done” column?). Their goal is not to drive the velocity of delivery. If a product manager’s worth is defined by how well they can manipulate Azure DevOps, the organization has lost the thread on why they have PdM’s in the first place.

Product managers are not product owners

PM? PO? What’s the difference anyway? The truth is there shouldn’t be a difference at all. You’ll often hear a company say, “Our PO’s are internally focused while our PM’s are externally focused.” This just means that there is a handoff from the people who do market research and speak to customers to the people who do the delivery of the work. Why would we separate those two responsibilities? Scrum gifted us the role of Product Owner without reconciling it explicitly with the role of product manager. PM’s are not PO’s because the role of PO is extraneous on a modern, cross-functional team.

Product managers are not actual managers

The word “manager” in the job title should indicate some level of authority. In the case of product managers, it doesn’t. Product managers don’t lead with authority. They are not the “CEO’s of the product.” This is one of the hardest parts of being a PM. You have to lead through influence, data, evidence and compelling storytelling. If you’re taking a PM role because you think it will give you management experience, you’ll be disappointed. It will, however, give you leadership experience and that is far more valuable.

Product managers are not fortune tellers

“Tell us what to build! You’re the PM after all.” Many PM’s feel this pressure. Once someone has the title “product manager” we expect them to know, without a doubt, what features to prioritize, the best way to go to market and how much ROI we should expect. Sadly, PM’s are human. They cannot predict the future. The best they can do is make an educated guess. We should expect that from them. We should expect hypotheses driven by market and customer research. What we shouldn’t expect is a 100% success rate. If we expect that, we’re setting our product managers up to fail.

Product management is at an interesting inflection point. It’s a key component of modern digital teams and yet the variability between companies and responsibilities is still enormous. If we can’t agree on exactly what a product manager does because of that variability, at the very least we can agree on the things we don’t expect our PdM’s to do. This was the beginning of that effort. What else would you say Product Managers shouldn’t be expected to do? Hit reply and let me know.

What I've been up to

I've been mostly heads down delivering work to clients around the topics of OKRs, product management and Lean UX. I do have a couple of live events coming up in the next few weeks:

Product Elevation online meetup on April 27 -- I'll be chatting with this PM community about all things OKRs and Product Discovery.

Service Design Book Club on May 12 -- This group is reading

Sense & Respond and I'm always thrilled to discuss our 2nd book.

Agile in Action Podcast with Bill Raymond -- I recently was interviewed by Bill Raymond on his Agile in Action podcast. We discussed what OKRs are and how they enable agility.

Watch, Listen, Read

Watch: Moon Knight -- Another Marvel superhero show? Yep. This one's super fun with our hero contending with multiple-personalty disorder while trying to save the world from angry Egyptian deities.

Listen: Fear Inoculum by Tool -- Studying up on the latest Tool record (which is awesome) in advance of going to see them later this month. It's been nearly 20 years since I last saw them. To say I'm excited would be an understatement.

Read: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgensen -- This was a book that someone in my book club chose for us this month. I didn't love it. In fact a lot of it felt like familiar Buddhist wisdom reshared by an out of touch millionaire tech bro. There were, however, bits and pieces that I did take to heart and made me think on a few things in my life.

If you're interested in working together please reach out. If you're not sure what I do, here's a description.

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