The danger of product management becoming a boondoggle

Your old road is

Rapidly fadin’.

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin’.

Bob Dylan

If a product manager has no requirement for either technology skill or user experience understanding, then what exactly is he to contribute to product development? There are very few areas in product management where a lack of technical knowledge is considered a bonus. And, to suggest that understanding user boondoggleexperience is irrelevant to the management of product development is suicidal for the profession. The user community is not homogenous, and neither is their interaction with the product nor the influence of the product on the user behaviour. We are in a period of the most intense development and influence of technology on human life, and yet we are advocating that product managers need not be skilled in technology? This defies logic, particularly when one observes organisations hiring anthropologist (even!) to better understand the product and its situated use, this is surely a consequence of the user experience getting ever more complex. We are not suggesting that product managers should hurry and become anthropologists, but to highlight that the product manager role has become much more complex. The truncating of skills from the repertoire is not a realistic option.

Compartmentalisation hides the true nature of the problem, that is, the fact that a product manager has to juggle many concepts concurrently to execute his role efficiently. We need to identify what future mix of skills a product manager needs to master, and what options are on offer for specialisation. A product manager who is only a generalist is of little value to product development, not unlike a jack-of-all-trades who is master of none; rather a product manager be a master of something even if it is only one thing, and a jack-of-all-the-other. A product manager cannot just hand-off (as in the water-fall method) and abdicate all further responsibility in the development process. Every member of the product team is responsible to the final product that is served up to the client, and the consequences thereafter. An architect doesn’t just prepare blueprints; he is in part a civil, in part a construction, in part a material engineer. Just like an architect, the art of being a good product manager is to have a right balance of skills and the ability to harness the right talent pool to deliver the final product. Where both the architect and product manager agree is in that they are the final arbiters, the buck does stop with them. The coder may have created the bug, but the product manager allowed it to get through to the client by not putting the right roadblocks.

Most attempts to separate out concerns in product development have failed and will fail again if they are repeated. As an example, product discovery or opportunity needs to be close to business policies, business plans, and the marketing/sales feedback loop. It needs a much greater understanding of the business, and it not just about gathering and documenting the business requirements. The business analyst group was the bridge between the many business groups of the enterprise, and the systems and technical groups. Eventually the bridge proved too far from a communication and knowledge transfer perspective, and collapsed under the weight of its own self-importance. This was repeated when user departments tried to rope in the systems and technical group directly for new products or extensions to existing products. Both groups were ill equipped by themselves to do the job efficiently, not through any fault of their own, they were better at what they were setup for, just not this.

As product manager role continues to be influenced by changing business and technical environment, it becomes necessary to identify the skills and their composition that would help in creating the future product manager. We should perhaps begin to consider product management as a profession not unlike accounting etc., and not just a job title all budding software engineers aspire to. Considering it as a profession would at least bring about a more coherent discussion on a future product manager would be expected to do.

About KM Mukku

Kick-start, build and manage teams in product development (particularly in the financial domain), and enjoy all in adaptive case management, business process design and business process improvement. Currently holding the position of CTO at coMakeIT.
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