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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The future of product management: Part 1

As a long-time product manager, I think it's only normal that I ponder the future of this fascinating discipline from time to time. I actually began this journey a few years ago when Prof. Dr. Alex Maedche and I wrote an article on the topic. Interestingly, we had trouble finding the right publication for the article. As far as I know, there are still no traditional publications, e.g., magazines, dedicated to PM (please correct me if I'm wrong).

In this post, I'd like to lay the foundation for this discussion by describing what I consider a fundamental challenge to our profession. I first need to describe an age-old paradigm for reasoning over almost any activity: the why, the what and the how. These dimensions are particularly important to the accountabilities associated with product development. "The why" describes our motivation for performing an activity. From a product development perspective, it encompasses questions like "What do we want to accomplish by developing the product?" and "What difference to we hope to make in the markets we serve?". "The what" refers to a functional (outside-in) description of the offering we'd like to take to market. For product managers, this means describing our product in enough detail that engineering can implement it (which we refer to as "the how").

Conventional wisdom holds that PM "owns" "the why" and "the what", with engineering carrying "the how" banner as previously noted. Herein lies the problem. It turns out that both "the why" and "the what" can be more than full-time jobs. The former involves defining the business motivation (strategy etc.), managing strategic relationships and doing business planning; the latter involves managing requirements, scoping releases and creating the roadmap. The following figure depicts these accountabilities graphically.

A natural question that follows from this paradigm is, "Would product teams be better served if there were independent disciplines accountable for each element?". I know this assertion will seem like heresy to many.

To repeat, the upshot of Part 1 of this series is that covering both "the why" and "the what" is a ton of work and, in practice, may stretch what is feasible for a single person. In my own experience, I found that at scale, much of the "driving" associated with the why was done by management while I was overwhelmed simply defining a product I thought the market would love.

What is your experience? Have you seen or been a victim of "why-what" overload?


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    1. I have also seen (similar to your thoughts) that the Exec team often drives much of the "why" and I've been left to focus much of my time of the "what."

  2. I generally agree with these 3 areas and who owns them. I would add a couple more areas. First, I've really seen a couple of my employers struggle with the "who" piece, in that they struggled with identifying who the target customers were and confidently going after them. I think product also owns the "who" since without understanding your buyers you will risk being off target with the what and the why.

    My second thought is to add that Development also owns the "when" in addition to the "how." PM's can get too consumed with Delivery, but that's not what we're supposed to be focusing on.