5 Things Product Management Isn’t

Posted on May 16, 2022.

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. 

Woman at whiteboard drawing nonsense
Product managers are often asked to do things above and beyond their job description.

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? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

5 thoughts on “5 Things Product Management Isn’t

  1. PdM’s are not system or UX designers nor are we architects. We must influence those designs to drive the best outcomes for customers.

  2. PM are not problem solver inside the team.

    They work best with empowered team to solve complex problem and that can self manage. They have to focus on problem solving for customer, not inside the team.
    Thus it’s good to have someone else work on improving the effectiveness of the team, and help them self manage.
    If as a company you think one person can endorse this two roles, you are setting up the PMs to fail. They will also need guidance, someone to help them do some introspection… hard to self coach and find the light alone.

  3. Product Managers also shouldn’t be expected to define how features, ML, etc. will be implemented. However, there are Technical Product Managers and there is value is using technical expertise to define what is desired, like what APIs need to exist, what features customers want us to use in our ML, etc. but how to implement this is left to Engineering (and how long it will take).

  4. Very well written article, Often I have seen many companies confuse this Product manager role with Project manager or Program manager. The line is so Blurr that If you bring it up for discussion, people do not appreciate it as each company defines the role of Product Manager as per their Need. This approach should change.

  5. nice, but pm is a role and not necessarily a person. Therefore it can be combined with other roles.

    It is good to get clarity what goes in which boxes but it will not change much the reality of the day-to-day in orgs where one is expected to cumulate multiple roles, oftentimes for budgeting reasons.

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