What is product management?

© 2011 Martin Eriksson. Re-use with appropriate attribution.

In a previous article I have talked about management in general. I was explaining my opinion on how management is any activity that creates empowerment. By effect, management as an activity should result in ability, motivation, drive and action. But it is only management if the four results are intertwined by a common goal.

Considering this, how do we apply that definition to product management?

Management creates three forms of empowerment: leadership, vision and expertise.

For a business leadership empowers people, vision empowers the organization, expertise empowers the product. By effect, product management is the management done for the product, derived from expertise.

There is a lot of discussion on what defines good product management. The most up to date trend is to remove expertise in the domain as a requirement in explaining the activity of product management.

That is a mistake.

Let’s take Matt LeMay ’s example. He proposes a new skill model made of communication, organization and execution. The problem here is that this set is NOT good as a definition for product management skills. Product management is a specific type of management, not a general case of management. Any of the three (communication, organization and execution) are so generic that any position of management from your team lead to your CEO must excel at them.

You cannot create empowerment at all if you lack communication skills that generate alignment, organization skills that remove bottlenecks, and execution capabilities that get stuff done. All three are subjective attributes, and if applied solely by themselves create the zombie manager, the one who has no idea what is actually happening, but executes, communicates and organizes. You know, the one that says “there are no stupid questions” randomly, even if you intentionally ask a stupid question because you are pointing something absurd.

UX, tech, and business are areas of subject matter knowledge that might be relevant to some product managers, but they are not the actual skills required to be a great product manager, [source]

I personally would go as far as to call communication, organization and execution talents. This idea that you can get skilled at some of these things is somewhat wrong. Not entirely but at least hard to prove. This belief makes managers out of people who don’t want to be managers. It makes organizations promote people based on “years on board”, thinking that training and coaching can ingrain communication, organization and execution “skills” into someone. I’m afraid, i’m afraid because in fifteen years I haven’t met one person who got trained well in these areas.

Daniel Demetri ‘s approach is far more grounded. How product management could be declined, depending on which part of the product it has to manage, is far closer to reality, because it actually describes the actual expertise you’d want in your product manager. Do you need hard UX skills or design know how, do you require number crunching abilities or technical understanding? These are decisions to take when you craft your job description for a product manager.

I also don’t like is how product managers, and managers in general, are seen as bridging gaps. They are sometimes bridging gaps. Management creates empowerment by bridging gaps too, but that is not the only thing they do, nor is it the essence of the craft.

PMs know just enough of each discipline to be responsible for the entire product development system. Brandon Chu, source

This. This above is exactly a matter of expertise, and I personally find it to be the best way to put things when asked about the core competencies expected of product managers. To that add the type of product managing they do (business, user or tech) and as you see one can finally get very specific about what a product manager does.

But Josh Elman gets it, for me, even closer to the idea that product management is a form of management that empowers the product via expertise. It is explained at large in the article, but simply put:

Help your team (and company) ship the right product to your users (source)

However, I don’t agree very much, but this may be just me and my pride so take it with a grain of salt, with the idea that product managers are “glorified note takers” a la same Josh Elman. I believe that in a good company management is the same type of activity from C-level execs and VPs, to team leaders, what differs are the responsibilities and the required levels of leadership, vision and expertise required for the job.

A product manager does management for the product, creating empowerment through expertise. If it is not that it could be anything else of the array of possible jobs: traffic manager, project manager, account manager et cetera. To end i’ll bring to the rescue something that I fully agree with from the same Josh Elman:

The best [product] managers are the ones who simply roll up their sleeves and help their team through this journey.

Brackets are mine for concision: ALL managers need to roll up their sleeves!