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Stop Trying To Define Product Management

John Cutler // January 25, 2016
Image by Bethany Legg

Image by Bethany Legg

Stop trying to define product management. It’s a fool’s game. Stop defining yourself by what you aren’t. What do you care about? How do you want to work with the people around you?

When reading articles about product management you frequently encounter words like “chameleon,” “whitespace,” and “glue.” It’s complicated! Product Management is described by what it isn’t (e.g. project managementscrum master) or by how it is expressed in the context of a domain or methodology (e.g. in Agile, in B2B, in SaaS, in Lean Startup).

… surfing the Google in search for answers

I’ve been in teams that — after a year — still couldn’t describe the value the PM/PO brought to the table. The answer was to keep regurgitating the same posts and books …. as if to say “see, we DO something! I’m valuable because Intercom or Marty Cagan said so!”

In 2015 I attended three conferences where the best presenter jokes were PM/PO jokes, and the audience of UXers and Engineers ate it up.

In my view we’re asking the wrong question. We’re replacing a tough discussion of values and principles — as a whole team, not just as product managers — with discussions about titles, job descriptions, the org chart, and handoffs. The best perspectives on product development have nothing to do with defining and boxing a title. Stewart Butterfield doesn’t mention the word “manager” once but you walk away from reading that knowing he gives a damn.

It’s gotten to the point that I don’t recommend product management to hungry, entrepreneurial, and creative young people. I advocate for the various hats occasionally worn by PMs, but caution against the “title”. I suggest User Experience or Engineering. There’s a community of practice and a less weighty chip on the shoulder.

Consider what a young associate product manager wrote me the other day:

My boss is the VP of Product. She has needs and pushes me. Then the team. wants to do a good job. I feel them. So do I, but I have all this other crap to consider. I want to be customer-centric but Sales keeps pushing product. I’m pushing back all day. I deflect shit. The team kinda resents me. They don’t see 80% of the shit I deal with. It is this juggling act. I am a juggling act … I don’t even know what “product” means anymore …

That pains me as a lover of building great products. My bet … she’ll leave the industry in 6 years. Tops.

As Product Managers we insist on describing what we aren’t or what we connect (how/what) instead of what we value (the “why”). Values are lofty, but we fail to take a stand.

That extends to how we want to be with our fellow product development teammates. And with that, I offer my personal values and principles as they pertain to working with teams. Your values / principles will vary (these appeared first in my post The Way Of The Product Whatchamacallit ).

What are your values as they pertain to collaboration? What do you care about personally? Beyond what you aren’t … what are you? Start there. And then worry about the bullets in your job description and the platitudes of “customer first,” “connective tissue,” and “balancing acts.”


 This post was originally published on Medium by our very own product development nut and work/life hacker John Cutler, Senior Product Manager. Get great tips like these and stories from the product management trenches every week, delivered right to your inbox, when you subscribe to the Pendo blog.


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