Why Product Management Is Broken And What To Do About It

by drjim on March 4, 2013

Product Management is broken

Product Management is broken
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Excuse me for just a moment while I look around for my soapbox – oh, here it is. Now I’m ready to share a shocking piece of information with you. Please make sure that you are sitting down. Product Management is broken. It really does not work. Yes, some products are successful, but it’s not because of the actions of the product managers – it’s good luck, it’s market conditions, it’s the missteps of their competitors. What’s gone wrong here?

How Product Management Broke

How did we get into this situation? I think that a lot of it comes from the very name of the task that so many of us have signed up to perform: “product management”. What does that mean anyway?

Look, if I asked you to manage a group of people, how would you go about doing that? You’d probably sit down, figure out what needed to be done, and then you’d tell the people that you were managing what they needed to do. With a little luck, they’d do it and you’d be considered to be a successful manager.

Now let’s take a look at what it means to be a product manager. You are given a product or a service to manage and a product development definition. You sit down, determine what the market really needs, and then you tell your product what to do. That’s when nothing happens. The reason that nothing happens is because you really can’t manage a product – it does not have the ability to listen to you or to do what you want. There really is no such thing as true “product manager”.

Instead, what we do is to spend our time trying to get various people in the company who don’t actually work for us to do things that will improve the chances of our product becoming a success. Hmm, that sure seems a lot different than “managing a product”. However, if you take a look at the various product management frameworks and task lists out there, they all seem to think that we’re actually controlling a product. The truth is that we’re not. Unfortunately, that’s not something that any of us really want to put on our product manager resume

How To Fix Product Management

So how are we going to fix the product management profession? It’s pretty clear that the idea of actually managing a product doesn’t really line up with the reality. It’s pretty clear that we need a new paradigm here.

I’d like you to take just a moment and think back to the last time that you watched the Winter Olympics on TV. Remember all of those strange sports that you only see during the Olympics? One of the ones that has always caught my attention has been Curling.

In Curling, a large, heavy stone is slid along a sheet of ice and two people with brooms attempt to make its path a smooth as possible without actually touching the stone. The goal is to make the stone end up in the correct final resting place.

In all honesty, this sport reminds me very much of what we product managers are trying to do. Often we’ve not actually launched the big, heavy product that we are responsible for. However, just like the Curlers with the brooms, it is our job to clear a path for our product in order to get it to end up being as successful as possible.

What this means is that our focus as product managers has to be less on controlling the path that our product is going to take simply because there’s not a lot that we can do about that. Where we should be spending our time and energy instead is clearing a path for our products so that they will be successful.

Right now there are no frameworks or product management books that take this approach. Instead, they spend a lot of time talking about how you can get the stone to move in a different direction. I believe that your market and your customers have control over that. Don’t waste your time trying to change your product’s direction. Instead you need to grab a broom and get to work!

What All Of This Means For You

The idea behind just exactly what a product manager is appears to be flawed. In reality, product managers really don’t spend any time managing their products. The reason for this is that products can’t be managed – they can’t hear what you tell them and they can’t respond to your wishes. You’ll never find this on any product manager job description.

Instead, what product managers need to understand is that just like in the Winter Olympic sport of Curling, the trajectory that our product is going to take is pretty much out of our hands. Instead of futile efforts to change its direction, product managers need to understand where their efforts can have an effect. This comes down to clearing a path for their product to take.

I fully understand that not everyone is going to agree with my point-of-view. Many product managers have a lot invested in the old school product management frameworks that exist today. However, give my ideas some thoughts, think about what you’ve been able to accomplish (or not!), and see if this new way of looking at product management might solve some of the problems that you are looking at today…

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: If you can’t change your product’s direction, then what’s the best way to get your target customers to stand where it’s going to end up?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Where is your product going to be in 6 months? What features will it have in a year? What is going to make your product different than everyone else’s in 5 years? If you can’t answer these questions, then perhaps you either don’t have a product roadmap or the one that you have isn’t doing its job. In either case, it looks like we need to do something about that…

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