A Product Manager is only necessary while a high-performing, self-directed, balanced cross-functional team develops.
In a perfect world, my job as a Product Manager wouldn’t exist. In a nutshell I:
- Look for market opportunities.
- Understand customer problems (not necessarily by asking the customer).
- Concept possible solutions.
- Marshall resources (design, technical, financial, HR) to realize the solution.
- Take the solution to market in an effort to make a profit.
Every Employee is T-Shaped
To borrow from Valve’s employee handbook, you hire T-shaped people. Valve’s hires people with a broad skill-set across many fields and deep expertise in one specific field.
Why is this important?
T-shaped people can connect adjacent, often unrelated problems and concepts to form new ideas. Generalists can’t dive deep enough and Specialists can’t make important connections.
T-shaped people understand a product’s impact on all aspects of the company and the market. In essence, they can reason through each section of a Lean Canvas (or tool of choice). They have a holistic approach to product development, often found in a Product Manager.
Teams Own the Vision, Process and the Product
The product development process is just that, a process. The goal is to always be in a better position than you were the day before. Repeat this forever. To borrow from the Social Network:
It won’t be finished. That’s the point. The way fashion’s never finished.
To do this, teams need to cultivate an understanding of the problem, a vision for the future, and a love of the problem solving process (not a single solution).
In the absence of a Product Manager, vision and ownership are decentralized. To compensate, ownership must be applied evenly and completely across the entire team. Developers think about design, designers about marketing, and so forth.
Accountability within the team becomes ownership by the team.
A Product First Approach
Software has traditionally been an engineering exercise: complex problems solved with equally complex solutions.
Today the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Most consumer applications are design-lead and user-centric. Our brightest minds are solving trivial problems with shallow solutions.
If the team is too design focused, it’ll shy away from truly challenging problems. If it’s too technical, its products will lack a thoughtful user-experience. If no one is thinking about marketing and distribution, they’ll build a product no one ever sees.
A balanced team of T-shaped people with a cohesive vision will be the most effective at connecting dots and solving challenging problems. Each individual should have a respect for all aspects of product development. An unbalanced team leads to an unbalanced product.
Apple was the sum of its leadership: Steve Jobs had a vision of the problem and solution, Jonny Ive could realize the solution, Phil Schiller could make us want it, and Tim Cook could build it on an almost unimaginable scale.
They didn’t have a Product Manager.
It was pointed out that Apple has Product Managers. Most companies do.
It’s hard to scale hiring of A-players to tens of thousands of employees. The old saying “A players hire A players, B players hire C players, etc” is almost a law. Sometimes you can’t put together a team with depth and breadth of skill. A PM just helps to patch holes in the same way a consultant could. Ideally, they could remove themselves in the future, leaving a balanced, self-sustaining team behind.