Product management is dead | INSEAD knowledge

As a business owner, you probably think the same way McKinsey on what makes a great product manager (PM): a perfect combination of skills like business acumen, market orientation, technical and soft skills… the usual suspects.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your position), just like our managerial thinking becomes obsolete and requires reform, we also need to update our view of this ultimate management role.

We need to understand and redefine this role from a more meaningful, tasteful, and human-centered perspective, so that we can leverage its full potential and avoid costly mistakes such as the following:

  • Overwhelmed MBA candidates or startups hiring for a product for the first time often ask me what a product manager does, how to prepare for an interview, and how to find the best person/role. Many end up paying thousands of dollars for random product training just to learn outdated frameworks for free that they could have picked up from Medium articles.
  • Employers are also struggling. As one of them, you’re probably struggling to set career ladders for your PMs. Despite everything you’ve read on the subject, it’s still difficult to determine exactly what makes a great product manager and how that person is expected to grow in your business.
  • Hiring product managers doesn’t get any easier. The manager of a leading recruitment agency in London recently contacted me for help, saying that the role of product manager is one of the hardest jobs to fill and that you need years to his team to fulfill these roles for his clients. For some reason, business founders struggle to define the type of profile they want for the ultimate product manager role. She said it takes longer to recruit a CPO than a CEO!


To start, The main myth to demystify about the product is this: the product is not a role.

In fact, it is more accurately described as an ever-changing array of activities (and behaviors) that are becoming the center of value creation in modern businesses.

For example, a product manager running a fintech product at a 100-person company in a highly regulated market spends their time optimizing features and scaling infrastructure as the startup grows. However, its equivalent in a five-person consumer technology company would run discovery sessions to uncover customer needs and find the product/market fit. From a hiring manager’s perspective, these people are both product managers, but upon closer inspection, they do completely different jobs.

PMs’ cross-functional behaviors and activities further set them apart from other team members because their work exists in and around the work of others. PM focuses on how people work in all areas, co-creating value, and in doing so embeds a new set of activities and behaviors at the heart of every department as a by-product.

Watch your PM carefully and you can see this continuous cycle of value creation in the following cross-functional interactions:

  • Summarize user research to suggest roadmap changes
  • Coordinate timelines of deliverables between sales and engineering
  • Resolve execution disputes between lawyers and engineers
  • Keep their teams motivated and focused
  • Disseminate emerging practices and product language throughout the company

Their cross-functional and adaptive behavior is why it’s difficult to standardize product management as a role, organize it into a job description, and therefore find the right person for the job.

A graphic showing product managers at the intersection of a company’s network nodes

The product is the culture

The reasons for the lack of clarity being clear, how can we move towards a solution?

Decouple product management from outdated organizational theories and stop thinking of it as a role – think of it as a culture instead.

We waste time trying to re-adapt the product to old definitions of work, getting distracted by role boundaries, day-to-day tactics and mechanics. We end up missing the bigger results and the value happening simultaneously behind the scenes.

Of course, the expected result of a PM’s daily work is always visible and measured: transparent co-creation, reduction of coordination, communication and cooperation costs (classic performance indicators).

But the most important (and often unnoticed) value of product management is that the independent behavior of “product people” means they are at the center of value creation across the business. Product people are responsible for sewing and building the fabric of an organization – the foundations which include vision, constitution, values, systems, language, beliefs and habits.

Together, these elements form a common understanding of why and how we work together. And they help bring that to life in the form of the company’s organizational culture. This is the true value of product management.

Recently I saw a product manager Tweeter which sums it up nicely: What difference would you see between a team consisting only of product people and a team consisting of product, design and engineering? With the first example, nothing new, but with the second, the designer and engineer would become more like product managers, as product people build culture at every point of interaction. That’s why we now hear the terms product people and culture, and why several London start-ups I know are experimenting with teams without PM, where team culture replaces a role.

Building the future

Also, looking at product management as just a role is akin to looking at it from a strict performance/efficiency/outcome perspective, when it is much more than that.

We need to strengthen our knowledge around management with the “soft sciences” such as design, creativity, psychology and the humanities. These add a diversity of perspectives and shift the focus beyond pure production and performance, which we know can provide a flawed view of success and longevity.

The World Economic Forum provided a good stage for such an example, when a corporate finance director was publicly disputed on its top metric being the low unemployment rate. The Oxfam chief reminded him that some workers in the US were forced to wear nappies during their shifts because they weren’t allowed bathroom breaks. Obviously, even our greatest leaders focus on the wrong things.

At a time when we see stock markets rebound in pandemic-ravaged countries, as the death rate accelerates globally, it is clear that the long-term view has decoupled from the short-term. , that people have decoupled from business and the economy has decoupled from reality.

That is why we need to rethink what and why we build things. Since the people making these future decisions will be product specialists, we have an obligation to think and develop this talent beyond fundamental mechanics and performance so that they are better equipped to start building. a better future.

Product management as we know it is dead.

We need to move beyond this as a role and instead embrace it as a culture and as the future of work.

Take away food

So, with that in mind, what should we do to embrace the future of work?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Students: Read a book on organizational behavior. Focus on learning strategies for working with others, cultural mapping, and psychology. These fluid “meta” skills are as important as your standard operational responsibilities.
  • The universities: Give cross-functional teams opportunities to practice product management on real issues — it’s the only way they’ll get a real sense of the complexities of working on products.
  • New PMs: Join a product community (national and international). Expand your network and learn product know-how from diverse teams.
  • Senior Prime Ministers: Prepare your career for the future by gaining experience in product coaching and entrepreneurship. The next level of growth for many of us will be the creation of new products or new businesses.
  • Recruiting managers: Change your vision of talent. “Meta” skills (like social intelligence, empathy and cross-cultural flexibility) are just as important for building culture as “traditional” skills (like product strategy, data analysis) and domain experience.
  • Leaders: Get a trainer. As with all management jobs, successfully changing people’s mindsets requires strong self-awareness and self-management. The path to both of these is hard to find on your own. A great coach will get you there faster, so use this shortcut.

Read the follow-up post, “A post-mortem on product management.”

Ayman Jawhar (INSEAD MBA ’12J) is a Lecturer in Product Management at INSEAD.

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