The Dichotomous Future of Product Management

Whether it is political, economic, or societal, many walks of life have ultimately diverged into opposing sides. This naturally occurring phenomenon has not skipped the product management domain with proponents and opponents present to any particular way of thinking.

The decades-long fragmented product management profession is now undergoing a reshaping and consolidation into two camps. The eventual result will be a clear dichotomy, two contrasting sides opposed to each other and who view product management entirely differently.

This forward-looking analysis outlines the dichotomous future of product management.

Defining Product Management
Without attesting to their validity or falseness, four schools of thought have emerged in product management and each is based on a drastically different concept.

  1. The Generalization approach views product management as being multidisciplinary and multifaceted, and responsible for nearly anything and everything related to the product. The main consideration that product management is a generalization, not a specialization, leads to monikers such as CEO of the Product to describe the espoused encompassing nature and profile of product management practitioners. This approach shapes product management as a group of multitude shifting responsibilities which may also include tasks offloaded from other corporate functions. Constant deliberations on the scope of ownership, responsibility, and authority of product management are prevalent.

  2. The Business approach is heavily focused on the business aspects of the product with a broad emphasis on all related monetary issues. Consequently, this approach very much resembles a scaled-down executive management function, and in relation to the product it deals with decision making, process application, interdepartmental coordination, project management, team management, revenue management, metrics, costing, pricing, etc. Phrases such as "owning the strategy", "driving execution", and "profit and loss accountability" are frequently used in conjunction with this approach. Discussions on how product management should deal with business strategies, business models, and any of the latest business/market trends are considered very relevant because the thinking is primarily geared towards business.

  3. The Technology approach sees product management as an extension to product development – at times even subservient to product development. This approach exhibits a mindset that considers all product-related issues, roles, responsibilities, processes, and tasks from a technological or developmental viewpoint. Product management practitioners are expected to be technically astute and indeed many are former engineers who perform a variety of activities that support product development and occasionally sales. Their main job focus is to determine product functionality and features and communicate these to product development. At software companies who adopt Agile/Scrum, a lightweight software development method, it is considered acceptable for a product manager to also assume the responsibilities of the Scrum product owner role.

  4. The Methodology approach views product management as a professional domain which is governed by a set of foundation rules that are supported by cogent rationales and solid arguments. This approach regulates everything in product management such as terminology, definitions, roles, tasks, responsibilities, teams, models, processes, interfaces to other departments, etc., according to a methodological foundation and injects a more strategic, systematic, and disciplined way into how the company deals with all product-related issues.

Consolidation of Sides
The Generalization, Business, and Technology approaches to defining product management are all Idea-based and have emerged as reflections of people's workplace experiences. By design these approaches lack methodological foundation and they are the result of people's natural inclination to conceptualize and frame their world view according to their own (mostly previous) personal work experience.

The Methodology approach aims to establish a well-supported methodological understanding of product management and is the outcome of a deliberate resolution process that is based on the strong coupling of logical thinking and extensive research.

Through a lengthy evolutionary process that will be fraught with confusion and opposition, the fragmented world of product management will ultimately consolidate into two contrasting sides:

  1. Idea Side of Product Management – This camp is comprised of companies and institutions that subscribe to or advocate any of the three Idea-based These organizations support one particular idea-based approach or a mixed approach that is based on merging different elements from several idea-based approaches.

  2. Methodology Side of Product Management - This camp is comprised of companies and institutions that subscribe to or advocate a Methodology-based approach to product management. These organizations often require the business discipline that an organized doctrine brings due to the structured nature of the markets that they serve or because of their own highly organized internal culture.
By using this understanding of the dichotomous future state of product management with its two opposing sides it is possible to analyze and reflect upon all future aspects and considerations about product management.

Definition of Product Management
Everything in product management (roles, responsibilities, processes, tasks, etc.) depends on a very clear definition of the domain. Yet solid comprehension of product management remains elusive for those who belong to the idea side of product management. And for them this situation will remain so for a very long time into the future.

To rationalize their inability to clearly articulate a consistent definition of product management, the idea side of product management will proffer arguments that explain why they continue to agonize and ponder what the definition of product management is.

Reoccurring claims that product management is in its infancy or constantly evolving or that every company justifiably defines product management differently will be the main explanations why the idea side of product management is unable to provide a substantive definition of product management.

Being unable to provide such, the idea side of product management will deviate to become increasingly preoccupied with superficial and ancillary topics which are not at the core of doing product management.

For example, the generalization approach's focal point will remain on describing product management as the backbone, connective tissue, or glue that holds together all aspects of a product project. Rehashing familiar discussions on how to better lead and influence without authority will continue.

The business approach will become increasingly fixated on any trending innovations, such as big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, automation, analytics, virtual reality, robotics, intelligent applications, and just about any new technology of the day.

The technology approach will reluctantly be forced to internally debate its own identity and how to maintain it, and how it should adapt to changes that occur in the product development sphere. Specifically, contemplations will include the role product management has in Agile software development or DevOps or Design Thinking, assuming User Experience (UX) responsibilities, performing product design, and working with software development tools.

Eventually the entire idea side of product management will burrow itself deeper and deeper in those respective thoughts and topics because it perpetually struggles to assert a clear definition of product management and because there are always new business/market trends and new ways being devised to do product development.

The idea side of product management will remain popular because its concepts are relatively easy to explain, understand, and implement, and the accompanying inherent flexibility and ambiguity are deemed politically desirable at certain organizations.

The methodology side of product management will experience steady growth and increased adoption in the market, albeit at a slower pace. Hindering its adoption will be the perception that the methodology approach is rigid with laborious documentation and is generally more complex to understand and implement. The methodology side of product management will ultimately become identified with the more efficient, disciplined, and apolitical organizations.

With the methodology approach, a very clear definition of product management is available from the outset and all that is derived from that definition will continue to be refined and explored. The result will be a gradual expansion of the body of knowledge attributed to the methodology side of product management.

Educational Programs
Universities are private or public institutions that engage in research and in educating future researchers. Academia's mission is to expand human understanding and knowledge.

The Technology approach to product management will find its place at a few technical universities, a type of university which specializes in technology and engineering studies, particularly in regard to software and as an elective course.

At business universities, the Business approach to product management will be the centerpiece of a single executive education course and of an MBA elective course. In the distant future there will be a handful of universities that will offer an MBA degree with a major in product management, but the curriculum will actually be slanted towards product marketing or brand management for consumer goods.

Only a very few top-tier technical and business universities will offer a product management course that is based on the Methodology approach as part of their vocational training programs. The top-tier technical and business universities will not offer a product management course as part of their MBA programs.

Due to the increasingly low barriers to entry which the internet provides, the idea side of product management will see a steady increase of new non-academic commercial organizations offering a diverse range of product management courses and training services. These vendors will mainly compete on price which will naturally drive down the price of training for the idea side of product management. The offering will be concentrated on knowledge transfer and audience enlistment, explaining the concepts of one particular idea-based approach and trying to persuade listeners that this approach is valid and the right choice career-wise.

Due to the rather high barriers to entry which hinge on a very lengthy development process, the methodology side of product management may see only one new entrant which will offer a new methodology in product management with all of the related services. The prices of training programs on the methodology side of product management will remain steady and changes in the competitive landscape will drive a substantial increase in the value and scope of offerings provided.

Tools of the Trade
There are no real programmatic tools presently available on the market for product management and this has resulted in a situation where the best tool for product management currently available is the Microsoft Office desktop application suite. This will not change.

Most of the software tools currently available for managing products are not for product management but for product development. All the popular software development tools, technical requirements, and project management for product development tools are designed for engineers and not for product managers.

The reality is that the number of product development practitioners is profoundly larger than the number of product management practitioners. Software vendors see an immensely bigger market share and revenue potential in directing their efforts and selling seats (software licenses) to product developers as opposed to product managers.

Real programmatic tools for either side of product management are not in the near future.

Subversion and Undermining
Forces openly or subtly opposed to product management will continue to attempt to replace or invalidate product management.

Over the last decade and at software companies, product management was directly challenged by Agile/Scrum, a lightweight software development method. Despite its massive popularity during its heyday, Scrum's own failings and inherent shortcomings unavoidably caused its decline and precipitated a dynamic in the market to replace Scrum.

Consequently, Scrum's imposition on product management is continuously weakening and this will continue to be so in the future. All the new lightweight software development methods that are being viewed as contenders to replace Scrum are more robust and work in relative harmony with product management.

A challenge from another direction is that technology-driven companies which are dominated by engineers have floated the idea that product management should be kept minimal or abolished completely. The rationale is that the engineers themselves are capable of handling nearly everything related to the product (feature scope, development, management, schedule, budget, etc.)

Although highly unlikely it is possible that in the future and at a technology-driven company engaged in holacracy and self-organization (also unlikely), the vote will be to abolish product management. If it happens then this experiment will undoubtedly fail.

In non-software technology industries, being manufacturers and services providers, product management will face its biggest opposition in the form of long-established corporate traditions which value engineering and an entrenched organizational culture. However, product management will ultimately overcome this challenge because in these types of organizations the new generation of executive management that comes to power is always open to new initiatives that could improve the company.

Geography Matters
The principles of product management are universal and can be applied to any type of product. Product management is practiced worldwide but the actual local implementation is also affected by the national culture. Product management will be adopted and implemented differently in developing countries versus developed countries.

There will be a dramatic increase in interest in product management in many Asian countries as part of their desire to become innovators and product leaders and not remain the workshop to the world. Product management will be part of the immense flow of knowledge going to South America and East European countries as part of these countries' continued receptiveness to new methods and ways to help build their industries and levitate their economies.

Product management in the developed world, primarily North America, Europe, and certain Asian countries will experience the deepening ideological rift that will produce the idea and methodology sides of product management.

In the near future and on the idea side of product management, product management will continue to be associated with money, technology, teams, etc., and not so much with the actual products themselves. Conflating product management with technology, project management, business management, and product development will continue.

The methodology side of product management will be further honed and will become focused more on promoting product management as a true strategic function.

In the future the world of product management will be transformed and it will be recognized as a two-party system with some organizations staunchly encamped on one side while other organizations drift between the sides according to their changing identity.