The Fallacy of Generalizing

This review will explain and deconstruct one of the biggest fallacies in the product management profession – the generalization of product management and of the product manager.

Most technology startups and companies are formed by technical people with a background in product development or manufacturing. The founders of these companies are primarily focused on technology and often remain deeply involved with the most minute technical product decisions, even when the company grows dramatically.

For technical people, technical knowledge and technology is highly valued and considered the company's core competency. Since the founders of these companies are very technical people, they shape the company according to their own mindset and personal comfort zones. This means that in these technology-driven organizations, the product managers are very often relegated to doing anything that the salespeople do not know how to do and everything that the product developers do not want to do.

The Product Manager title consequently becomes grossly misunderstood and a catch-all phrase for a multitude of shifting responsibilities which also include tasks offloaded from other corporate functions. At many startups and companies, product management and product manager have become euphemisms for nearly anything and everything.

Compounding the problem is the workplace experience which makes us all wiser but can also be misleading. People tend to conceptualize and frame their world view according to their work experience. Therefore, some people who have worked at companies in which the product manager did anything and everything tend to apply an ideology to their experience. The main rationale supporting this ideology is the anecdotal reasoning of "At my former workplace we did it like this; therefore, it's advocated that…" which has very little substantive merit.

So these good people, based on their own misled experience, mistakenly perpetuate the notion that the product manager does anything and is responsible for everything related to the product, just as the startup founder did with his early product and a CEO does in relation to a company.

The startup founder and the company CEO are always responsible for commercial success, so now through inference the product manager also becomes responsible for the product's commercial success. This is wrong because Profit and Loss (P&L) is a measurement criteria that is reserved for the executive management, who have corporate authority, responsibility, and accountability. The misconception now becomes even more entrenched.

Thus were born the "CEO of the Product" or "Product CEO" or Mini-CEO designations, synonymous with the Product Manager title. With such a hazy and broad definition it is possible to fit almost anything into the realm of product management. Some companies arbitrarily tack the most obscure responsibilities on the product manager, just because they do not know where else to put those responsibilities. So when people explain and justify that "Every company applies product management differently" as if it were proper, they are actually describing a markedly flawed situation that exists without any rational legitimacy.

Some companies realize the political benefits of promoting and maintaining the notion of a product manager as "CEO of the Product". This is because it allows the company to give the product manager a sense of personal clout and prestige without affording him/her the real authority and salary of a real CEO. In addition, the all-inclusive title is vague enough to hold the product manager overwhelmingly responsible for the product (politically desirable) and also grants the company the flexibility to add more job responsibilities in the future. Lastly, having one person perform several roles is always economical (fewer salaries) and can decrease internal strife if the roles inherently have friction points. This is the unabashed reality.

Product management is an extremely well-ordered and well-disciplined profession that is meant to be practiced by specialists, not generalists. Companies are meant to be run by executive management generalists who preside over professional specialists, and being professional means being focused.

My mini keynote presentation on the Future of Product Management (PDF) during the Product Management Festival 2013 in Zurich culminated in the call that "Product Management has immense potential and a very bright future, but only if it is consistently and correctly understood." The future of the product management profession is in the hands of its own practitioners who need to consistently and correctly explain product management to workplace peers, executive management and customers. Only then will the situation for product managers improve professionally and career-wise.