The Future of Product Management is in a Movement


The product management domain faces unique contemporary challenges. To overcome these challenges it does not require technological breakthroughs or previously unbudgeted resources. Reliable and supported principles, tools, and methods for practicing product management are mature and available. Highly capable and educated human talent is there. But something is curtailing the growth of product management and limiting its potential benefits for businesses.

This analytical review presents the product management domain's most acute present challenge and proffers a way to overcome it.


Orderly Ways

The methods that modern companies use to develop products are deeply rooted in the ways of the distant past. Significant traits of the orderly, efficient, and tool-based managerial and developmental processes, the enablers of complex manufacturing projects that were the mainstay of factories of the industrial age, are still being practiced today.

Various managerial and developmental job titles and roles in related professional domains such as program management, product management, project management, and product development, all grew out of the USA's post-WWII defense industry. They then crossed over into the business world and were primarily adopted by the technology sector. These job titles and roles were then fused with the managerial and developmental processes of the time to provide the contemporary methods that companies use today to develop consumer and business products.

Over the years the different professional domains have reached acceptance, maturity, recognition, and subject matter consolidation. The project management domain is a fine example of such with the Project Management Institute (PMI) organization acting as a recognized central accreditor body and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) as the accepted convention of uniform guidelines to apply project management.


Lag In Product Management

The product management domain is different than the other professional domains by considerably lagging behind in being properly understood. While great strides have been made and there is some noticeable improvement, the current situation is that there is a profound lack of understanding of what product management truly is and consequently there are far-reaching interpretative variances about the product management domain's scope and constitution, and even about its importance or relevance.

For many, lingering is the pervasive absence of clarity on how to define product management, where it fits, how it interfaces within the organization, and what its goals are. All this has created a chaotic environment which is hindering the contribution that the product management domain can make to businesses and impeding the career progression of product management professionals.

All business domains are shaped and governed by some form of foundational rules. The product management domain is no exception. Without a methodological foundation, unfounded opinions are erroneously presented as tautological positions. This has resulted in misconceived notions which put forward baseless statements of what product management is, while being wholly dependent on conjecture, skewed workplace experiences, and mere personal preference or interpretation. Without offering principles to govern product management, the stated position immediately descends to generalization and consequently considers product management as responsible for everything and anything. There are many who mistakenly accept and perpetuate such unsubstantiated engrossing interpretations.


Generalization and Trivialization

Generalizing is easy and is also employed by some product management training and certification vendors. This allows the vendor to offer a program that is comprised of disjointed subject matter while using some proprietary but mainly free public domain content. Sometimes a single rudimentary "plan-build-launch" style graphic model is propped on top of the program's content and misrepresented as a methodology (for competitive purposes) or as an open framework or flexible method (particularly when the hypothesis the model is based on is incomplete). Some opportunistic vendors have tried to offer new programs that promote patently skewed perspectives of product management, such as UX Product Management, Lean Product Management, and Agile Product management – but all these defective ideas have already withered or are fading away on their own. Yet again, without a solid methodological foundation these vendor-specific programs offer very little support to the advancement of the product management profession.

The digital sphere has proven itself as the breeding ground for the development of ideas and content. Serious product management ideas and debates have found sanctuary on various internet platforms but there is a sense that quality content and true thought leadership in product management are being overwhelmed by the noise created by masses of generic and arguably trivial product management content. The internet has become inundated with scores of posts in the form of "Three or four or five tips-tricks-things-mistakes-topics-facts-signs-lessons-questions-reasons-ways-ideas-rules every product manager should ________". The contributory value of such posts to the advancement of the product management profession is questionable to say the least.

Joining the cycle that perpetuates the generalization and trivialization of product management are trends from product development which include attempts to discredit product management and invalidate its necessity. This is particularly evident in the software industry where product management, program management, and quality assurance are being portrayed as stifling innovation and slowing the pace at which a product can be developed. This view is a reflection of a grand power struggle and self-serving efforts by elements in the product development community to centralize all ownership and control of product delivery in the hands of the development team.

These combined forces erode the respectability of the product management domain and they discourage the necessary cohesion to build a professionally recognized and stable product management community. But it really does not have to be this way.


Quest for a Popular Movement

Moving forward, the product management domain and its practitioners face many challenges. Because of the current market structures and forces it is not likely that a respected central body and a product management body of knowledge (similar to PMI and PMBOK) will emerge in the near future. On the way to conformity and solidarity in the product management world, more creativity, enlightenment, and individual contribution are needed. A positive culture that is based on intellect and rationales has to first evolve.

There are people who are moved by others and people who move others. What the product management domain needs is a global movement of movers, like-minded organizations and individuals who will positively promote the product management domain according to the following three principles:

  1. Acknowledgment that product management is unequivocally governed by methodological foundational rules, not opinions or interpretations.
  2. Recognition that product management is a specialization, not a generalization.
  3. Realization that product management is autonomous and distinct, not part of or subservient to any other professional domain or organizational department.

Models, processes, roles, and tasks are a very big part of product management, but ultimately, the rise of product management is not dependent on techniques, products, or technology – it hinges on people.

Product management has immense potential and a very bright alternative future, but only if it is consistently and correctly understood. The future of the product management domain is in the hands of forward-looking people who consistently and correctly explain product management to workplace peers, executive management, and customers, and participate in or support the emergence of a product management movement.