Let’s make product management extinct.

Might be time to “sunset” product management as a role. Photo by Author

Ever since I transitioned into product management from software engineering, I’ve had days where I feel a little less useful in the product development process. I don’t design, I don’t code anymore, I don’t do QA testing, and in some cases, there’s a business intelligence team that help me with the dashboards and data analysis. When it comes to being hands-on, there’s little time for that. This is not to paint the picture that I’m just sitting around and ushering every other team around like traffic police. I find myself constantly context switching from checking data to analyse how the latest feature is performing, to reviewing designs for the next updates. From verifying if the tasks in QA are good enough to be launched and what percentage of customers should be the first to get it, to grooming the backlog.

Somehow, in all these day-to-day activities of what a typical product manager does, I still feel like something is missing. The thought became stronger when I asked myself one question: what if I took some time off? Can the team collaborate well with each other to continue solving our users’ and business problems?

If the answer to my question is no, I know there’s something wrong. I’ve become a single point of failure and the bus factor of my product team is one. If the answer is yes, then it means I may not be needed in the team. Why am I part of the team if that’s the case?

This dilemma made me take a step back to consider another question: what is the primary purpose of a product or engineering team? I believe it is to translate business and customer problems into a [software] solution that works for both customers and the business. If we try to turn this statement into a simple flow diagram, it would look like this:

Flow 1

Considering this very simple diagram, it seems obvious that the only people we need are the people who are building the solution hands-on. This can be seen in many early-stage startups that have only engineers and founders bouncing ideas around and churning out solutions without elaborate design teams or product managers. If startups do this, then why can’t we just scale it up and kill every unnecessary role? Well not so fast. It is estimated that about 90% of startups fail and one big factor is because they struggled to find product-market fit.

According to The Lean Startup [Eric Ries], a simple feedback loop can help reduce the risk of failure: build, measure, and learn. Now instead of founders and engineers just bouncing ideas off of each other in a room and constantly building solutions using a hit or miss approach to create product-market fit, they can build, measure, and learn. The measure and learn steps create a valuable feedback loop that can help shape the future of the product and reduce the risk of failed products and wasted efforts. Now our product development cycle looks like this:

Flow 2

To reduce the risk of a failed product (and startup), we’ve added two important steps. Now the question is, who will measure the impact and who will interpret that into the lessons and key insights? For our founders or engineers to do this well, they would have to be skilled at understanding what to measure, their KPIs, and interpreting the right information from the data. This is not an impossible thing to accomplish. It just means having a more diverse skillset between the founders or the engineers that are going to take on this task. If neither can do it well, then here comes the data analyst (or a similar role) to help out.

Now we have founders, engineers, and data analysts. The team comes up with the next problem to solve and the solution was built and delivered. When we measured the impact, we realised that our end users couldn’t use the solution. The user experience was terrible, or maybe it wasn’t actually what the users needed and their problem wasn’t solved. We can try hiring more roles to prevent the issues that we discovered from happening again, for instance, hiring designers to help us with user experience problems, or QA engineers to help us validate different use cases on behalf of the user.

The truth is, there could have been a ton of reasons that our solution failed but we only found out after spending valuable time and resources building something that didn’t work. For most businesses, time and resources are extremely limited and they have very few iterations to find product-market fit before they run out of both. Also remember, there’s no second chance to make a good first impression. This saying applies to products as well. Once you fail to impress a potential customer, it’s almost impossible to convince them to give your product another try. With the race against time and the added pressure to get things right the first time, what can we do to further reduce the risk of failure?

A good starting point is to ask one (and a follow up) question: How do we know we’re focusing on the right problem? And if yes, how can we know the right solution before we spend the time and resources building it? The importance of having good answers to these simple questions cannot be overstated. If we know the right problem to focus on, and we’re building the right solution for it, then our time and resources would not be a waste. Our customers would love our solution, and the business would also hit its goals. Having good answers to these questions define success or failure for most startups. One of the biggest problems in product development, however, is that we either never answer these two questions, or we completely hand over the responsibility to one role: the product manager. Considering the importance of these questions, everyone in the company should be involved in answering them. In essence, everyone in the company, no matter the role, should be a product person.

A typical product manager makes their decisions either based on data, or instincts that are influenced by experience (sometimes both). What happens when we decentralise this decision-making process and provide everyone with the necessary data to make decisions and answer these two questions? We will be leveraging the experience of way more people in the team to make even better decisions with the data available. Our problem definition and solution process become better refined. We will also be building empowered teams with a stronger connection towards the company’s mission who truly feel they’re part of the decision-making process and not just code monkeys.

In reality, however, product people are rare. There are still products and features being built today using the hit or miss approach and spending lots of time and resources only to find out the solution was never what the customers needed. We still have unnecessary desire to achieve feature parity to the point where feature creep becomes a problem. This is why companies and startups still need product managers. However, just like Jim Collins explained in Good to Great, level 5 leaders set up their successors (and their team) for even greater success when they leave. This means empowering their teams to make decisions with the right guidance. From this, we can infer that a good product manager builds a solid product that meets the customers and business needs while a great product manager builds a solid product culture that creates more product people in the company (and the world) to the point where product management becomes extinct. Imagine if a product development team consisting of designers and engineers can fully articulate the problem statement and the right approach to the solution based on the easily accessible (and understandable) data about the users, the business and the technology available? Ultimately, this can only happen if everyone in the team is a product person.

Coming back to my initial question: Can my team build great products without a product manager? My goal is to make the answer a yes, at which point I would know it’s time to move on to my next crusade.

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Christian | Newbie Photographer | French Learner | Product Manager

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Oluwakamiye Adelemoni

Oluwakamiye Adelemoni

Christian | Newbie Photographer | French Learner | Product Manager

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