Product Marty Cagan

Alternatives To Product Managers

I doubt anyone is surprised to learn that many people have been asking me about Brian Chesky’s recent comments.

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic for two reasons:  First, I didn’t want to provide oxygen to this topic, as I consider this interview one that creates as many questions as it answers.  Second, I like to write about topics that I think will endure, and are not just a response to temporary interest from a single leader making a provocative statement.

That said, there’s little doubt that many leaders are frustrated with their product managers, and while I’ve warned about that before, this interview gets many of these issues out on the table.  There are also some important lessons about the journey of a leader as they move towards the product model.

So my intention here is to write a series of two articles, this one on the alternatives to product managers, and the next on the alternatives to product leaders.  With those two articles as context, I think most people will be able to predict how I would respond to the various specific issues raised in the interview.

Before we dive in, there are two important points to remind people of:

First, if you have not yet read the article on Product Teams vs Feature Teams, then I’d strongly suggest you pause here and read that carefully, as those concepts underlie much of the discussion that follows.

Second, keep in mind that my work is all about sharing the practices that try to give you the best chance of product success.  I always try to explain that there is no one right way.  In fact, for early stage startups, I’ve long argued that what matters most are the specific individuals involved.  They matter more than whether the people are co-located or remote, or what particular roles and responsibilities each person has, or the product vision, or the techniques they use to discover and deliver their product.  But as companies grow, they usually find that they start to run up against the limitations of what these individuals can personally do, so then they’re looking to find a more scalable and repeatable approach.  And that’s what my work tries to focus on.

Alternatives to Product Managers

Note that the wording here is intentional.  If you define product management, as I do, as being responsible for the value and viability of what gets built, then there really isn’t an alternative to product management – someone is doing this one way or another. 

However, product managers have never been the only way to cover the product management responsibilities, and there are definitely alternatives, some much better than others.

I have long warned that if you have feature teams, then eventually the company’s leaders (if they’re paying attention) come to realize that the people titled product managers are really project managers (aka program managers or delivery managers).  

Or even worse, if you have Agile-trained product owners in the seats where you need product managers, then what you really have are backlog administrators, which leaders eventually come to realize provides very little value to anyone.

But the real point here is that neither the feature team product manager, nor the Agile product owner, are providing the necessary product management, so something else must be going on, and that’s what we’ll discuss here.

Founder or Stakeholder-Driven Product Management

The most common alternative to product managers is that the founder/CEO (in a small company), or the stakeholders (in a medium or large company), are taking responsibility for the product management (the value and viability of what is to be built), and the product teams are just there to build out the roadmap features and projects (i.e. they are feature teams).

Another common manifestation of essentially the same dynamic is that there are business owners that cover the product management, and the product owners just cover the backlog management (serving as the interface to the engineers).  

This alternative model has been around forever, and the limitations are well known (see Product Fail).  It’s no secret that I’m no fan of this alternative to product managers, and consider it the root cause of most failed efforts.

Another Product Team Member Steps Up 

There have always been examples where either the designer or one of the engineers steps up and covers the product management responsibilities.  No real reason it couldn’t be another team member, but it’s usually the designer or the tech lead.

To be clear, I don’t mean covering the product owner role, which is not hard for someone else on the team to do.  I mean doing the work to learn the customer dynamics, the product data, the competitive landscape, and the many business viability constraints in order to cover value and viability.

I admit to having a real appreciation for the ambitious people that put in the work to tackle this dual role (and especially those rare few that learn the skills to tackle all three – product, design and engineering, known with real admiration as “triple threats”), but this has never been a scalable or sustainable solution because it requires the person taking on essentially two full-time jobs at once. 

Product Leader-Driven Product Management

However, there is another alternative that I think in the right context can be extremely effective: this is when the product management responsibility is covered by skilled product leaders.  The most famous example of this working at scale is Apple.

The most important thing to understand about Apple is that they have three very different types of products.  They have a small number of consumer devices that dominate their business and product strategy; they have a few major operating systems that power their devices; and they have a large number of more conventional consumer services and applications.

Consider for a moment just how different each of these three are from the others.  I’ll save a deeper dive on the differences between the three for a future article, but for now, we need to talk about their alternative to product managers.

If you talk to people working at Apple, most of them will tell you, usually with thinly disguised pride, that while they have world-class designers and world-class engineers, and they have strong program managers supporting these people, they don’t have product managers.

They do have product marketing managers, but while these people do help significantly on go-to-market, they are not really covering the core of product management – value and viability – and they are not the basis of their alternative to product managers.

At Apple, the people covering the true product management responsibilities, and in my personal opinion the most under-appreciated aspect of Apple’s version of the product model, is that they have a remarkable number of the best product leaders I’ve ever seen.

Their product leaders are exceptionally strong, deeply knowledgeable, true product people in the best sense of the term, deeply engaged with the product teams on value and viability, as well as product vision, product strategy, team topology, all on top of being responsible for coaching and developing the talent on their teams.

This alternative approach does mean that these product leaders can be bottlenecks on decisions, and it’s not a coincidence that Apple is not known for moving quickly.  

But if you consider consumer devices, where the outcome depends so heavily on many different product teams contributing to a seamless whole, then this model has very real advantages.

While this alternative works quite well for consumer devices (a small number of very complex products), there are some real challenges when it comes to the large number of diverse services and applications, and this is where you’ll find more examples at Apple of strong individual contributor product managers collaborating directly with product designers and engineers.

Should You Consider An Alternative To Product Managers?

If you’re a CEO or GM, you might be thinking that instead of trying to recruit and develop strong, true product managers, maybe you’ll just do like Apple and skip the product managers, and you’ll just take responsibility for value and viability yourself?  

If so, it’s critical to understand that the Apple product model depends on exceptionally strong product leaders.  Many of Apple’s product leaders have 10-25 years of experience building world-class products at Apple.  

Just like countless CEO’s fancied themselves to be the next Steve Jobs, only to find out they weren’t even close, unless you have truly strong product leaders, don’t expect the same results.

I certainly believe that true product managers (not feature-team product managers or product owners) are the most scalable and sustainable solution to driving consistent innovation on behalf of our customers. However, it’s important to realize that you don’t need to have product managers to cover the product management responsibilities.  The responsibilities of value and viability don’t go away, but they can be covered by other qualified people, such as strong product leaders.