Product Management Marty Cagan

Product Management Theater

Fair warning that for many of you, this article is going to feel like a heavy dose of tough love.

I have been warning for several years that delivery team product owners, and feature team product managers are likely going to be facing a reckoning as companies realize that these roles are not what they thought they were.

From what I can tell, that reckoning has begun.  And I’m expecting that Generative AI will only compound this.

In this article, my goal is to help people realize if they are vulnerable, and what they can do to dial up their contributions to their company, so they’re not at the top of the list when the CEO decides it’s time to cut costs.

Several years ago I published Product vs. Feature Teams to try and shine a light on the fundamental differences between the types of product teams, and especially the job of the person with the title “product manager”.  I explained in that article that a feature team product manager was essentially a glorified (and usually overpaid) project manager, and that a delivery team product owner was little more than a backlog administrator.

Yet so many people did not see themselves in those descriptions.

If a company tells me they understand the difference between feature teams and product teams, and they still want to operate that way, I don’t try to convince them otherwise.  In fact, I usually explain that this is not something that we at SVPG can help them with, but that there are several other places they can go to for help.  

As an example, when feature team product managers ask me about training suitable for their role on a feature team, I often direct them to one of the many product management training programs for companies working in the feature team model.

One of the most popular of these programs summarizes the product manager role as “40% communication and coordination, 20% design, 20% engineering, and 20% business.”

Hopefully you recognize that this is describing a project manager and not a product manager.

If you tweak a few words (e.g. “you should know enough about design, engineering and business to talk to designers, engineers and stakeholders”), that could literally be the job description for a technical project manager.

Certainly this is nothing at all like what is needed from a product manager on an empowered product team.

Now don’t get me wrong, a good project manager is a valuable member of a product organization.  But it’s not hard to see how a strong tech lead, product designer, engineering manager or program manager could cover this role.  

And you can certainly see why people despise the “product manager as CEO of a product” description when we’re talking about someone like this.

And if you are a CEO that is looking to cut costs, wouldn’t you rather cut this, than lose a hands-on designer or engineer?

The reason I describe this as “product management theater” is because a person that is essentially a project manager, with no real training or skills to cover the true product management responsibilities, simply declaring they are a product manager, is just pretending.  

“Big hat, no cattle.”  It’s theater.

Realize that there are situations where layoffs are unavoidable and there’s really little if anything any of us can do to protect ourselves, no matter what type of product team you’re on. However, in my experience, it is always a good idea to work to make yourself as valuable as possible.

So what to do if you’re one of the countless thousands that have been trained as a feature team product manager or a product owner, yet you wish to show your company that you are capable of being much more than a coordinator or a backlog administrator?  Or, maybe you wish to prepare yourself to join a company working in the product model.

This starts with an honest assessment of where your skills are.  You can do this as a self-assessment, but blind spots are very real, so if you can find someone that knows what good looks like, and is willing to assess you, that would be ideal.  Then you can get to work building your skills.

You likely won’t need to spend time building your design skills or your engineering skills.  That’s why you have a professional designer and professional engineers on your team.  Your contribution is very different.  But you likely will need to build your business skills, data skills, and your customer knowledge.

Maybe you can also now understand why we remain philosophically against the many so-called certifications in the product management and product owner industry.  Despite the obvious marketing benefits of convincing people there is some sort of value in these certifications, they are essentially indicating you’ve had some level of training in a particular process or methodology.  They say nothing about the product skills and experience that actually matters to your product team.

It takes real effort, but people with true product skills have historically been very valuable, and I’m betting that will continue to be the case through the changes ahead.