Product Marty Cagan

The Best Product Management Model?

One question I get quite frequently is “Google is making boatloads of money, so how can we do product management like Google?” Or another common variant is “Apple creates fantastic products. How can we do product management like Apple?”

You can understand why some might look at Google or Apple and think they should just clone what they do. But odds are they’d be making a big mistake.

Don’t get me wrong. While Apple and Google have very different models of product management, on the whole I’d argue they’re right for their companies (at least as long as their founders continue to stay so deeply involved in product).

But I have yet to recommend Google’s model of product management to other companies. And in the case of Apple, to implement their model you’d have to clone Steve Jobs.

The product management model for Google is very different, and I argue it needs to be, and the same is true for Apple.

While there are a set of skills that are important for all tech product managers – skills like assessing opportunities, defining product principles, product discovery, and prototype testing – there’s more to succeeding in an organization than just the skills involved.

It’s much like a sports team. Yes the skills are critically important. If you can’t catch a ball, you won’t go far as a receiver. However, winning requires more than skills. It requires having a game plan or strategy for winning, working well as a member of a team, adapting to your opponent, the playing field, and the conditions.

Similarly, building a successful product management organization requires not only developing the skills of your product managers, but making sure they know how to work effectively with the rest of the product team, as a key part of your company’s overall product development organization and product development process, and knowing how to create the type of products your company requires, and knowing how to compete successfully in the markets you play in.

When I talk with a company about the “best” product management model for them, I’m looking at several factors, including:

– The Type of Product. It matters whether you’re producing a consumer internet service, a consumer electronics device, enterprise software, or a small business services. There are unique challenges of each and the model should suit the needs.

– The Product Development Process. For example, if the product development team is using Scrum there are very specific demands on the product managers and designers. Understanding the product development process is essential. Every process has limitations and the “best” product management model will proactively attack these limitations.

– The Role of Product Management. In many companies the roles and responsibilities are sliced up differently and the “best” product management model is one where the staff has the ability and the desire to serve the role that’s needed. This also applies to the other key related roles such as interaction designers and engineers, founders and executives.

– The Size of the Organization. A 12-person venture-funded startup with a very involved product-oriented founder, has very different needs than a 4000-employee public company with a large base of existing customers.

– The Company Culture. Sometimes this is in fact the dominant factor. For example, if you have a company where one or two people effectively make all the product decisions that matter (and want to continue doing so), then you want a product management model that facilitates this, rather than fights it.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, eBay, and Yahoo all have different product management models, and I argue they should. Could each be improved? Certainly. Could you learn things from each of them? Absolutely. But you won’t improve by trying to force-fit a model from one company into another.

Unless a company has made the decision that they want to try to change their culture, I instead typically focus on getting the company to embrace the strengths of their culture or process, and make sure the product management model they select is proactive in addressing the weaknesses.