Influence vs. authority

The blog posts from a few years back saying ‘product managers are like CEOs’ are responsible for some bad product management. Product managers are not like CEOs, especially in mature organisations. We’re not like an old school boss. We’re generalists acting as glue code for the insights of specialists. We manage the product through influence, not authority, something that relies on trust and respect. Nothing destroys trust and respect quicker than over-confidence and a superiority complex, so here’s my contribution to the blog posts debunking the myth of ‘product managers as CEOs’.

Humble beginnings

I’ve got sympathy. One reason for the CEO myth is that lots of product managers have to work with very small teams and end up doing lots themselves. When I worked for startups and charities I was typically expected to carry out market-sizing, user research, service design and delivery management as part of my role, with funding to hire a developer and visual designer from an agency. I had to do a lot with very little, which meant doing it myself.

Mature organisations

I’ve since moved to a mature software organisation within the Ministry of Justice, creating public services in the form of in-house software. It took me a while to adjust to having a team of specialists available to do things that I’d previously had to do myself. A discovery team might consist of a user researcher to understand users’ needs; a technical specialist to help understand the possible solutions; a business analyst to help understand the cost of the problem vs. the value of the solution; and a delivery manager to make sure that the team is performing well. I’ve had to make peace with the fact that product management in a mature software organisation is a non-functional role, and that I’m much more like glue code for insights than I am a CEO.

The value of generalists

There’s a real value in a non-functional generalist amongst a team of functional specialists, and that’s the role fulfilled by product managers. We know the minimum required of all the specialist roles within the team to bring their insights together whilst allowing them to focus on their area of specialism. Our value is in cutting across professional boundaries, acting as glue code that adapts insights from separate specialisms and allows them to interoperate.

Get over yourself

So if you’re a product manager in a mature organisation that you might have to get over yourself. You’re not the boss. You’re not more important than everyone else. You’re glue code that adapts insights from separate specialisms and allows them to interoperate within the context of the product. You’re a generalist amongst specialists . . . definitely not a mini CEO :)