Why Product Managers Should be Generalists

BY CHRIS BELL ON DECEMBER 6, 2017

There’s an apocryphal tale that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the last person to have read everything. Given that he died in 1834 and the vast increase of information there’s been since then, you can understand how the tale started. Even 200 years ago, it was still possible to be an expert in many different fields of study, whereas today it’s often a life’s pursuit just to become proficient in one single area.

The approach that most people take is to specialise  – and it’s understandable why. If you want to push the boundaries of your field, you have to choose a small subset and work deep. We also assume that by doing this we protect ourselves in competitive job markets, because by being specialised, it should be hard to find someone with the equivalent skills to replace us.

There’s no doubt that we expect certain of the roles that we interact with to be highly specialised: you wouldn’t want to hear someone about to perform heart surgery saying they just dabble in the field or have your professor say they only know a little bit about the subject. But we also need to recognise that these highly skilled roles also require generalists to help them work together better, and connect the silos of information held across an organisation.

This is often where product managers come in: the “jack of all trades” who knows a little about a lot and can help those with deep knowledge to drive the best value from their insight.

In Defence of Product Managers as Generalists

The role of a product manager is fundamentally a generalist one. This is a view I have shared many times, and it’s sometimes met with a level of resistance, because we like to view what we do as being specialised and therefore more protected. However, consider the fact that a lot of people become product managers not because of a specialist set of skills, but because of their knowledge of the workings of their business. It’s not uncommon that these people become product managers because they have been with a company or in an industry long enough to see the bigger picture.

When we consider the broad categories of role of a product manager, we see that they cover areas that feature individuals with high levels of specialisation. Martin Eriksson defines the key aspects of the product manager role as the overlap between tech, UX, and business.

Within the role of the product manager, three broad areas are covered:

  • Tech – To work effectively with teams of developers, we have to have an understanding of the technology involved so we can speak a common language when we work together. When we develop new product propositions, we need to know what we can do with the technology we have and what its limitations are
  • UX – This is our awareness of the customer and being able to take a value proposition and work with our colleagues in UX/UI to create a pleasing user experience for our customers
  • Business – This is ultimately the area where the success or failure of our products will be decided. The goal of any good product should be the further success of a business.

It’s pretty much impossible to be an expert in all these areas, but by having a keen awareness of all three, we help the specialists within these areas function so much better together.

The Benefits of Being a Generalist

Undoubtedly, there are benefits to organisations that have strong generalists, but contrary to the assumption that specialisation is the best route for individuals, there are also positive aspects for them in pursuing a generalist route.

Context

This is probably the greatest benefit that generalists bring to their organisations. When a group of specialists works together they can do amazing things. But when multiple groups of specialists work they can struggle to bring their work together. This is often the situation in tech companies, where there can be groups of people specialising in an area with little understanding of their colleagues’ specialisations. Product managers as generalists can help to bring this back together.

Flexibility

Remember when we talk about generalism and specialism in biology, we’re referring respectively to animals that can survive in varied circumstances, such as foxes, or animals who have to live in very specific scenarios, like pandas or koalas. In nature, this flexibility is a great survival trait, and it’s similar for us in our organisations. Being able to move between areas within our organisation demonstrates that we can survive in these varied circumstances.

Particularly for early-stage companies that aren’t able to specialise their roles, flexibility is a great benefit and in fact this is how I came to product management myself. Working in a startup with limited specialised resource, we found what we could and couldn’t do ourselves. We learned new skills, but never specialised into a single one, as we may have done in a larger company.

Leaders

Being a generalist also allows us to develop leadership skills. Leaders are more likely to be generalists, because they need to see the bigger picture, rather than get caught in the specifics on any single role. It’s an often criticised metaphor, but there is something in the product manager as the CEO of their products, in that they need to maintain that high-level awareness of everything that threatens the life or death of their products, the same way a CEO has to for a whole company.

What to Take Away?

We need specialists. We need them to help us push the boundaries of what we know and what we can do with what we know. Generalists will never replace specialists, but they can complement them in ways that benefit both parties. As product managers, let’s not be put off by being called “jacks of all trades”, by keeping ourselves at this high level we benefit our products, our organisations and ultimately, ourselves.

Chris Bell

About CHRIS BELL

Chris ia a product manager at Tungsten Network. Previously he worked in a legal tech start-up. When not working he is often found drinking coffee and exploring London.

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