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What is product? The past, present and future of our craft "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 4 June 2021 True company culture, Premium Content, Product Management, Product management career, product-led, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 2980 Signpost saying past, present and future from shutterstock_1078052594 Product Management 11.92
· 14 minute read

What is product? The past, present and future of our craft

This article looks at the future of product practice and product management — at how far we’ve come, our present-day understanding of product, and the challenges we still need to meet.

It should help you, as a product person, to better understand:-

  • Why we keep asking “what is product management?” and why we find it so hard to define
  • The state of current thinking about a product manager’s role, and why every job is different
  • The next stage for product management and how a product manager’s role will change as more businesses adopt product practice
  • All about the risks of becoming overburdened and the new skills you will need to learn

Mind the Product’s blog started with that seminal post from our Co-founder Martin Eriksson, What, exactly, is a Product Manager? — it was the first outing for the product Venn diagram and Martin’s description of product management as “the intersection between business, technology, and user experience”, which built on Marty Cagan’s 2008 book Inspired, and his much-quoted definition of a product manager as someone whose job is “to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible”. There’s been a lot of navel-gazing, lively discussion, and an unfathomable number of words spoken and written about the craft of product management since then.

As part of our assessment of product for Mind the Product’s 10th birthday last year, we ran this post, A decade in product – a retrospective. It reasons that product management is now much better and more widely understood, that businesses generally have a more customer focused approach, and that the concept of outcomes rather than outputs is beginning to prevail, while we understand that failing fast should really mean learning fast.

Present-day product management


  • Currently there is wide variation in product practice
  • The product maturity curve is akin to the market adoption curve
  • The product function will never be homogeneous because it’s dependent on both company and product maturity

But how far does this understanding of product extend? Ezinne Udezue, Vice President, Product Management at Procore Technologies has been working in product for 20 years and comments that when she first became a product manager, “we weren’t quite sure what we did, we thought we wrote requirements”. Now, she says: ”There’s clarity on the purpose and value of product management, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always well understood.” She thinks that product is understood in technology enabled-businesses and businesses that monetise through technology, but many companies still don’t quite understand the value of technology in their business. For example, she mentors a chief digital officer in a real estate business who is struggling to get the business to understand that its touchpoints with customers are products.

Everyone we spoke to talked about the wide variation in product practice across organisations today. John Cutler, Head of Product Education at Amplitude, comments: “I find that in an average week, it’s like I’m doing time travel. I talk to a bank, and it’s operating as if it’s 2006 and its competitors are operating like it’s 2004 and 2008. There’s still a very strong IT/ business divide.” John says that, broadly speaking, he talks to three types of companies. The first is a rapid scale-up/startup digital product company where “the founders were on product teams and product is in their bones”. The second is a 15 to 25 year old, digital product native company such as Microsoft, one that printed money in the past. “These companies may need to embrace new approaches and be more user centric or customer centric,” says John. “Even in a company like Microsoft, they’re almost having to rewrite their game plan for what product means.” John’s third category is companies that were not digital product companies, — Ikea is a classic example, he says. “It’s one of the biggest and best logistics companies in the world, and one of the biggest innovators in retail. But in Ikea, there’s an IT/business divide and a project culture. Now they’re trying to figure out what a product is in the context of the Ikea ecosystem.”

Today, it’s also generally accepted that product practice is more advanced in some parts of the world. We’ll say, for example, that Europe is a couple of years behind the US, and APAC is further behind again. This is a myth that should be dispelled, says Martin Eriksson. The product adoption curve is like the market adoption curve, he says, with innovators and early adopters through to the late majority and laggards. “You could probably argue that there are more US companies in the innovator and early adopter buckets, but there are definitely lots of innovators in Europe, in Singapore, in New Zealand, everywhere,” he says.

The reason why, at any meetup, we spend our time talking about what a PM is and having group therapy, is that the role of a product manager is almost unique to the situationDave Wascha, Chief Product and Technology Officer, Zoopla

Dave Wascha, Chief Product and Technology Officer at Zoopla, comments that, unlike engineering or design, product can never be an homogeneous function, because what a product person does is entirely dependent on where their company and their product are in their lifecycles. He comments: “With a mature product, you’re refining, optimising, and multivariate testing your way to eking out tenths of a percentage point improvements in conversion rates. With an immature product, you may not have a single customer or you may not be making any money from it, you might not have product/market fit.” Equally, B2B product management is very different from B2C. In B2B product management, says Dave, there’s a much longer, more complex interaction model, because the people using a product aren’t necessarily the people paying for it or even the people who decide to buy it. “The reason why, at any meetup, we spend our time talking about what a PM is and having group therapy, is that the role of a product manager is almost unique to the situation. Take a product manager who works at Google, one who works at a five-person startup, or one at a 2,000-person non technology company, their roles have very little in common.”

Can you systemise product?


  • Don’t try to systemise or codify product management process for consistency, it won’t work
  • While we may think that businesses should be product-led, we shouldn’t forget that sales-led companies can be wildly successful

Mind the Product Managing Director Emily Tate comments that, while many companies today see the value in product, they want it processed and packaged “in a way that can be laid out in a handbook for the company”. She says: “It means that you lay out the tactics of product — step one, user interviews, step two, design studio, and so on — but it doesn’t give flexibility to the next problem you try to solve. You need to be able to flex and say, what problem are we trying to solve, what question are we trying to answer? But companies want consistency across teams because they want predictability and consistency.”

As Emily points out, any answer to a product question comes with the caveat “it depends”, and any attempt to systemise product for consistency must necessarily ignore this caveat. “Companies want to be able to measure and judge if they’re doing product well, based on something that’s easy to track and measure, and which ignores the ‘it depends’,” she says. “We’re trying to get product people to move to a focus on the outcomes they’re trying to drive, but these can take longer to measure and may be outside the active control of the product manager.” The problem with this, she warns, is that the business may then look to product process for proxy measurements  and this risks emphasising output over outcomes, a “bit of a step backward towards a feature factory mentality”.

While product managers — wherever they’re employed — may have some basic tasks and tools in common, there is another dimension that distinguishes how they conduct their work, says Dave Wascha, and that is whether the organisation is sales or product-led. “In a sales-led business, the product manager isn’t going to work on the product roadmap, they’ll be handed the roadmap by salespeople. And remember that there are many sales-led companies that are wildly successful by any metric you use to measure success.” He adds that many European companies over the last 20 years have been sales-led because they’ve been the local office for a US-based multinational company.

Being product-led


  • The market is crowded, customers have lots of choice, it’s harder for your product to stand out
  • It’s easy for customers to switch products
  • As a result, more people are becoming involved in the product process

“Being product led doesn’t mean sales goes away,” says Emily. “Obviously we build products in order to sell them. But being sales-led tends to lead to a much more short-term focus on what you need to close a customer rather than that step back and look at the market and customer base as a whole that comes with being product-led.” It’s easier for a salesperson to close a deal if they can say yes to every request from a customer. Emily adds: “I once worked on a product that had something like 100 configurable toggles. The company had got used to just saying yes to customers but it made it a very complex product to maintain.”

Why do we spend so much time chewing over what product management is? Says Dave: “It’s because these are big decisions for people to make. These are the jobs that they’re going to take, the companies they’re going to work for, and they can’t predict or know what the job is.” He adds that one of the venture capital firms he advises now brings him in to mediate the hiring process for the first product manager. “A pervasive problem for young companies is that the first PMs they hire quit within six months. They think they’re coming in to an exciting new startup, where they’re going to be talking to customers and drawing roadmaps and thinking big thoughts, and then the founders say, ‘no, I do that’.”

We’re in a world where there are too many products trying to solve the same problem. It means you have to stand out in innovative ways. Sanket Totewar, Senior Product Owner, SAP

Market growth in the last few years has brought its own problems, as Sanket Totewar, Senior Product Owner at SAP, points out. “I think we’re in a world where there are too many products trying to solve the same problem,” he says, “it means you have to stand out in innovative ways.” Sanket says that it leads to more people being involved in the product process: “Five years ago you would just have had a product manager. Now you might have a product marketing manager, who is different from the marketing manager, and someone else who’s in charge of product growth.” He adds that while product managers may have more data and insights at their disposal, their customers can also move from one product to another at the click of a button: “The market has become more transparent, and competitors have become collaborators. That’s something that did not exist a few years ago.”

What challenges and changes lie ahead?


  • There’s a danger that product managers are becoming overburdened and disillusioned because companies aren’t clear about what they’re hiring for
  • Other members of a product team are becoming more product savvy, and this should change the way teams work

“At Mind the Product we talk a lot about the leading-edge, early adopter phase,” says Martin Eriksson, “some tech companies are in this phase, but the majority are playing catch-up.” He observes that product management has become a very attractive career because it’s a catch-all undefinable job with a big impact. “I don’t think we’ll get to a consistent definition. Modern product management is all about responding to change, and trying new ways of working and new ways to build. The rate of evolution might slow down, but the strength of the role is that it always challenges the status quo, always assumes there might be a better way to do something and is willing to try it.”

John Cutler says that Amplitude expects product managers to access more insights in the future, with more data to make decisions. “I think teams will be expected to work much more collaboratively, and they’ll expect to operate much closer to the edge — with customers, so an engineer or a designer can pick up the phone and talk to a customer.” He echoes Sanket’s comment that consumers have a lot more choice.”I think product managers may be expected to be a bit more analytic, and to have more experience of working directly with customers.”

Teams will be expected to work much more collaboratively, and they’ll expect to operate much closer to the edge.John Cutler, Head of Product Education, Amplitude

John feels there’s a danger that product managers can become overburdened because businesses don’t drill down into what they need. “You’ll see a job advertised that asks for someone to be a project manager, an informal influencer, an analyst, a strategist. These jobs may have product manager titles but they’re essentially asking for a human load balancer on top of a five person team, and they’re setting people up to become disillusioned and burnt out.”

He does however think that we’ll see fewer of what he calls “these heroic, jack-of-all-trades” roles for product managers because engineers, designers and organisations are becoming more product savvy. Dave Wascha adds he hopes that companies will get better at being clear about what they need and that candidates will get better at understanding what sort of product management role they want.

Sanket says that, in the future, company culture will become more important, as businesses compete to attract good talent in product. “People are more active on social media, and they care more about what the founders think — we all saw what happened recently at Basecamp. I would say, as an employee working in product today, I care more about what my CEO thinks about, say, global warming or climate change than I did five years ago.”

Unlock value for the business


  • There’s a mistaken perception that product management is a higher value role than the other roles involved in product development
  • An empowered cross-functional team of equal peers is the way forward
  • Cultural change, led from the top of the business, is needed
  • Product managers should understand that they have a responsibility to the business as well as the customer. The job should be about driving business value as well as customer value

Martin thinks that as product managers we’ve over-corrected on the UX aspect of the job and that this needs to change. “Involvement in design and figuring out how to build is the fun and sexy part of the job, but modern product management is a team sport,” he says.

A cross-functional team should be a team of equal peers, with the product manager, design manager, and engineering manager all equal and having different responsibilities and skill sets. However in lots of organisations a product manager is seen as the higher-value role. Martin adds: “I think that’s wrong. As product managers we need to push for a team of equal peers, but it also means that our job changes. We might have done a lot of UX in the past because there wasn’t a designer on the team, but in a cross-functional team we’re not doing design or coding. On my Venn diagram that leaves product managers with ‘the business’.”

Ezinne Udezue frames the same sentiment differently, distinguishing between output, outcome, and impact. Ezinne says she sees a recognition that delivery is a mechanism for the outcome. “We’re not focused on outputs any more. I think we have more humility in our understanding of what the future holds, so there’s more of a learning stance and a shift to driving beyond delivery.” In her company at least, there’s an understanding that product managers have a responsibility to the business. She says: “Every single outcome that we try to orchestrate has to ladder up and have business impact. Many people fail to make that final connection.”

Martin adds: “I think in the next five to 10 years we’ll see product owning much more of the business. We may focus on being advocates for the customer, but we really need to deliver customer value, because that unlocks value for the business as well.”

It’s a challenge that requires cultural change, much of which needs to come from a business’ leaders, because, as Emily points out, “becoming more product led means leadership giving up some control”. Martin has written about why digital transformation requires product management that funds teams. The laggards, he says, need to catch up and that instead of investing in a transformation project, as so many do, they should invest in cross-functional teams with a broad remit to reimagine what the business can be in a new digital context.

Emily concludes: “It boils down to the concept of trust and empowerment. What we preach to product-led organisations over and over again, is that they need empowered autonomous teams. Give empowerment to the people closest to the problems and closest to the challenges. It’s an ongoing battle.”

Read more content tackling the question What is Product Management? or explore other product management topics in our Content A-Z.

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