The UnProduct Person

Tom recently wrote a great post about the need for product people to do a better job of communicating the ‘negative space’ – the trade offs that were made in ideas on the path to the ones you bet big on. I 100% agree with this point – no notes.

The blogpost started somewhere else though – with Tom ruminating on the current ‘crisis’ in product management, a ‘reckoning’  that ‘‘we’ brought on ourselves’ according to some.

I don’t know if the Brian Chesky/AirBnB stuff triggered this more widely but that certainly seems like a factor and there does seem to be a bit of a growing identity crisis in the profession – if LinkedIn, Twitter/X and various blogposts are to be believed. 

I’ve definitely not been immune though partly that is because I’m at a (late) stage in my career where I am questioning a lot of choices I’ve made but also I am currently not operating as a Product person in any significant way.

Tom did a little diagnosis of where he sees the issue `and as usual I agree with a lot but I suspect we do have one significant difference in our take. I think the need for people to ‘professionalise’ the craft of product management, to make it a definable thing, to demonstrate how important it is and how ‘scientific’ it is has been to its detriment. 

It feels like product has too often become too in love with its own propaganda. As in danger of feeling cult-like as the worst excesses of Agile. 

OKRs are one of the big faultlines for me. While I don’t intrinsically think they are a bad thing – and there is definitely evidence they have been successful and useful places – I just don’t believe the juice is worth the squeeze in the vast majority of cases…and definitely not in the corners of the sectors I operate in. Too often though they are implemented regardless of the context or the consequences. If all you have are Objectives everything looks like a Key Result maybe.

(For the record, people I very much respect like Tom and Neil Williams have VERY different views on OKRs – it is one of those agree to disagree spaces!)

Ludivine Siau wrote a great piece on that very topic recently and something she wrote really, really landed with me;

I wish teams did not feel the pressure to adopt complex frameworks that are constraining them and slowing them down.

This is it for me. The pursuit of excellence in and mastery of the growing number of frameworks and models for product people seems to have overwhelmed the more foundational principles of product practice. Being focused on delivering valuable outcomes, articulating and holding tight to a vision, owning the hard decisions/trade-offs in pursuit of that vision, being the ‘glue’ to help teams achieve…and doing all of this by influencing without authority. It is a facilitation and influencing role – not a ‘benevolent dictator or mini-CEO (bleh!).

I’d rather Product people learned more about policy and service design, data science, DevOps, programme management or data protection than attend another Product specific training course. I truly believe the path to making the most effective contribution possible is that of the path of the generalist. Breadth not depth. Empathy for many professions more than narrow expertise in one.

The idea of ‘unconferences’ was a response to conventional conferences, to avoid the structure, expectation and, dare I say it, baggage of those events. They are about avoiding hierarchy and being flexible and open to new ideas and ways of operating. Even if it uncomfortable and seems to lack structure.

So maybe that is why I am starting to identify as an unProduct Person.

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