The product manager role is a mistake
The popular model
Software product companies aren’t usually started by people with a strong background in building software products. Those who most likely end up founding businesses are good at getting funding, and at understanding their target industry. They’ve been in their industry for a long time, know their industry inside out, convinced themselves this means they can do it, and used their relationships and skills to get the money necessary to start a company. These people tend to lead everything personally, and a lot could be said about the damage domain experts cause to their own companies when they lead things. Somebody already did it though, and they did it so well that there’s no point in me doing a worse job.
Sometimes, though, they acknowledge the danger they represent, and hire somebody in charge of making decisions. Often, they think “We don’t want to be a service organization, but a product company. Product companies are product-led, hence product managers should be in charge.” (This is a terrible misunderstanding, but a popular one: product-led does not mean having PMs in charge.)
So they go and hire a career product manager, and have them make all decisions. Whenever somebody objects to this idea, the usual answer is that “all great companies work like this: Amazon, Apple, Tesla, etc.”.
It’s unquestionable that many great companies delegate control to a single person. Indeed, not all great companies adopt this model, but let’s keep this aspect for the end of the article.
Tremendous people are amazing
So what’s wrong with giving control of a company to a single person? The problem is not much with the model, which can work really well, but with the who, the person you give control to.
Humans are inevitably fascinated by greatness. Movies, books, documentaries, quotes: we all can’t help being inspired by those people that changed the world with their vision and work.
Picasso, Jeff Bezos, Mozart, Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, Robert Oppenheimer, Peter Thiel, Leonardo, and others are worshipped by the masses. And what’s not to love in the inspiring vision, magnetic charisma, unwavering self-confidence, stalwart resilience, and sheer greatness these people embody? Many would do anything to work with these people. Heck, for these people.
Tremendous people envision alternative realities, fully commit themselves to their work, and move mountains with their willpower. Even if these figures are often controversial, everybody dreams of being like them. You can love them or hate them, but you’re forced to acknowledge them.
So what’s the problem with wanting to adopt this model? Absolutely nothing. It’s amazing.
But they’re not for every company
Do you know, though, what all the great people mentioned above have in common? None of them was a product manager. Not a single one. Actually, take a minute to think hard, and come up with one product manager that achieved anything comparable to these folks.
These people were artists, mathematicians, inventors, scientists, CEOs, and often more than one of these at a time. Do you know what else they had in common? None of them were motivated by OKRs, KPIs, data, or other people’s opinion. They were obsessed by their vision and craft. In an all-consuming, totally uncompromising way: anything short of perfection was inconceivable to them.
Tremendous people also tend to have very strong opinions, a big ego, their way of doing things, rough edges, and a disdain for mediocrity. They’re borderline unemployable, and they likely wouldn’t want to work in most companies. To them, it’s about creating something extraordinary for the sheer pleasure of it. And that’s why they disregarded work-life balance: their craft is their biggest joy. Imagine asking Michelangelo not to sculpt the back of a statue because the customer wants to put it against a wall.
But the more somebody is mediocre, the more likely they are to be put off by this intensity and passion. The more they’re willing to compromise, to lower standards, and to cut corners.
There are various degrees of greatness, but the greater somebody is, the more they approach the behavior of the greatest.
So, sure, if you can find someone tremendous, you’re willing to get out of their way, and you can cope with their intensity, by all means give them control over your product and company. They’ll produce extraordinary things.
Good chances are, though, that you wouldn’t be able to find them, that they wouldn’t want to work for you or with you, and that you wouldn’t be able to tolerate their ego and burning intensity.
So what do you do instead? The enormous mistake you can make is to adopt a model that requires tremendous people, without having these tremendous people. The product managers you can hire and are comfortable hiring aren’t tremendous people. Whether they’re business lackeys, framework fanatics, subject-matter experts, former makers that climbed the corporate ladder, metrics junkies, or - God forbid - MBA graduates, there’s nothing great about them.
So what happens when you try to replicate something you have heard or read, but with a different breed of people? When you think “product led” means having a product manager making all decisions, and you hire a career product manager for this?
It can be deadly, and it typically is. And not the kind of death people can usually see coming. A much sneakier one, one that saps your company’s strength and empties its soul, until there’s nothing left.
These PMs you hire have no vision, charisma, expertise, strong beliefs, or technical skills. So what do they do when you give them that kind of power? They play it safe, and they play politics. Since they know they’re inadequate, they continuously attempt to claim credit and avoid blame.
First, they weaponize data-driven decisions. Instead of acknowledging that you can find supporting data for every claim, they pretend that their decisions are the only possible sensible possibilities given the data. When things go south, they blame the market, the quality of the data, or the company’s bad luck. It was never their fault, as that’s what the data was saying.
Next up is introducing frameworks and roles for everything. You get a career progression framework with 18 levels, quarterly performance assessments, PI planning, ADRs, PRDs, RACI, MOSCOW, OKRs, KPIs, DORA, and SAFe. People get blamed for not following the process, not being data-driven, not writing enough documentation, not keeping their documentation up-to-date, and so on. You also end up with Director of KPIs, Deputy Director of Product Operations, and Global Head of Digital Whiteboard Solutions. You soon need approvals for everything, and nobody entirely controls a process or aspect anymore. Everything involves a large committee, where anyone can say “no” to anything, but nobody can fully say “yes”.
Meetings also tend to explode in number: status reports, alignment talks, 1:1s, staff meetings, strategy discussions, context-setting talks, release go/no-go meetings, project reports, etc.
As a final nail in the coffin, they hire a ton of bad people. People are hired based on whether they’d represent no threat, so any trace of greatness pretty much guarantees a rejection. The ideal hire becomes a mindless all-rounder, who semi-competently does everything they’re told, without any dissent or care for quality. They need hordes of them, to hide among the pack, and so that there are always people to blame. The number of product managers, in particular, skyrockets. A whole hierarchy of PMs, one or more in each team and on each aspect, all behaving the same.
What happens to companies that, by putting mediocre people in charge, start the journey described above? Well, it’s not pretty.
Anyone with even a speckle of greatness eventually leaves. They either get pushed out by the mediocre dictator, or they leave on their own terms, as the environment has become intolerable to them.
Work grinds to a halt. Doing anything is suddenly painful, a big commitment, and a risky endeavor. Everybody runs just to stand still. Any grand vision becomes so unrealistic that it’s quickly abandoned. Low-hanging fruits and safe bets become the only work the company does. Even those who are not passionate about their craft feel the pain and eventually leave. Those who are numb enough to remain make the problem worse.
Slowly but surely, the company loses its best talent, forgets its vision, becomes internally-focused, and drifts into irrelevance. At best, it dies at some point. At worst, it survives in this half-life, turning passionate people into zombies who hate their job.
A ray of hope
Is there any alternative, then, to finding, hiring, putting in charge, and coping with a tremendous person? If you’re not pushed by greatness and craftsmanship, can you not build a successful product company? Good news is, you can! There’s an alternative model that works.
You hire everyday great people. Each one needs to be great at something, obsessed by their craft, and driven by quality. You then put them together in a team, without individual responsibilities, ensuring that there’s minimal overlap in areas of greatness. And you pay them to have fun doing what they love doing, in exchange for putting their time and skills at the service of your company.
These people are still going to be challenging, stubborn, egotistic, quirky, and volatile. But give them good problems to solve, allow them to do great work, and they’ll fully dedicate themselves to making your company successful.
What about leaders and product managers?
Do you need to give up the idea of leaders altogether? Not really, even if you can definitely live without. You could avoid team leads completely, and have area leads as outside-in coordinators. But if you decide that you prefer having a leader responsible for each area, then by all means put a great person in that role. The leader of an area should be the person that gets closer to the various Jobs, Musk, and Bezos, in terms of vision, charisma, intensity, passion, and extreme behavior. Don’t fall into the trap of putting in charge those people who make your life easy in the short term, do what they’re told, and don’t require your attention. A wrong move here, and you risk the situation above.
And what about product managers? Is there no space for PMs in a well-operating company? Not for the PM role, no. At least not in its traditional meaning. This model still requires great people, passionate and visionary about their area of expertise. And you do need people that obsess about product discovery, product observability, and other areas traditionally delegated to product managers. Almost inevitably, these people will have held a product manager role, and that’s fine. But you’re hiring because of the obsession and the strengths, not because of the title. And you’re not going to give these folks a PM role, but put them in a team with people who obsess over engineering, design, performance, business, and domain knowledge.
How much of this was specific to product managers?
I’d be dishonest if I wouldn’t admit that the problems I described happen everytime anyone without vision, charisma, passion, technical skills, and willpower is put in charge. So why the focus on product managers? It’s because of this tendency to wanting people with a product manager title in charge of software product development. To be fair, some PMs I know are absolutely tremendous, and would do very well in both the models I described. But they wouldn’t necessarily do better than other great people, regardless of their background. Also, they’re a tiny minority, and most career PMs are nowhere near being capable of leading by greatness.