Of Visionaries and Craftsmen and Race Cars: Or Why We Need To Redeem Product Management

It is often said that building digital products is (or depending on which camp you’re in - is not) like building a house. To me it’s always felt more like a rally - it’s fast, and exciting and what really matters is a) to be the first one through the finish line, and b) not to drive off the cliff while trying to do a).

With startups and new technology products popping up in every other garage from Silicon Valley to Beijing, you have to move fast if you want your awesome new mobile app/cloud service/digital wearable (you name it) to be the next big thing. And like any rally team sponsor, you’re much better off putting two people in the car rather than one.

Combining innovative vision with reliable execution

You don’t need to be a racing maniac (I’m definitely not one) to know that it’s a driver and a co-driver that get in the race car and work as a team to get through the finish line. One navigates, while the other keeps their hands on the steering wheel and the pedals. One sets the right direction and the other executes - together they achieve a better result than either of them would be able to do single-handedly. Successful teams that build innovative technology products are much the same. It will be the ones that combine the innovative vision and the reliable execution that will make a long term impact, be it for the betterment of mankind or the betterment of investors’ ROI.

It’s time that we said it loud and clear: project management is NOT the same as product management. Project management is all about the process - breaking down the work into achievable blocks, figuring out what blocks of work are done when and by whom in a way that maximizes the efficiency and minimizes the budget impact. Product management, on the other hand, is all about thinking big, conceptualizing new ideas, looking for solutions that no one’s thought of before and ensuring business viability of those solutions. In a nutshell, one is about making sure that the thing gets done, while the other is about making sure that the right thing gets done.

Managing a product is not the same as managing people

I can (reluctantly) admit that I get why most people wrongly assume that “project management” and “product management” are one and the same - after all, both notions have the word “management” in them and not everyone is as much of a geek as I am. That’s why I made it my purpose to help people understand and appreciate the difference. That being said, I can’t help but grind my teeth when some of my fellow geeks in the software development industry, (the one group that you’d think should know better), insist Product Manager and Project Manager are role descriptions that can be used interchangeably or (even worse!) once you have one, you don’t really need the other. Don’t get me wrong - I have every confidence that many smart people out there can probably do a fairly good job wearing both hats if “fairly good” is the level of excellence you’re going for. Even the smartest, most skilled and versatile people have only 24 hours a day at their disposal. If they’re going to do both jobs, something’s got to give.

Product Ownership is bigger than task prioritization

The idea that product and process (project) are discrete is not really new at all - it’s reflected for example in Scrum, where you have a Product Owner who prioritizes the backlog and defines the requirements, and a Scrum Master who facilitates the development. However, it is my personal opinion that it is Scrum and similar agile processes (or maybe their misapplication - ever heard of the Innovators, the Imitators and the Idiots?) that have done a disservice to the cause. Too often Product Ownership has been limited to the client - or sponsor- appointed person, who may be relatively new to product management, ordering task priorities in the backlog. While giving little thought to the problems real users are looking to solve is a recipe for feature creep, neglecting business viability can cause flat out bankruptcy.

swiss army knife as an illustration of feature creep

And last but not the least, without clear vision and product strategy even the most awesome and groundbreaking idea won’t fend for itself and may end up among the Most Successful Technology Failures, simply paving the way to someone else’s success.

Making sure the products we build solve real problems

At FM we recognize the difference between product and process, just as we differentiate between software development and product development. We’re not content with “fairly good” - we think building innovative digital products takes excellent craftsmen AND excellent visionaries. We look beyond the lines of code. We practice design thinking and anthropology to understand users and make sure the products we build solve real problems. We strategize, look for opportunities and ask our clients a whole lot of uncomfortable questions such as what their unique selling proposition is and whether they have budgeted marketing costs. We pair vision and innovation with forcible execution, ensuring a strong finish every time.

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