Why do PMs keep asking existential questions ?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about feeling like a product fraud, which got me thinking about what this PM archetype is that we imagine the role of a typical Product Manager to be. And then, considering how many blogposts I have read about that particular question, I wondered why we spend so much of our time pondering about what our role is and should be.

There are hundreds of books, blogposts, podcasts telling us what product management is, or alternatively what product management isn’t. I am curious as to why we seem to question the role over and over again. So I explored a few reasons that I can imagine.

A recent discipline

It is a recent discipline, and it’s still being shaped by this ever evolving world. But product managers existed in a pre-tech world as the person that would care about a product from all angles, that would bring together the manufacturing and marketing of a product. I wonder whether pre-Medium and pre-Twitter product managers asked this many questions.

The world of work is changing

The world of work is changing and it’s particularly affecting the industries that Product Managers are working in. But then again technology has changed most jobs.

If most jobs are changing, are all professionals going through this? A whole industry has been spun up to answer what product management is or should be. I don’t know other industries so well, but do other job families ask themselves ‘But what is my job?’ so frequently as we as PMs do? I’ve never heard any of the developers ask that question. But I might simply not know what I don’t know.

Diversity of experiences

To come back specifically to product managers. I think another challenge is to conciliate the experience in a small startup compared to a large organisation. While there’s certainly an overlap of skills, what you’ll be doing day-to-day and the overall responsibility could well be very different. So the product community is trying to figure out what the overlapping skills and responsibilities are.

Is it because we’re fighting for legitimacy

I’m sure all PMs have faced remarks that play down the role of product managers. I still remember someone saying ‘I don’t understand why Product Managers get paid so much, they don’t do anything’ (and I’m aware that I should just get over stuff like that), but really it indicates that we as a discipline may feel the constant need to define ourselves in order to justify our place at the table… or rather at the Kanban board. In multi-disciplinary teams the boundaries of roles get easily blurred and since we’re not one of the ‘makers’ we struggle to point at something to say. “There- that’s what I did!”.

Always delivering value

To put a more positive spin on this, maybe it’s also because our day-to-day job is always making sure that our team delivers value. It could be that we have internalised the question of value so much that we need to constantly re-appraise whether we as a discipline are bringing value to the team. In a way this is my favourite reason because it paints the conversation about Product Management as a way for us to stay accountable to ourselves and always making sure that our role is needed.

Do you have any thoughts about why we ask ourselves what Product Management is or should be? I’d love to hear your views!


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