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Sorry Marty, I love you but I don't use your definitions of Product anymore

Crafting an actionable definition for modern product management

[This is the first article of the Product Made Simple series]

One of the questions that founders and CEOs often ask in VP / Head of Product interviews is, “What is product management to you?” Today I will answer that starting from one of the most popular definitions we all use, and explain why concepts like decisions, customers, and business objectives can no longer stay hidden behind different words when talking about product management.

Building digital products over the past 20 years I have learned, first with my teams as a PM, then with my clients as a consultant, and lastly with my students as a professor, how essential it is to provide a concise and actionable definition of product management. I know it’s a hard task, but that element of clarity is in my experience the first stepping stone to align everyone in the right direction, and lays the foundation for good product principles. When overlooked, everything crumbles from there.

How it all started

For over a decade the definitions I adopted were based on the ultimate guru every PM (including myself) worships: Marty Cagan. He started with the first version of his 2008 book, Inspired, by saying "The job of the product manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible;" ten years later adding “viable” (Inspired Second Edition, 2017) and reframing the whole concept as “The four big risks” a team made up of PM, designer and engineers needs to tackle at discovery.

But a thought slowly yet inexorably matured inside me each time others and I parroted back the “valuable, usable, feasible and viable” mantra. Are these four things reflecting well what modern product management is? Am I accepting product gurus' definitions too dogmatically? Something felt wrong. I didn’t initially know what exactly, but over the years things became clear to me.

While I still believe Cagan's definitions stand true, today I think they are only necessary, but not sufficient to describe modern product management.

My teams and I concluded that feasibility, usability, value and viability weren’t all direct accountabilities of PMs (as also Cagan later realized in Empowered), and most importantly they are only means to an end product management needs to serve:

Having happy customers while achieving ambitious business objectives.

Furthermore, for a company to accomplish that at its best, product managers need to work closely with the whole company, not just design and engineering.

(Re) Defining Product Management

That led me to craft a different definition to adopt with my teams and companies. After iterating with hundreds of teams, PMs, business leaders, founders and my students (yes! there is learning in teaching), I am confident to share it for everyone to use. Now it has everything I need in it and I truly hope it can serve you well too.

Product management is the company function that facilitates decision making on products and services, with the intent of maximizing team synergy, customer happiness and results on business objectives. Tweet

Let me break this down for you:

  1. Company function: Let's stop calling it a "job", "responsibility", “art”, or "role”. Product management is not just that, it’s a key business function (also known as company function) the same way engineering, finance, sales and human resources are, to name a few. Not only, product is likely the most critical function for today’s tech businesses. Good companies recognize this already and invest heavily on it. Yet, too many organizations still keep relegating it to just a “role” or a “responsibility”, and they attempt to have product managers without product management (I will write more on this topic), often ending up losing both customers and best talent.

  2. Decision making: Everything around strategy (where do we go next?), discovery (what to build next?) and day to day tactics (we have a production incident, what to do?) are decisions that product managers either make directly, contribute to, or make happen by talking to the relevant people. This is a core aspect of our job and it needs to be made explicit when talking of product management. Note that Cagan’s “Four Big Risks” are only one of the many available techniques to tackle this part, and as I said before they are not sufficient alone for making good product decisions.

  3. Team synergy: “Team” in my definition is everyone in the company, not just engineering and design siloed with PMs. That includes marketing, customer support, operations, senior management, sales, HR, finance, etc. Every. Single. One. Product managers are nothing without their team, as they are not able to produce anything alone, so they can’t have the luxury of complaining when any parts of the organization collaborate poorly or operate in silos. PMs are the ones who need to step up and be accountable to fix the disconnects and lead the team to work in the smartest possible ways to create synergy. Synergy means that "the impact of a group working together is greater than the sum of each person’s impact taken individually." This is a broader concept than “collaboration” and it includes the impact dimension that is further detailed in the next two points. While everyone in a company is responsible for collaboration, making PMs accountable for the overall team work and its effectiveness is a crucial aspect of product management, as I will explain in my next articles.

  4. Customer happiness: Usage, usability, user experience, NPS, reviews, churn and similar fall in here. Teams define and measure it in many ways but it all comes down to the one question: are customers happy with our product? People in the team have skills of their own to delight customers, and what justifies the need for PMs can’t be as simple as coordination or orchestration. A team needs a leader who can help them be more effective together, discover the most important problems, experiment fast and create the best solutions, provide the most caring customer support, and much more. Making PMs accountable for maximizing customer happiness means that the team with a PM must make customers happier than the team without a PM. Otherwise we would not need PMs at all.

  5. Business objective results: or key results for those teams using OKRs. Whether it's direct or indirect revenue, acquisition, retention, DAU, market share, cross-selling, profit, brand value, etc. Every feature we ship should contribute to business objectives, and PMs are the ones accountable for this impact. In modern product companies, OKRs or different methodologies to define and measure shared team objectives are the norm, and they are a core part of a PM’s job description. Clear objectives represent the why behind the work of every product team and cannot be replaced by more generic concepts like “value” or “business impact”.

In Conclusion

I don’t believe anymore PMs exist simply to minimize four risks; it’s time to understand that we represent a crucial business function and we are there to maximize. Maximize customer happiness and the achievement of business objectives, but first of all maximize the collaboration and effectiveness of our own teams because, without that, none of the above is possible.

Lastly, I know it’s easier to agree with customer happiness and team impact and you still may wonder, how to apply this definition to a company that doesn’t have the product function or clear objectives in place? As I pointed out at the very beginning, a definition needs to be actionable, which means helping discern what is not a fit and improve. Companies that fail to give the necessary importance to the product function or to define clear business goals simply do not qualify as product companies nowadays, and they have nothing but one option left - change.


Written by Paolo Lacche, a Product Leader and Coach who helps companies scaling high-standard product teams. Paolo teaches Product Management at the VSE University of Economics and works as an Executive Coach for the Haas School of Business.

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