Why is defining what product managers do so difficult?

Product management suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Actually, maybe crisis is too strong a term. Maybe it’s an identity butterflies-in-the-tummy kind of thing. It’s the feeling product managers get when asked to explain what they do. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to express a new found idea about the role, sometimes it’s a roll of the eyes as they know they’re going to sound like they don’t know how to define their own role.

There are lots of industry through-leader definitions though. Things like:

A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.


Product management is a complex role that requires a balance of soft and hard skills to manage requirements and to deliver quality products that align with the business’ goals.


Not the CEO of product


But still, as Trilly Chatterjee, Senior Product Manager at the NHS, notes, product managers still have trouble explaining “what product management is and what it does —in particular how it’s distinct from other roles“.

But why? What makes product management so different from other roles in ways that make it difficult to define?

Sure, it’s a highly contextual role that depends on the sector and the organisation, but that doesn’t answer the question, it just asks it in a different way; why is product management so contextual in a way that makes it difficult to define?

And sure, it’s been/going through a change of where it fits in the organisation thanks to the agile movement shifting product management from being a purely business function to often being in the Technology department, but that’s a pretty common change across every sector so that doesn’t explain the lack of definition either.

Maybe there is something that might…

In The Team That Managed Itself, Christina Wodtke mentions the idea that for some roles in an organisation it’s the process that counts, whilst other roles are concerned with results. The people in the service teams of an organisation judge what they do by how well their processes are working, their efficiency. And the people on the business side are less interested in the processes that happen behind the scenes and more about the results. The process-orientated people in the service teams and the results-orientated people in the business teams have different mindsets, motivations, and goals. They almost speak different languages.

Could it be that what makes the product manager role so hard to define is that it is concerned with both? If they were only process people they could describe themselves by the processes they use. And if they were only results people they’d describe themselves by what they achieve. Are product managers process people and results people? Do they speak both languages and translate between the two? And does that mean that they don’t really fit fully in either camp?

What if, rather than being at the intersection of a Venn diagram, product managers are actually the union?