The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Are product managers a burden to productive teams?

The fine folks at Help Scout asked that question. And co-founder Nick Francis seems to indicate that the answer is yes. I quite enjoy the Help Scout blog, specifically the writing of Gregory Ciotti. But this particular piece didn’t sit well.

It starts with a somewhat inflammatory opening statement. The one in big bold text:

To build a great product, you need design and you need engineering. Somewhere along the way, and especially as companies grow, another mysterious role enters the fray: the Product Manager.

Take the work that someone does and add a drop of condescension and you're suddenly ruffling some feathers. Knowing the Help Scout team, this was not likely the intended purpose. But it does read a bit smug.

Again, I appreciate this team (we use their product, which I like a lot). And I appreciate Nick's overall point. But it's not well made and includes some generalizing statements. If he had taken the approach of explaining "this is what works best for our team", one could appreciate the insight and move on.

But he instead took the approach of attacking a role in our community.

But the Product Manager role introduces a couple disadvantages. It takes ownership away from the people doing the work. Designers and engineers become cogs executing a plan when they should be empowered to solve customer pain. Product Managers also add significant overhead to every project, albeit unintentionally.

To the point of designers and engineers being treated as cogs, it sounds like Nick has experience with bad product managers.

But his main point is that having no product managers is good for several reasons. It keeps the primary creators closer to the customer, is a more efficient process, and distributes some key functions to multiple people instead of just one. As he states:

A magical thing happens when there’s no Product Manager. All of the project planning and ancillary tasks become “everyone’s job.” Designers and engineers have to work together to understand customer pain and come up with a delightful solution.

And:

These “chores” become empowering, rather than a burden, because they give people a sense of ownership and responsibility that didn’t previously exist.

There’s truth here. It can be beneficial for designers and engineers to do these tasks. And it’s good to have people with those skillsets close to the front lines hearing directly from customers. The only issue is that when they’re doing these tasks, they’re not doing their primary tasks. Instead of designing and developing, they’re product managing.

But Nick is making the case that this is more efficient.

As a company grows, product development gets slower, takes more people and requires more effort. We often misunderstand those challenges and insert Product Managers to babysit and make the process more efficient … I’d argue that this role exacerbates the problem instead of solving it.

His entire point of reduced efficiency and increased overhead seems misguided. If a PM adds bloat to the overall process that gets a team to successful implementation, how does taking the important functions s/he performs and having designers and engineers do them make the overall process faster?

It doesn’t.

Every hour a designer spends doing user research is one hour they're not designing. Whether that is low fidelity idea generation or high fidelity iterations of the final solution, the designer is researching instead. The same is true for the developer.

There are certain functions that are vital to successful products. Who performs those functions isn’t terribly important in and of itself. If a team prefers to have designers and developers do user research, write technical specifications, and manage the overall development process, that process can work.

But so too does having one person own the responsibility of those functions. Someone whose sole purpose is to gather all the necessary information, get it into the hands of the creators, and manage communication as smoothly as possible. And most important, someone who spends their time ensuring the goals of the business are aligned with the needs of the customer.

Suggesting that you can take all of that and just add it to the role of designers and engineers is a fallacy. I'd tend to believe this approach often results in a mediocre end solution as people are wearing too many hats to be truly proficient at their primary craft.

An experienced, proficient product manager is an expert on those functions because it's all s/he does, every day. Having an expert in this area frees up designers and developers to do what they do best, as well as empowers them with the right information and focus.

Last, I wonder how the customer success/support staff at Help Scout feel about this statement:

At Help Scout designers always have the final say because they are closest to the customer.

​Really?

Update: Nick proves he's a class act. He's updated the post based on some feedback he's had with several folks, including yours truly with what you see above.

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