The Future of Product Management in the 2020s
Ten wild predictions, one true story and some solid career advice
Paul Simon chose “The Boy in the Bubble” as the lead track for his 1985 album, Graceland, because it conveyed to the listener his mindset during the making of the album. Fresh off his divorce from Carrie Fisher, he was embarking on a personal journey of rediscovery. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he described the mood of the song this way:
“Hope and dread … that’s the way I see the world — a balance between the two, but coming down on the side of hope.”
To borrow a line from the song: “These are the days of miracle and wonder” for product management, too. According to Google Trends data, interest in the topic is as high as it has ever been. But just 10 years ago, the outlook for product management wasn’t so rosy.
Product management’s journey through dread
I promise to get to my predictions for the next decade, but to really understand the current and future state of our profession, it’s going to help to take a look at our recent history.
A closer inspection of the Google Trends data, which tracks the relative popularity of a topic over time, suggests the past 15 years have been a journey of both hope and dread for product management.
It turns out the beginning of the past decade was something of an inflection point for product management. After late 2011, interest in our profession recovered from what had been a decline in interest reaching back to the beginning of the data set.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, interest nearly bottomed out in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, but the absolute lowest level was in December 2011, and it reached its highest point during the fourth quarter of 2019.
Is product management at the mercy of the economy?
Given the false trough in the Google data during the 2008 financial crisis, I opted to explore whether macroeconomic conditions could explain the varying interest in the topic. After all, if an economy isn’t producing and selling more products (as indicated by GDP), it seems reasonable there would be less interest in product managers. I also wanted to see if stock market indices — though less directly tied to employment — could explain how investor optimism might influence interest in our ranks.
While the downturn in interest does seem to shadow both macroeconomic indices up until the inflection point, the increase in interest after 2011 breaks from what was a plateau in GDP growth from 2012 to 2017, though it does, less intuitively, track with the equity markets. Verdict: unclear.
Maybe product management is just more mature now
Since my career in product has spanned the duration of the Google Trends data, I’ve experienced both sides of the inflection point.
In the early 2000s, things felt like the Wild West: few rules, no dedicated tools and limited training opportunities. The only notable theoretical contribution at the time was Agile and its various derivatives.
In my own experience, conditions seem to have changed around the inflection point, so I thought I should look more closely at the timing and evolution of some of the major developments in our field. To do that, I (pretty subjectively) selected some significant (and uniquely searchable) product management theory, topics and tools to see how the timing of their evolution mapped to interest in product management over time.
It turns out the post-inflection period coincides with the introduction (shown as triangles above) and, especially, maturity (green sections) of several product management topics and tools. This arguably provided an enabling infrastructure that had been missing at the start of the millennium.
After all, it’s been just more than a decade since Marty Cagan published Inspired. Around the same time, in 2008, Tim Brown started blogging about IDEO’s approach to design thinking. Just more than eight years ago, Eric Reis brought experimentation to the masses with the Lean Startup. In 2010, Trello didn’t exist, and Asana was still freeware. As recently as 2016, we were still improving prioritization — a core responsibility of almost any product manager — with approaches such as RICE.
Ten years on, these works are now our canon, these methods our standard approaches, and for the first time, we’ve rallied around a core tool chain. Might this maturing ecosystem be responsible for the resurgence in interest in the function during the past decade, or is it just a symptom?
Doing justice to this question would require a PhD thesis. However, it’s worth considering that topics such as design thinking, Lean startup and even product–market fit were not developed by or for product managers, but rather from a design or startup founder perspective.
So my take is that, while economic conditions play a role in amplifying or suppressing interest in product management, it’s the methods, tools and concepts that emerged peripherally to product and reached maturity in the past decade that we should credit for our current golden era.
Let that sink in. Like Paul Simon getting dumped by Carrie Fisher due to a vision she had after drinking psychedelic tea, product management is at the whim of random events beyond our influence. And when you’re in a position where you’re forced to respond to events happening around you, you can only wonder, “What’s next?” Yes, I’ll get to that, I swear! But first a story.
My own career inflection point as a product manager
It’s uncanny how well both Paul Simon’s quip to Rolling Stone and the Google trend line above fit my own career journey as a product manager.
In 2005, armed with an MBA, I re-entered the workforce ready to apply my new skills. But by late 2000s, I was still a mid-level PM trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. My employer invested in my development with things such as coaching sessions with SVPG, but I dedicated 100% of my capacity to executing day-to-day on my products instead of developing new skills, naively thinking I could build my career on the backs of successful releases.
Then, in 2010, I took a senior PM role with a company that had a strong design culture. I immediately felt something was different. UX designers were making product strategy decisions and talking about things such as abductive reasoning. I knew customer-centric methods, but these designers were talking circles around me. What’s worse, my knowledge gap was obvious to my team. I felt like an impostor.
Absolutely hating this sensation, I soon made it my mission to continually read, study and innovate in my discipline. It wouldn’t be career-sustaining for me to just execute day-to-day relying on a five-year-old skill set. I needed to know what was current and also develop my own view of what the future would look like for my domain and my function.
I’m embarrassed to say it took me years to realize that a primary responsibility of a product manager is to constantly maintain a pulse on the future — not just of my domain but also my function. How else did I expect to credibly lead and inspire a team of innovators?
Now, when I interview product managers, I am sure to include these two questions:
- “How do you stay current?”
- “What major trends do you think will shape society in the coming decade and why?”
My own answer to question 1 is, “I speak and write articles such as this one, because the exercise of preparing content for external audiences forces me to do my homework and consume it in order to make sense of it.” Now, as far as my thoughts on question 2 …
Trends that will affect all of society in the coming decade
Since the state of product management appears to be so subject to external forces, it makes sense to look at some relevant global trends before diving into the specific implications on product management’s future. To that end, here’s my non-exhaustive prognosis of what we’re in for:
- The economic bubble bursts: Surprisingly, given that we’re already several years into a bull market, economists anticipate two more years of growth, based on the assumption that 2019’s trade tensions will ease. After that, the situation is bound to tank, because, cycles.
- Genetic sequencing meets consumer goods: We’ll see an explosion of services, such as Strain Genie, which match you to products (marijuana strains in their case) that are tailored to your DNA. Associations between gene expressions and personality traits, such as gullibility and extraversion, will be leveraged by marketers to “bio-target” their customer segments.
- Academia is disrupted: Following seven years of declining college enrollment, pursuit of traditional degrees continues to wane. While some universities fold entirely, others excel at digital delivery of non-degree training, which represents the bulk of their course revenue.
- Connected sensors are pervasive and cheap: In December 2019, Apple, Google and Amazon announced they would collaborate on a new protocol for IoT that improves interoperability between consumer devices, leading to a booming ecosystem of consumer IoT. Even disposable diapers have connected sensors that notify caregivers when a change is needed. By 2025, most cities improve operations with sensors that control traffic flow and direct emergency services to anomalies. Companies, such as Teralytics, develop specialized models to help organizations process terabytes of data generated by citizens’ connected devices daily.
- Societal fragmentation continues: The notion that the internet would bring humanity together has proved largely incorrect, as the past decade saw humanity retreat into tribes with strong identities reinforced by filter bubbles. One of the more profound stratifying events occurs when Russia deploys its “sovereign internet,” then sells this know-how to countries such as China and Saudi Arabia.
- Populations get older: Increasing longevity, declining fertility and aging waves of larger cohorts are three key trends that will increase the proportion of elderly people in the population — so much so that, by 2050, there will be more people over 65 than adolescents and young adults. Economic pressures will compel older adults to delay retirement. Technology, as well as greater work-hour flexibility, will make longer careers both more feasible and comfortable for older adults.
- Ownership yields to sharing: The old model of personal real-asset ownership of houses and modes of transportation becomes obsolete. A 2019 study found more than half of adults wish they owned less stuff. This sentiment grows during the next decade, driving an increase in subscription services, while centralized fleet ownership and operation for physical assets will be a major business topic during the decade.
- Climate change is real, and it’s caused by people: I’m not going to add anything to the topic that hasn’t already been firmly established by smarter people. I’m assuming 99.9% of you are on the same page here.
- Artificial intelligence–based inference touches everything: The pervasiveness of sensors will provide the data we need to model just about anything. Most products will be partially to fully automated, requiring little human interaction to operate. Ambient computing will mean user interfaces, from steering wheels to touchscreens, completely disappear.
- Technology will eliminate jobs: A PricewaterhouseCoopers study in 2019 showed that 27% of consumers were not sure if their last customer-service experience was with a human or a chat bot. As AI becomes ubiquitous, both labor and knowledge-work jobs will be replaced by digital tools. McKinsey predicts, due to these types of technologies, 73 million jobs will be automated by the end of the next decade.
Ten wild predictions for product management in the 2020s
Given those global trends, here’s what product management is sure to look like by the end of the decade:
- Product is de facto in the C-suite: With global trends such as changing ownership models and ambient UX, the challenges facing product companies become equal parts technical, experiential and commercial. Uniquely suited for these cross-functional topics, chief product officers occupy most leadership teams, from startups to multinationals. In the past decade, BCG Digital Ventures was ahead of the curve, seeding most of their corporate ventures with CPO roles. Soon, it also becomes common for senior product talent to take product portfolio oversight roles with VCs and private equity firms.
- Portfolio theory is refactored: As product managers move up the ladder, and our purview begins to span multiple teams and products, product portfolio management is added to our responsibilities. For a long time, we’ve had to scrape by with a handful of decades-old tools, such as the BCG Matrix, McKinsey’s Horizons and a cluster of disassociated concepts, such as product contribution margin. Recently, Geoffrey Moore incremented on the topic with his book, Zone to Win, but huge gaps remain. We’ll fix this (spoiler: The solution centers on product–market fit).
- UX design and product management merge: While product becomes pervasive at top leadership during this decade, design does not. This means design talent will report into product organizations, and the path to leadership for ambitious designers will pass through product. At the individual contributor level, the strongest UX designers and product managers have been adopting each other’s skills for years to the point that the distinction becomes irrelevant. This makes everyone happy.
- The physical vs. digital product divide disappears: A quick search of “connected packaging”shows where we’re headed: product packaging stocked with IoT tech that enables rapid feedback loops and packaging changes in the wild. With fleets of hundreds of assets in the field, it also becomes critical to be able to modify assets without making maintenance trips. Here, field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) allow consumer electronic product teams to “continuously deploy” new capabilities on the same silicon. As a result of all this, product methods look largely the same across digital and physical domains.
- The era of genetic targeting dawns: Personalization has been a thing for years, but due to both social fragmentation and new understanding of personality traits associated with gene expressions, there is both a need and an opportunity for product managers to improve the way we define our target users. The scale challenges created by carving markets up into thinner slices drives a need for extreme configurability of product offerings that will then be tailored to DNA-based customer segments that are expressed as “genetic personas.”
- Lean experimentation finally happens: After years of paying lip-service to both design thinking and Lean principles on validation, PMs finally turn en masse to continuous hypothesis-based experimentation. To support this shift, Asana introduces a validation board module for Lean experiment management. Feature flag tools, such as Split and Launch Darkly, along with analytics, such as Pendo, add support for connected packaged goods. LinkedIn delights pre-launch and small volume B2B product managers by adding an “allow verified researchers to contact me” flag to user profiles, immediately disrupting expensive old-school research recruiting with a new two-sided exchange for researchers and participants.
- Product–market fit gets quantified: For more than a decade, we’ve known there’s something to product–market fit, but despite attempts such as the P/MF scorecard, we hadn’t quite agreed on how to measure it. By the end of this decade, machine learning models are developed via federated learning with nodes at hundreds of consumer product companies. These models power a BI tool that continuously monitors product–market fit. Eventually, major decisions, including financing, product org structure and product portfolio, are informed by real-time product–market fit prognoses.
- Post-fit PM jobs are automated: Having finally quantified product–market fit and established the ability to monitor it in real time, the post-product–market fit phase of the product lifecycle — which had once been the domain of quant-savvy human PMs running optimization experiments — is now fully automated. Here’s how it works: An “AIPM” tool crawls competing products, reverse-engineers them, and generates its own split experiments by writing and deploying software code for new features that are cohort-tested, then merged if they improve KPIs.
- Academia still struggles: Carnegie Mellon won’t be one of the only PM degree opportunities any longer, but most product managers will seek training from an expanding array of non-degree programs, such as Product School. That’s because the core product management skill set is too small and the full multidiscipline skill set is too broad to fit into two- or four-year degrees. Instead, training based on short-term deep-dive courses in the most relevant areas are better suited to the diversity of product skills.
- Social–environmental product KPIs emerge: After a string of climate catastrophes and episodes of social unrest, governments introduce broad tax incentives for companies based on Triple Bottom Line accounting. Company leaders express these as part of their OKRs, which are cascaded down to product teams as “Social–Environmental KPIs,” upon which PMs are incentivized. The way we think of the product lifecycle also changes, as PM responsibilities extend beyond end-of-life, to include “cradle-to-cradle.” Socially oriented product impacts are measured according to “conscious capitalism” and “healing organization” principles. The overall human and environmental condition starts to improve.
(*) Roadmap subject to change
Sitting at my keyboard in the first weeks of 2020, this is how I believe and hope the next decade plays out for product management. In the words of Garfunkel’s better half in “The Boy in the Bubble”:
“And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby”
Like any roadmap I’ve ever PowerPointed, this set of predictions is full of guesses, too; some so far off, they’ll surely end up as punchlines. But accuracy was never the point.
My self-serving point in all this was the exercise of spending a weekend thinking, researching, learning, sense-making and writing, so I never again find myself professionally flat-footed like I did back in 2010.
But I have an altruistic message I hope isn’t lost, which is to urge my fellow product managers to never stop developing and learning new skills and thinking about their professional future. For your own good and for the people you lead, find a way to constantly stay current, and maintain your own idea about the forces that will shape the future.
Any product manager worth their salt has trained their stakeholders that roadmaps are subject to change, but try as we might (and do we try), we’re not getting very far without one!