#Demystifying #Digital #Product #Management – the new #Gartner’s promotion

Published on July 21, 2019

For #Business & #Technology #Executives, Product Managers, and Business and #Enterprise #Architects

The Subject & Context

Recently Gartner published the research – “How Unlocks Digital Product Management Opportunities for New Value Creation”, authored by Analyst Lars Van Dam – has caught my attention with a new term “Digital Product Management”. I have suspected that “digital” part here plays the same buzz role as everything “digital” in modern technology. People do not want to say they develop SW programmes and Products any more as they did it 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago; they say now they produce digital products in digital processes and practices using digital tools. The expectation is that just new words would generate new money with no more value – the old trick.

Gartner insists on that “digital product management is … an emerging discipline that expands the scope of the product manager’s role” – note, it is about extension not of the product types, not of the scope of management, but the scope of the role. I would not take this for granted and like to challenge Gartner’s statement about emerging new discipline to see if it can withstand simple questions or this is just a new dress for the product management.

Here is the first group of questions:

1.      What a Digital Product Management does fundamentally different from a traditional Product Management?

2.       Are there new aspects in the Product Management practice that may be specific exclusively to the Digital Product Management and that allow justifying the latter as a new discipline?

3.      Why do we need 15 pages of Gartner’s research – what traditional Product Managers do not do according to Gartner?

A few additional questions might help us to answer the questions above:

1)     What is the principal difference between SW products written 10 years ago and SW products now called digital?

2)     Was the “old” software not about digital interfaces and data processing?

3)     Is there a strong link between a change in technology and a change in the product management or they are loose-coupled?

4)     What is a business model and how it depends on one or another technology used in the model implementation?

According to the Van Dam’ research, the following statements are supposed to vindicate “Digital Project Management”; let’s see if they are strong enough:

·      “The majority of CEOs expect to change business models in the next two years, requiring product managers to fundamentally rethink how value is perceived, created and consumed.

Today, two out of three product management initiatives are disconnected from business strategy”. It is apparent to more and more CxO that modern market has significantly changed for the last couple of years due to globalisation, speed of information exchange, monetary crises and other reasons. As a result, business models created several years ago do not appropriate flexibility to stay agile with the market dynamics. Also, many traditional values now need to be consumed via digital means. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the values become wrong while the communication and delivery mechanisms may become outdated. This does not require changes in the business models –the power of models is in that they are agnostic to the development and delivery techniques. Digitalising, i.e. automating something that was not automated before, does not resolve the problem of “product management initiatives are disconnected from business strategy”. The latter is a common and old problem of any product management that has to be implemented that way with no relations to “digital”.

·      “New capabilities, new customer experiences (CXs) and an alignment of strategy to execution become critical as business models shift to capture new value.” An appearance of new values is still not proved, not even mentioned – what are they? New customer experience – yes; new business capabilities – probably, yes. However, “an alignment of strategy to execution” is an upside-down statement (so loved in Technology). It is the execution should be aligned with strategy, not the other way around. This jangling of cause and consequence creates a lot of confusions like technology drives business and, possibly, this one about Digital Product Management. Anyway, how this relates to “digital”?

·      “Most organizations today overinvest in execution at the expense of strategy, design and quantitative analysis.” How this relates to “digital product management”? Increase of investments in the strategy is required not exclusively because of digitalisation, as we know.

·       “Organizations that embrace and invest in digital product management will be better-equipped to capitalize on market shifts and changes in business dynamics, including disruptions”. This sounds like pure propaganda because “digital product management” is not defined and its necessity is not justified yet. In other words, Gartner proposes us to believe and repeat that Digital Product Management is needed because… it is needed. Is this from a series “Gartner for Dummies”?

·      “Technology and service providers (TSPs) that do not embrace digital product management now will be at strong risk of disruption within the next two years”. How this relates to “digital product management”, if at all?

·      “Strong cross-functional collaboration is crucial to unlocking opportunities to improve digital experiences, including how your customers experience the buy/own/advocate cycle”. Well, is not only for the digital experience; there are many other reasons like a competitive advantage.  A cross-functional collaboration helps organisations of all types and markets, including their “digital experience”, but this does not constitute a necessity in Digital Product Manager. “Strong linkage between strategy and product management activities is crucial, and today, most organizations are misaligned”. This fact is known for years and relates to the problems in business architecture and its implementation management, not to technology and digitalisations.

·      “How well you market, partner or sell is paramount to success. Without a synergistic and integrated approach for go-to-market strategy and execution, failure is practically a given”. Yes, so what? How this relates to “digital” product management? – Unknown. Words, words… no sense or value.

So far, we have not found even one explanation why do we need a new product management discipline and what problems it is supposed to address.

What Have We Learnt from the Executive Overview?

We had expected to find a clear explanation of what digital product management means in the Executive Overview when reading the research. Here is what we found:

“Digital product management is a blend of art and science, an emerging discipline that expands the scope of the product manager’s role. Organizations that embrace and invest in this discipline are better-equipped to capitalize on market shifts and changes in business dynamics, including disruption”.

As you can see, we are told that a digital product management is a “blend of art and science” – what proportion of art versus science and what kind of art and which science is not defined. Whatever, anyone?  No, only the blend that, which “that expands the scope of the product manager’s role”. In what sense, how expends, in which direction(s)? – Unknown. The meaning of “digital product management” is totally unclear, but if we would not “embrace and invest in this discipline” (why is this a discipline?) will be less “equipped to capitalize on market shifts and changes in business dynamics”. Why is so? What proves or evident this “better/worse” classification? – Unknown. In the Russian folk, there is a slogan applied to the cases like this: “Go to I do not know where and bring me I do not know what”. By any scale, provided text is not a definition, especially, in technology and management. Anything can be done on its basis – this is a lot of words about nothing. If we accept this as a definition, we can say that Digital Product Management is about nothing. The provided diagram (‘one image can say more than a 1000 words’ does not help either – Digital Product Management  appears there out of the blue). Thank you, Gartner.

Reading more, we can find that “Core to digital product management is a recognition that a deep understanding of the customer’s value chain, and your role within it, is foundational to market success”. Interesting, MBA graduates learn this revelation for years, even when nobody knew a word “digital”.

According to Gartner, this core “necessitates an expansion of the product manager’s role, as well as a shift toward whole product, connected teaming and whole product thinking.” We are probably too slow, but this core does necessitate nothing more that it says and, definitely, not “an expansion of the product manager’s role”. A core of any product management is about a deep understanding of the customer’s values, which the is the foundation of the product success in the market. The research gives us a statement that is a commodity for all product-centric businesses for decades.

In another attempt to define “Digital Product Management”, the research states: “Digital product management is… embracing design principles (the art) and quantitative insights (the science) to inform product vision, direction, trade-off decisions and differentiating customer experiences”.

We’ve never seen a product that would not embracing design principles and/or had no quantitative insights in support to “product vision, direction, trade-off decisions and differentiating customer experiences”. Why does this extend the scope of the project manager’s role and where “digital” aspect in this? Some Product Managers practice this better than others, some of them do it in compliance with the corporate strategy, some of them don’t.

However, there is no, absolutely no new information that can validate an introduction of a new “digital” role. Thus, after reading this section, Executives would stay totally unaware of what Gartner has sad and what is different from that they knew before. This is the end of Executive Overview, we still do not know what “Digital Product Management” means. We have read a lot of buzzy slogans and “common” words, though no one concrete need or distinctive factor of “digital” versus traditional Product Management was articulated. Nonetheless, we are moving onto the Research Highlights now.

A Review of Research Highlights

 Finally, the research articulates why it has been taken: in order “To meet the challenge … of digital product management, product managers must develop new competencies. … Traditional approaches to product management, such as creating a product requirements document based on out-of-date personal experience, cannot keep pace.” Unbelievable! How Mr Van Dam has  come up with the idea and how Gartner has approved the opinion that the documented product requirements are “based on out-of- date personal experience”? Who and where do this? For my 25 years working in IT in a couple of dozen different – very big and small – organisations and from a simple developer to the Enterprise Architect level, I never noticed such “requirements”. Only overambitious and not very smart developers believed they know how to manage development better than senior managers.

Not only developers, but a lot of Business Analysts had and still have very vague ideas about what requirements are and how they have to be collected. Since I also worked in the Architecture of Business and Change Management, I know many cases where a number of requirements was cut off about 60% because business stakeholders, who provided subjective requirements to the developers, could not answer two simple questions – what the value of the requirement is and how the requirement relates to the corporate strategy. These were exactly the cases where no documentation wanted because requirements were articulated directly to the developers and the letter had to iterate several times with the stakeholder, who did not really know what is needed, but wanted to be noticed as an active employee. When the company has a normal practice of validating requirements, their documentation helps a lot to segregate and cancel  “out-of-date personal experience“ cases. Yes, many requirements are contradictive, inconsistent, unrelated, but they are usually based only on that IT is afraid to ask for business approval of business requirements/wishes before they reach the development teams.

So, “out-of- date personal experience” is totally incorrect reasoning for a new product management  role. I have witnessed a case where the ‘requirement validation control’ between business and IT was able to shut down so many “requirements” that for only one year the IT was able to implement the business programmes of the last three years with no after-hours work.

“Product managers must retool, developing the competencies to maintain a more direct connection with customers.” Retool – yes, more process automation – yes, a “need to make product decisions faster and with more accuracy” – yes. However, how Gartner visions “a more direct connection with customers” for those who are not properly educated, do not know how to analyse stimulated versus original customer needs and their interdependencies on the local/global market trends, customs, regulations and laws? Companies work in order to grow-up from the kindergarten shorts of start-ups where “a more direct connection with customers” is practiced for developers, but grown companies have professionals for this uneasy task. Gartner is supposed to know this better than anyone. Or is this a simple speculation needed to support an initially wrong reasoning for the new publication?

Gartner has identified several “new competencies required by digital product management”, including

·      “CX mindset, moving beyond viewing product features as independent objects of value” – this is a direct threat to corporate management and call for anarchy – everyone has to mind his/her business and, if tasks require special educations to deal with, this education is mandatory for related workers. Companies have CxO with the appropriate mindset and daily work duties, and practice that the majority of other managers have no clue about. Those managers have to have mindset corresponding to the tasks they work with. Companies have enough people who have and should have “moving beyond viewing product features” in the context of corporate strategy and market trends; additional kind of product managers is not needed for this.

·      “Deep understanding of competitive alternatives to emphasize differentiation and move beyond an isolated view of the customer needs that your product can address” – no doubts about this. Though this is the quality, which is known for generations though many organisations still have not this. No relations to “digital” in here.

·      “Decision making anchored in data, avoiding overreliance on “expert” opinion”. Well, this is a bold and questionable statement – there are way too many cases where expert opinion is needed. Machine learning and AI’s predictions exist for many years (I did at the beginning of my career as a researcher) and special and serious expert work on data selection was/is necessary. We should not forget that the data itself has no meaning. Business information and interpretation have. However, nobody could argue that data is more important in our life than business actions (based on experience): actions can work with many different data while the latter can lose value depending on the business activity context.

·      “Rapid experimentation to find success, moving beyond the extensive planning and analysis that are commonly undertaken due to fear of failure”. Yes, “moving beyond the extensive planning and analysis” is practiced by many CxO for the last several years already while “digital” is one of enablers of this.  The core enablement is based on the different use of the products. If a particular digital product does not exist, people use two other products… Also, “Rapid experimentation to find success” and a “fear of failure” are derivative not of the product manager role, but financial conditions of the company in relations to the conditions/dynamics of the market, and “digital” does not play here.

·      “Broadening the modes of customer interaction to include digital channels, moving beyond reliance on conversations with just a small number of favorite customers for input and feedback”. This is the first time digital specific factor is mentioned. At the same time, for the last 5-7 years, a concept of omni-channel, “include digital channels“ is practiced intensively. Omni-channels have been used in the products (web and mobile) with no need of creating special type of management for digital elements because digital channels were and are only means of delivery information and services while digital products like downloadable games or Apps are perfectly managed by traditional methods as the practice of last 10 years has shown.

·      “Strategic leadership across organizational boundaries, moving beyond a narrowly defined product prioritization role”. Hold on – this is another attempt to screw corporate management with no clear articulation of values. Companies have people providing “Strategic leadership across organizational boundaries” and product managers are definitely not among them. Why? – Because strategy is about what to do and why while products are the implementations of requirements derived from the what/why. Product Management does not/should not prioritise products – this is the prerogative of the upper management level.

A product-centric organisation of business has demonstrated its inadequacy to highly dynamic market – in the most successful companies, products become temporary compositions of relatively self-contained components known as Services (not necessary digital services). So, a new “product” is just a new re-composition with a short life-cycle; a change in the market – a change in the composition.

We have reached the end of the research content. The final outcome is sad. We have not found a meaningful definition of emerging(?) role of Digital Product Manager. The arguments provided are either not specific or not justifying any special needs or demands for a new product management role. It more looks like a hammer – if we have a digital development (a SW development) and a richer spectrum of digital products, we need a Digital Product Manager, just for a “digital” consistency. A Game of Words. We have expected much more – the solid factual basis and reasonable definition and descriptions of the specifics of a new management role – and found a weak argumentation of digital unrelated improvement of product management.

Instead of Conclusion

At the same time, there are several aspects that do require serious considerations and, possibly, consequences for Product Management, but they have not been even mentioned in the research.

First, we have to agree on the definition of “product” in modern market. If we would use the existing commonly accepted definition, all modern API for Web and Mobile platforms are products. The OASIS standards for SOA state that each Service has all attributes, including ownership and management, of the product. Nowadays, an API (=Service in people understanding) can be designed, developed, deployed and maintained by one employee; another API can be produced by another employee. This means both employees are Product Managers (“digital” or “API” – the name does not matter). Are our companies ready to such reality? How such products should be managed (and only then it makes sense to talk about digital managers)? This is the question.

Second, a concept of Microservice and API compositions is popular already, and they are used for internal and external markets; yes, compositions as products. Does business know about this? How such compositions that include Microservices from different business divisions and even external providers may/can/should be managed? What to do if your developers have included an external API into your product without a business agreement with the API owner? How the business should manage undocumented and disagreed relationships with that API owner? Is it a question of agile governance of development or weakness of management? These are the questions that each existing Product Manager has to be aware and competent to resolve – as you see, there are no digital specifics – only a realm that before was not addressed because it situates outside of the organisation boundaries.

Third, a new generation of products based on new digital capabilities, indeed, requires an understanding of these capabilities and potential products. This relates to the products for collecting data of large volumes (related to Big Data), analysing them (related to AI), collecting data from multiple concurrent channels (related to IoT), tools for them, and alike. What is so special about the management of these categories of SW products? In our opinion, here is only additional emphasis on such management aspects as fast decision making, more POCs, but the most important is an openness to the market of resources.

The major competitive advantage in the dynamic market is the pace of re-composing existing resources (faster than the competitors can do) while external resources may be used even more intensively (via contracted lease) than internal ones. The Product Managers have to obtain the competence of externalisation, but this is not “digital” – this is about everything while “digital” is the easiest one (because of technology standards).

We heartfully believe that there is no need in Digital Product Manager; this is about extended points of attention for regular Product Manager (unless we re-define this term and each developer will be promoted into a Product Manager role for his/her Microservice or API).  If Gartner promotes the role of Digital Product Manager to manage digital products, this review has not added any value to such a task; it even has not outlined and answered the mentioned questions. For example, if a product (like many Big Data or Integration products) is about moving and processing data, i.e. digital, have an intensive graphical User Interface, i.e. a human intellect play one of the major roles in the product functioning, who has to manage it – a regular Product Manager who understands business (rules, operations, process, operating model) or digital Product Manager who focuses on data/digital? Mr Van Dam, why even such primitive question is not raised and answered in the research?

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