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Your B2B startup will stop innovating the day you give power to product managers

The problem of product managers is not that they exist but rather that they have too much power. We have all seen these articles written by developers that explain that product managers are useless. They miss the point.

I think it is pretty obvious that PMs (whether you call them product managers or project managers) have some value. If you only ask developers to create some specific “thing”, they will forget how to release the “thing” to get maximum engagement, they will forget to talk to some important people in the company, they will not like talking much to customers, they will fight between each other on how to do the “thing”. Getting some smart social person (a PM) is very helpful to solve these things.

That’s where the PM brings all their value. But this role is meant to facilitate decision making, make the project move forward. This is what is called “delivery” in the product management discipline. And this is usually the part that “Product managers” hate doing. The other part is “discovery”, it is meant to discover what to build, and this is the part that “Product managers” love doing. Of course they love doing it, this is about deciding what to build, you set yourself as the boss who decides, arbitrates and is the final decision maker.

You can think to yourself, “well we have hired smart people who know how to make decisions on those topics, what’s the issue ?”.

Well two things:

  • First most product managers believe that the most important thing to do, is to interview users, look at data of usage, and then take some obvious bet to take the best decisions

  • Second, most product managers are not smart in the sense that they make good product decisions. Anyone can be a product manager, you just need to pretend to know how things work and have done other things in the past. Product managers really rarely evaluate themselves on the KPI they have achieved in the past. And finally if you are really good at taking decisions to make a company successful you will have started a company of your own a long time ago (Not everyone want to create their own company, yes I know, but the high performers do :) )

So to sum up, we have a bunch of smart people in which we have removed the extremely smart ones and that believe that talking to users and looking at the data is the key to all good product decisions.

That’s where we make the link with the title of the article:

  • Why is that specific to B2B?

  • Why the company will stop innovating

  • When you analyze B2B and B2C companies they don’t have much in common, in the former you want to create a company around being able to help other companies believe that you bring them a lot of value, in the later you want to create a company that will actually provide value to random people.

Products managers in B2B context, does that work ?

This has a lot of impact on the product of the company, in B2B (and B2B2C is in most cases just B2B) your customers are powerful managers that don’t use your product but that have financial objectives, in B2C your customers are your users, they use your product. The consequence of that is interviewing users in B2B is almost useless, and taking decisions from what users tell you is a severe error and in most cases the path to stagnation. Should product managers in B2B interview users and should your b2b startup build things for users? Yes but the bare minimum, just to make sure that they are somewhat satisfied about the product. What matters is to make your customers happy, and sometimes, and pretty often this is not needed, so all time spent on it is time you will not spend on the most important people, your customers.

Product managers and innovation

There is a famous quote about Henry Ford “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Innovation is not something you see in the data. It is someone that has intuition and most people disagree with. When you start by saying “Let's look at the data and talk to users and we will build what we see”. You are basically saying “Let’s not innovate but work on the most visible issues”. You will skip all the issues that are not visible or which are a combination of a lot of small issues, and you will also have a powerful argument to dismiss any innovators (founders for example) but also executives (sales, Customer success, Customer care execs that have usually a pretty good visibility on what customers need). Someone who innovate is not always right, but without trying you won’t end up anywhere

To sum up, this whole thing of making small autonomous teams is complete bullshit if the product managers have excessive power inside that team. They are also pretty good social people so they will make the rest of the company believe that not listening to them is a big error as “this is their job, they know how to do it” (No they don’t, a successful startup founder is 100 times more skilled in this area than 99% of product managers). If you are a startup B2B founder, I want to give you one piece of advice, don’t ever give a lot of power to product managers as long as you want to innovate. Take your most competent sales person and put him in charge of the product.

Product manager will be angry at this post and argue that the role of the product manager is not to decide, but to help stakeholders find a solution. The reality is in most time this is not the case the product manager is really deciding (and taking bad decisions)