Whether Product Management is an art or a science is an unresolved debate I’ve had with several people over the last few years. Everyone has a different perspective based on their experiences.

It only seemed right to answer this question using a combination of art (qualitative) and scientific (quantitative) analysis. I’m sure someone will point out that qualitative analysis also has a scientific method to it but that would ruin my analogy so… shhh.

I conducted an anonymous survey of 49 people, all in some way connected to the world of product management. Along with the topic of this blog, it also included what attributes they feel are most important for a product manager, which you can read about in my previous blog post.

What are the top attributes of a Product Manager according to people in the product community?From Jackie Bavaro’s simple and easy to digest Venn diagram of product skills to Tarigo’s product skills matrix, there…productcoalition.com

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71% of respondents currently work as a product manager (or owner) with a further 8% looking to become one.

I’ve got my participants — what did I ask them?

I selected four areas that depict a choice between art and science and asked the respondents to plot on a scale where they believe a product manager sits. For each, the ‘art’ option is on the left and the ‘science’ option is on the right. I did not tell the participants about my art vs science research or even indicate that there was a commonality in format from question to question.

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The scale shown to participants had 7 points to represent strong, moderate and neutral viewpoints.

EQ vs IQ

EQ stands for Emotional Quotient but is more commonly referred to as emotional intelligence. It includes the application of sympathy, empathy, and compassion to understand and react to situations and individuals as needed, as well as an underlying concern for and consideration of others. If you’ve had a manager with a low EQ, you’ll know only too well how important this is!

IQ is Intelligence Quotient, a numbered scale of how smart someone is. It focusses on logical thinking, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Someone with a high IQ can solve complex problems and think through many eventualities for a given event or situation.

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C3PO has a high IQ but lacks emotional intelligence. Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

Soft Skills vs Hard Skills

Soft skills relates to skills that are less tangible than hard skills. It does not mean they can’t be taught but it includes communicating, presenting, building rapport and being persuasive.

Hard skills are more tangible and generally easier to prove — being able to create and amend user stories in JIRA, create wireframes on Sketch, or write Javascript are all examples of hard skills.

Business vs Technical

Business in this context relates to knowledge of areas within the company that are outside of product development. This includes knowledge of marketing, sales, and the commercial drivers of the business, having a relationship with these teams, and being able to translate their requirements into the product process.

Technical means knowledge of technology in general, the company, and more specifically the product’s tech stack and using this knowledge to determine technical solutions to business problems.

Customer vs Commercial

Customer-led product managers understand the product’s customers and the wider consumer industry inside out. Researching, user testing and prototyping are some of the things involved.

Commercial acumen in the form of understanding business levers (high-level indicators of performance, like revenue and sales) and using them to inform product prioritisation, and an ability to create business cases and control budgets all fall under the scientific side of this scale.

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In the words of Jessie J: it’s all about the money, money, money. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The responses

I’ve got my survey participants and I’ve presented them with the questions. What were the results?

For all four questions, the average answer leaned somewhat to the left, with customer focus the most-so. Customer vs Commercial did also have the highest standard deviation of the four, showing less consensus and highlighting the varying role of product across teams and companies.

The consensus was strongest that business knowledge is more important than technical knowledge, although once again this varies by company, team and even the role.

If you focus on the customer needs, then you will inherently be providing business opportunities and the commercials will follow.

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The responses to all four questions leaned towards the ‘art’ side of the scale.

There is a clear trend in the responses that being a product manager is more an art than it is a science. Taking this as the final answer would be convenient, given how hard it is to explain the role of a product manager to people outside the profession.

One final question

If I asked the question of where a product manager sits on the same scale with for ‘art vs science’ to the same group of people, they would confirm what the rest of the data tells us, right?

Wrong! While it did receive the widest standard deviation (the full 7 options on the scale were all selected at least once), the scales tipped in favour of ‘Science’.

Despite a relatively modest lean towards science in the average score, 41% of respondents selected an option that is on the science side of the scale, and only 8% selected an option on the art side. The remaining 51% went right in the middle.

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51% of respondents felt that product management is equally art and science.

In my opinion, there are two factors to explain this:

  1. There is a wider societal stigma about ‘the arts’ vs ‘the sciences’. It is perceived as better, not to mention simpler to explain if your work is more tangible and grounded in a particular skill or set of skills.
  2. The product management role provides structure to previously intangible skills and competencies and has led to these skills being perceived as more scientific than they once were

Results by role type

There were some differences between those currently in product roles and those that work with them closely, less closely or are considering moving into the field.

Product managers push the dial a little to the right, indicating that those in product roles are a little more convinced that product is a science.

Despite the small sample of size of 6 people, those that work closely with product managers believe as a whole that product management is ever so slightly more of an art than in it a science.

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Product managers think their role is more scientific than their closest team members do.

How would you explain these results? Do product managers like to believe they’re more scientific than they are or does this just highlight the complex and variable nature of the role?

Where would you put yourself on the scale? Are there any other reasons or factors that you think can explain the difference between the individual questions and the art vs science one?

Lastly, a big thank you to everyone from the Product Coalition Slack, Product School Slack, and BT Digital Team that took part in the survey. You’re all awesome.

I also spoke to Jay Stansell about this topic on his European Podcast Tour, check it out below.

EU Tour #8 Product management: Art or Science? With Chris Miles — Product Coalition Product…Listen in as Jay Stansell, James Woodley and Chris Miles chat about whether product management is an art or a science.podcast.productcoalition.comProduct Coalition

Originally shared at: https://chrismiles.co/product-management-is-it-an-art-or-a-science/


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