The future of project management is product management

17 January

“The future of project management is product management.” That’s a popular sentiment these days. Is it true? If so, what does it mean? How does it work? What does it look like? Let’s start with the foundation supporting the statement.

First is the general distinction drawn between projects and products. If you are a project manager, or even if you’re not, if you stop to think about it projects by definition are temporary in nature. They have definite lifespans and deliberately transient teams. Products, on the other hand, if successful, can live for decades, managed by “permanently” assembled, relatively small (12 members or less), self-sustaining groups whose membership (and often activity) is intentionally static.

The second concept is applicable to both projects and products; they must deliver value to the customer. It doesn’t matter whether the customer is an internal department or an external consumer. Without value recognized by the customer, success will always be elusive. Hard to argue with that.

So simply put, going from project management to product management means putting the customer at the top of every decision or activity and, embracing both notions of small, permanent teams and work that never ends.

Wait. What?! How could that be? What business could operate that way, you ask?

In fact, quite a few businesses can adopt a product-before-project management model. The best fit is for technology based companies where the consumption of digital goods by customers drives the enterprise.  In these environments it is quite easy to assemble product-specific, self-sustaining teams where all of the customer interaction can be supported from before-the-cradle to beyond-the-grave. Another natural fit is insurance where legal documents and financial transactions comprise the core functions of the business.

For service-based or hard goods companies, the fit is not as easy. Companies requiring the use of significant capital investments, take airlines or vehicle manufacturers for example, may be limited to substituting product for project management as an organizing model for specific groups, divisions, or functions. Just as with Agile methods, the difficulty of scaling grows with the size and nature of the enterprise.

While there is no secret formula for adopting a product forward approach, it makes sense that the more complex a physical product or service is to produce or deliver, the less likely totally self-sufficient teams will be a doable or, and this is important, cost-efficient alternative.

In order to get a feel for what a product centered organization might look like where you are, try this 3 step thought exercise:

  1. Determine where value is and how it’s exchanged in your organization and to customers (internal and external).
  2. Understand how value is created before and after the exchange.
  3. Working from end customers backward, form straw product teams that include the people who can deliver the value until the entire value stream is covered.

If you can’t envision how your unique situation could be redesigned to fit the product management model of self-sustaining teams, it may not be the right strategy to pursue. But if you can easily identify value and the people who create it, you are on your way to a product-centered solution.

Thank you!

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