A new attempt at giving a product managment definition

January 4, 2024
Linkedin, A new product managment definition


Product Management is 3 things:

  1. System thinking
  2. Ontology of information
  3. Ethic of horizontality

It’s a little philosophical and abstract but don’t be afraid you will see it’s not that big of a deal to understand if you have 5 minutes to read through.


I believe that explaining what product management is still ambiguous for a lot of us.

I hope this definition will help you consistently explain what you do and how you do things everyday as a Product Manager.

A few weeks ago, I was honored to speak about this topic at _icilundi in Nantes and I now feel the need to keep on sharing my message.

Jeremie presenting at Ici Lundi

As maybe like a lot of us, I started practicing product management before really understanding it. Japanese are very fond of this kind of learning. They would use the word "narau" (習う), which is learning with some sort of passivity.

Yet after some time and as a curious person I started questioning my practice. Japanese would call that stage as a learner "hansei" (反省).

That’s what happened to me after leaving OLX for other, less product driven companies where I encoutered tough situations.

It took me quite a while to find something I found abstract and satisfying enough and that would help me share what is product management in a short amount of time.

Existing definitions

Firstly I encountered Steven Heys definition about Product management as being like a mini CEO of systemic, holistic business management of products and services. (1 of the 3 elements only)

There was also a very inspiring article called Good Product / Bad product by Ben Horowitz.

I also loved Marty Caghan on product risks and responsibilities on the subject.

I believe all that content hinted me in the right direction yet I was not satisfied and still struggling to articulate it all to a Product Management Boeotian in a couple of minutes.

Fortunately I also knew intuitively what I was looking for, as I practiced it alongside strong product folks for a while at OLX.

And in 2020, I read a few books written by Baptiste Rappin while working at cracking that once and for all. In his books he describes the essence of management in general and the ideas and historical influences behind it. It was an epiphany. (Sorry his books is only available in French for now)

My current understanding is that there is 3 fundamental things to understand what is product management:

  1. System thinking
  2. Ontology of information
  3. Ethic of horizontality

1. System thinking

Systems thinking, often associated with systems theory, began to take shape as a distinct field in the middle of the 20th century. However, its roots go back much earlier, with significant contributions in the fields of biology, engineering, and sociology.

For example, from biology emerged the concept of system and organization (in its scientific, biological sense of the term, and not in the sense of organizing things), which then led to systems theory. This approach is truly a break from the Cartesian or reductionist forms that preceded it.

cell as a complex system of sub-systems
cell as a complex system of sub-systems

In product activities, we spend a lot of time mapping. Mapping is actually representing systems using models.

Now you can understand why we do:

You can now understand why we do a Product Spec so to keep building an efficient system that will solve the bunch of problems we mapped earlier: from sales, to building the software, to delivering good customer care and tracking revenue.

A Product manager is a systemic manager in charge of a product area which is basically a sub-system of a broader system. The more senior the product manager becomes the broader area if following the managerial track or deeper, if on the product track, the product manager takes on. (see Ken Norton’s article for more, or this UserVoice article that inspired that image)

Product Seniority vs Domain / Real life System

2. Ontology of information

The concept of information emerged with the development of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the consequence of the work of, but not only of Ludwig Boltzmann and Willard Gibbs. It was then formalized by Claude Shannon in the mid-20th century.

The concept of information is that a system that changes emit something significant about itself. This change is called information.

In product management, we want to bend / change systems to get to a certain goal.

The way we do that nowadays is to use computer models to represent the system state, inputs and outputs.

As per the thermodynamics theory there exists what’s called a feedback loop representing how the output is linked back to the input of the system that closes the flow of information.

That’s why we use computers, analytics, dashboard, statistical models to capture and make all that information intelligible to a human-being so we can adjust the system behavior to what we think it should be.

System and information might have been taken as a single point. Yet it’s important to highlight it and the fact that it’s what we use to change systems according to our desires or needs.

Open System that inspired Deming's Wheel

3. Ethic of horizontality

This one was the hardest to decrypt for me because I was deep inside the anglo-saxon culture while working and most of the authors are also from that culture.

Product Management is inherently horizontal. Take the idea of empowerment or the use of agile methods when talking about how the work should be performed.

Ethic of horizontality is to be interpreted as a moral or ethical approach that emphasizes equality and equitable status among individuals in a group, organization, or society. It also means flat, less or non-hierarchical structures where power and decision-making are distributed equally rather than concentrated in the hands of a few.

To understand why this is important we should review a few inter-penetrated schools of thoughts:

The Human Relation Movement

First let’s talk about Elton Mayo, an Australian psychologist and sociologist. He led what’s called the Hawthorne Studies at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works (1924-1932) in Cicero, Illinois that founded the human relation movement.

His studies in organizational behavior, initially aimed to analyze the impact of work conditions on productivity.

A key discovery, the "Hawthorne Effect," that seemed to reveal that productivity increased when workers felt observed, and more importantly that workers are motivated not just by material conditions but also by social factors like team dynamics and management's attention.

A good inspiration of this movement is to be found in Toyota Production System and how they apply their A3 Thinking method, where an individual with good data, can overrule more senior people.

In Scrum, XP or Lean you can find that influence as the self-organizing principle.

a factory and Elton Mayo's portrait


One other important influence on horizontality comes from the influence of cyberneticians.

Cybernetics, as a field, emerged from interdisciplinary meetings and collaborations in the 1940s, primarily involving scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, but also anthropologists and psychiatrists.

The term "cybernetics" was proposed by Norbert Wiener, an American mathematician, to describe the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.

The formation of cybernetics was influenced by the Macy Conferences, held between 1946 and 1953. At first, the group was in charge to help find ways to counter Germans during W.W.II.

After the war, some cyberneticians worked at applying it to business.

One key figure was Stafford Beer. A few a his principles were about removing coercion when a running class governs a system, in this case the governement of Chile.

Photos of famous cyberneticians

Modern coaching that we advocate for in Product Orgs, promotes a neutral, non coercitive posture when dealing with a coachee. It is a direct child of famous cybernetician Milton H. Erikson.

Ref. Les origines cybernétiques du management contemporain By Baptiste Rappin

We can now understand the product manager posture, which consists of using influence only.

Product is NOT Tech

Since my return to France - not sure if that’s a local, cultural singularity -, I have often been surprised to see people talk about operations, business experts, and products as separate things, not understanding its general and systemic nature.

I have seen the product and tech functions being considered as the same unit in quite a few cases.

I think this false perception exists because of the acute need for collaboration that the development of information technology solutions implies. I tend to think that this distorted view of the Product is a consequence of the history of non-product organizations, where there was a direct relationship between IT departments and operations.

Reproducing what we know, misunderstanding what product is supposed to do because there is no point of reference, product ends up being subordinated to tech.

Many companies do what I call "Rebranding" or "Product Sprinkling." In reality, the person in charge of the product often performs tasks related to those of a project manager, a historic figure in management within IT departments.

This phenomenon has also been analyzed by Marty Caghan on his blog.

An attempt to give a new definition

Product management is a set of organizational and management practices aimed at maximizing the performance of capital.

It is the contemporary culmination of the theory of cybernetics applied to organizations.

Its premise is that, it is more effective to have a holistic/systemic vision, both internal and external of the organization, to ensure the performance of capital. This is why it includes the central notion of interdisciplinary cooperation, a major differentiating ingredient from previous managerial forms.

It can also be associated with the concept of an innovative or adhocratic organization of Mintzberg.

It is the result of organizations adapting to the acceleration of the world, due to the generalization of information technologies and the widespread adoption of the cybernetic managerial paradigm, the concept of feedback also called feedback loop.


To understand product management well, you must go back to its definitions. Whether it's mine or that of my glorious peers, it must be understood that it is general management of a systemic nature and you must insist on it.

This should, I think, dispel quite a few misunderstandings during discussions with people at your company, such as when discussing commercial policy, branding, process improvement with various operations. If they ask you what you are doing here, you can now address that.

The other and very important one is that we don’t do product management just any way. We do it in a horizontal way. We try to collaborate up, down and sideways.

This imply a collaborative culture and the possibility for product to attend meetings and say what they have to say. It's must be understood as a way to organise power within the company.

Of course there is verticality sometimes, but that’s for specific application only, like sharing the strategic intent of the leaders, enforcing some consistency in the practice to ensure the group work efficiently. (Surely not to implement a detailed plan made by someone else)

I hope to have clarified the nature of the job a little more.

That it will help Product Managers and Product Owners do their work in a more welcoming and understanding environment and explain what they do so to spread the ingredient of an working product culture faster.

Feel free to let me know what you think and leave a comment.

Share this article if you think it can help someone you know.


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