When hiring a product manager, there is often a tug of war between whether to emphasize domain expertise or product management prowess. The ideal candidate is (no surprise) someone who can go deep on the subject matter and is an accomplished product manager (PM). But, what to do when the mythical candidate doesn’t materialize: hire a domain expert and train them to become a product manager? Hire a product manager and teach them the domain? Wait and hope for the purple squirrel to come along?
In reality, the tradeoffs are even murkier than that. It’s never either-or. The product manager must be stellar at either the fundamentals of being a product manager or the domain, and they must have some background with the other side. In other words, a strong PM generalist with an aptitude for the domain, or strong domain expertise with an aptitude for product management.
Ultimately, there is a recognition that in order to be a successful product manager in a specialized discipline, you need to have enough background to ask astute questions and detect when things seem “off”. This skill - the ability to know what questions to ask and to have a keen enough understanding of the domain to comprehend the answer and ask follow-up questions - is core to being a successful product manager. (Side note: The ability to ask pertinent, penetrating questions is also a core skill of being a good consultant, by the way. Coincidence? No.)
And when there is a debate about subject matter versus product management expertise, the real question folks are often getting at is: how long will it take this person to become productive, and will they have the skills to be successful?
According to Jeff Coyle, Chief Product Officer of MarketMuse, “It is harder to migrate from being a subject matter expert to a product manager with subject matter expertise.” This may be because subject matter experts have difficulty delegating responsibility to others, trusting them to execute on “their” vision. He adds, “While you would wish to find someone who has crossed that bridge and become both, those people are hard to come by and finding great product managers who rely on others is often a path to a faster "time to success" in a world where you can't find that perfect person.”
Product managers are in high demand because of the pivotal role they play in bringing successful products to market. They are expected to straddle business, technology, market, and domain. In many organizations they are the connective tissue that operationalizes strategy, nurturing ideas and making educated decisions about what needs to get built when. This requires a deep understanding of their markets, customers, and how to utilize available technology to meet their organization’s overall business strategy.
Bottom line: It’s ok to be a generalist, as long as you’re a specialist, too.
Let us explain.
The Rise of the Expert Generalist
A few years ago, specialization had its moment. Specialists and experts were celebrated, they’d put in their 10,000 hours to become masters of their domain (so to speak). And the public at large was mostly fine with that.
There’s a new expert in town: the generalist.
The generalist movement is being driven in part by a cocktail of hyper-specialization (and the resulting dearth of people capable of filling such roles), a perceived credibility gap and widespread erosion of trust in long-standing institutions (government, established religion, corporations), and a backlash against established gatekeepers (academics, journalists, scientists, etc.).
David Epstein, author of Range, and a long-time skeptic of the 10,000-hour doctrine, points out that hyperspecialization is trending, “Across different fields, it has become more and more common to exalt increasingly narrow focus. Oncologists no longer specialize in cancer, but rather in cancer related to a single organ – and the trend advances each year. Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande pointed out that when doctors joke about left-ear surgeons, ‘we have to check to be sure they don’t exist.’”
When this level of focus becomes the norm, it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to be qualified enough to meet it.
How can you succeed is a world that is becoming more and more specialized, when the prevailing trend is to become a generalist? By becoming an expert generalist. It does not mean you are good at things “in general”, but it applies to people who are adept at, and interested in, having a broad knowledge base coupled with the ability to learn, in a reasonable amount of depth, about different subjects.
Orit Gadiesh, the chairman of Bain & Co, is credited with coming up with the term, and defines it as such: “Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design: 1. Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas. 2. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”
This idea is similar to the T-shaped skillset, popularized by McKinsey Consulting and Tim Brown of IDEO, where a person has deep expertise in a single domain coupled with a broad (but shallow) understanding of other subjects and domains. Contrasted with the I-shaped (depth in a single domain) or dash-shaped (breadth but no depth) skillsets, a person with a T-shaped skillset often has the versatility, curiosity, and collaborative nature to straddle and succeed in disparate domains.
Expert generalists often have the advantage of the beginner’s mind along with “just enough knowledge” from other domains to understand and apply them elsewhere: identify patterns, connect the dots, improvise. They are able to bring knowledge and insight from one field (where, for example, a technique may have proven successful, or even failed), and apply it to other domains where it may have never been applied. Because they are not constrained (or tainted) by assumptions and biases which insiders may have become accustomed to, they are able to take an open-minded perspective, which may enable them to view a situation, problem or possible solution more accurately than an embedded expert.
It’s also important not to downplay the importance of being exposed to a broader set of ideas and people, and becoming the hub and connector of both ideas and people.
The downside of the expert generalist approach is that, without a deep understanding of a specific domain, there is an increased likelihood that you don’t know what you don’t know, and will stumble through and repeat well-known mistakes and dead ends. It also takes an outsider longer to ramp up, since they do not have the domain background to lean on.
How can an outsider supercharge your product management practice?
This article began by asking which is more essential for a new product manager to be a successful hire: product management expertise or domain expertise. For a PM to be successful long term, they will need to develop job-specific domain expertise. But, there are some critical aspects of product management in which an outsider (a.k.a. consultant) can provide nearly immediate benefit.
- Competitive Analysis: Working independently or with a market / domain specialist, a product management consultant can conduct market and competitive research to understand user needs, competitive threats, and the overall competitive landscape, then develop appropriate solutions.
- Market Segmentation: Deeply asses the userbase and usage patterns to determine where and how to target a product, or refine the feature set to more accurately match a particular segment’s needs.
- Product Market Fit: Assess how the product is faring in the market, and how it can be fine tuned or overhauled to improve market acceptance and penetration.
- Product Metrics: What gets measured gets done. This is one area where an expert generalist product manager can have an outsized impact, by applying analytics best practices to a specific product or process.
- Product Diagnostics: As with product metrics, an unbiased outsider can assist with reviewing what are essential parts of a product suite, and which parts are ripe for revamping, replacement, or removal.
- Product Roadmapping: There are two aspects to product roadmapping: coming up with a strategic plan that aligns with the overall corporate vision and mission, and creating a tactical plan which can be executed. An outsider can provide tried and tested models and frameworks to create the roadmap, while also developing the narrative to use when selling the roadmap internally and externally.
- Decision & Sharing Framework: Making decisions is hard. An outsider can run this process using a combination of established frameworks and expert, apolitical facilitation.
- Product Backlog Activation: In conjunction with a product diagnostics evaluation, an outsider is perfectly suited to either review the product backlog and assist in prioritizing languishing features, or to fill in any gaps which might be needed for a feature request to be ready for development.
That said, there are some activities that simply require a product manager who is a specialist in the domain and an expert in product management techniques. For example, subject matter expertise is required to: work closely with sales and marketing to determine the marketing mix, messaging, and pitch to new or existing clients; provide in-depth product training; work with external analysts to position the product within the market.
Cantina's Product Strategy practice is uniquely positioned to bring each of the 8 capabilities above to your organization. Our consultants have worked with and built out product management teams and processes for companies of all sizes, from large enterprises to startups (embedded directly with the founding team). We work together to execute on a project, with the goal of making you and your team self-sufficient. You will see the process and approach in action, and will be left with tools and templates that enable you to grow the capability within your team. Contact us to learn more.
There is a tension when hiring a product manager to bring on someone who is both an expert at the practice of product management and also steeped in the domain or market. The reason for looking for someone who possesses both skillsets is to ensure that they will be able to ramp up quickly, while also having the skills and background to be successful over the long term. Sometimes, it is just not possible to find both sets of expertise in a single candidate. In those cases, hire a product management expert generalist (either as a consultant or full-time), someone who is strong in the practice of product management and has enough aptitude about the domain to ramp up credibly. The expert generalist will bring a professional skillset and approach, while providing a fresh perspective and immediate impact in areas such as product strategy, product-market fit, competitive analysis, decision frameworks, and product roadmapping strategies. They can supplement existing product managers, or own the overall product management practice.