4 Lessons in Product Management

“The report of my death was an exaggeration” - 4 lessons from Airbnb’s restructuring of Product Management


If you are in the product world, you probably heard reports that Airbnb is getting rid of product management. As with many things, the headlines do not capture the full context. I strongly recommend you watch the full video of Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky’s remarks: 



My takeaway is that Airbnb is not getting rid of product management, they are fixing prior mistakes. The quote that sparked so many conversations about product management is as follows: 


“The designers are equal to the product managers. Actually, we got rid of the classic product management function. Apple didn’t have it either. [cheers from the crowd] Well, let’s be careful. Hold on. We have product marketers. We combined product management with product marketing. And we said that you can’t develop products unless you know how to talk about the products…” 


He is not calling for the actual end of product management, but by combining Product Management and Product Marketing, he is elevating the role to have more direct ownership of customer and business impact. The leaders on a product development team (Product Manager, Product Marketing Manager, Designer, and Engineer) now have higher accountability for business results. This is good product management, and it is here to stay because the core activities are essential to launching successful products. This talk is evidence that Airbnb hit four common challenges to launching great products. 

1. Organizations lack alignment on the strategy 


Brian realized he needed to be more personally involved with product launches, and the company as a whole needed more focus. I’ve seen firsthand how important CEO and senior executive involvement is in product decisions. Without it, the whole company flails about. When it is done well, you have a cohesive and focused strategy that the organization knows how to execute. 


One key indicator of strategic alignment is how roadmaps are handled, and Brian spoke specifically to the corrections Airbnb made to how they treat roadmaps:  


  • “First of all, I asked every leader to show me your roadmap. They couldn’t even figure out their roadmaps because everyone had a sub-roadmap on sub-teams, and those teams had roadmaps, and those teams had roadmaps. And so I said, there’s a simple rule. If it’s not on the roadmap it can’t ship. And it must be on one roadmap… Then I said, we can only do 10% of what’s on the roadmap.”


In my own experience, having one roadmap is vital to focus the organization on top priorities.  Few organizations realize that ruthless prioritization (like only doing the top 10%) will actually lead to better results because the top 1 or 2 priorities are an order of magnitude more valuable than the things further down the list. If each team has its own roadmap they lack awareness of what is most important to the business overall. As a result, some teams get overburdened, some teams are frustrated by roadblocks, and too much time is spent on things of lesser value vs what will really move the needle. Further, customers and internal stakeholders can’t keep up with all those roadmaps, so they often lose trust in product management and resort to all sorts of bad behaviors to get “their” things built.


Brian directly acknowledged that some people thought his high degree of involvement was meddling, but for him, it created an ability to move decision-making up. This does not mean the CEO just tells everyone exactly what to build. CEOs and other senior leaders need to demand a market-driven approach based on well-structured user research paired with a deep understanding of the business. This is the job of product teams. Doing the work to know the customer and the business is the only way for product teams to truly earn the trust of the senior leaders. 

2. Roles get over-specialized and lack accountability for business results


My hypothesis is that, like many other companies, Airbnb had gotten to a place where PMs were focused more on delivering technology solutions and not as involved in go-to-market considerations, perhaps not even doing enough initial customer discovery. 


I’ve seen various flavors of this problem throughout my personal experience. For example, when I joined CEB in 2017 to lead product management for the Workforce Surveys and Analytics business unit, I undid the split between “technical PM” and “strategic PM” as soon as I could. I also undid the agency model for design, bringing designers into the team to be partners to the PMs and directly involved in every step of the agile discovery and delivery processes. We only had access to a fraction of a Product Marketing Manager’s time, so the product managers owned the pricing, launch, and sales enablement. These changes created a much more aligned team that moved faster together on the most important things to deliver business results. 


Without these types of corrections, the splits in roles can cause significant issues for a business because the team will be stuck as a series of individuals who get separated from end-users and accountability to the business. 


3. Many Companies Use Design Incorrectly, and Very Few Embed it as a Way of Thinking 


Although Brian’s talk is creating a buzz in the product management community, it was focused most on how to elevate and energize designers. Although I was taken aback to hear the crowd (of mostly designers) cheer after he stated “we got rid of the classic product management function, I believe it is because he was solving an all-too-common pain for designers. As Brian stated later “For a lot of companies, design has become a service organization. Design should not be a service organization… It means it is your job to work from the very beginning.” 


I have too often seen companies fall into the trap he describes. Designers end up getting brought in too late in the process and then get asked to create mock-ups for a product they are completely new to and don’t understand. That is a waste and misses out on their skill sets to validate customer problems up front and be a part of co-developing and testing the solution from the start. I have had success giving designers the lead on creating a customer listening strategy where we outline the ways we intend to gather customer input, and when and why we would use different testing methods.


Beyond just elevating designers on a team, Brian’s talk really was intended to go much further. He said, “Design is much more than a department, it is a way of thinking about the world…”  Brian encourages designers to have more nerve to do what they know is right, which rings true for us at Vecteris. Eisha Armstrong, Jaime Drennon, and Molly Tipps wrote Fearless to help leaders understand what it takes to build a truly product-friendly culture. To do so, leaders need to build product cultures where their people can be fearless to do the right thing. Yes, they must earn that trust, but that requires the right enabling structures and environments.

4. Organizations are Not Doing Good Enough Product Discovery 


Many organizations jump right to a technology solution without taking the time to understand if the product is worth building in the first place. That requires research into what both users and buyers find valuable, the state of the competition, and the capabilities of their own organization. 


Based on Brian’s comments, Airbnb improved their product discovery in three key ways: 1) the product value is now validated upfront prior to building the product, 2) they now emphasize a hypothesis-driven approach, and 3) they mapped the full customer journey to understand how the organization supports it. 


Many companies have caught on that they need to utilize customer research and data, but too often it is unfocused and does not get to the root cause of why users are reacting in a certain way. I have seen organizations assume they know what the market wants based on anecdotal conversations or blindly following certain data sets. Multiple times, Brian cautions on over-reliance on A/B testing. This anti-pattern usually means the root problems get missed, so true innovation does not occur. Instead, he described how they now start with an end-to-end customer journey that allows teams to create more targeted hypotheses around areas of friction for customers that can then be validated with research to build solutions around. This type of hypothesis-driven approach is one of the central tenets that Vecteris advocates for with our customers, so it was exciting to hear Brian extoll the benefits. 


There are a ton of other great lessons from Brian’s talk that could spark many additional blog posts, so I know I didn’t cover every interesting point. I hope to hear from you in the comments or reach out directly if you think your organization is facing some similar challenges. 

- Sean