Is it Time for a Licence to Practise Product Management?

This article was first published on https://www.mindtheproduct.com/ on August 14, 2018

I recently came across a piece by Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director of Mule Design, titled Design’s Lost Generation, in which he makes the case that designers should require a licence to do their job.

Mike got me thinking; should product managers also require a licence do their job? After all, we’re a sizeable professional community and having a product management certification or licence in place would ensure that all product managers comply with the same standards.

But is it even possible to standardise product management, and in any case would this be desirable?

The Case For Licensing and Certification

I started my working life as a corporate lawyer in The Netherlands, so I had to obtain a professional licence to do this job. Looking back on both my legal and my product management careers, and studying common product management challenges, I can see there are a number of reasons in favour of licensing and certification:

  • Seal of Approval — Your company’s product is likely to be in good hands if it’s being managed by a licensed product manager.
  • Recruiting Product Managers — You only recruit product managers with a licence and the appropriate certification.
  • Quality Control — Increased consistency of quality and professionalism among product managers, since they’ve all studied the same content and standards.
  • Increased Accountability — If product managers act unethically, their licences can be revoked.
  • Broader Understanding and Recognition of What Product Managers do — Similar to government and industry bodies, if there were a single product management licence or code of conduct, it would help gain a wider understanding of the product manager role.
  • Ruling out Unethical Products and Behaviours — By codifying an agreed list of behaviours and standards that all product managers are expected to comply with. This can be outlined further in the right level of product management certification.
  • Keeping on top of Latest Trends, Approaches and Standards — A product manager could only have their licence renewed after obtaining relevant professional certificates or demonstrating compliance with set standards.

So I can see where people like Mike Monteiro are coming from; licensing would keep the (ethical) quality of products high and eradicate unethical products or behaviours. Professional certificates could be used as a way to continuously educate product managers about professional and ethical standards.

Why I’m not Convinced

However, from my experience as both a lawyer and a product manager, I believe that licensing isn’t the Holy Grail for either product managers or the companies they work for. This is why:

  • Product management isn’t yet a standardised discipline — The legal profession is well established, and deeply rooted in legal systems that are centuries old. There are serious consequences for people who don’t abide by the law. In contrast, the craft of product management is still developing. There isn’t a set way to practise product management, and it’s much more about a mindset.
  • Killing off creativity and diversity — By certifying and licensing we would create a significant barrier to entry into product management. One of the things I love is the diversity of background of most product managers. These different prior experiences add distinct flavours to someone’s approach to building and managing products.
  • No bulletproof safeguard — Even if we were to go down the route of licensing and certification, we shouldn’t be under the illusion that unethical products would automatically be a thing of the past. There are plenty of questionable lawyers with shady practices out there!

In short, I don’t believe that a licence and certificate based on set standards or requirements for all product managers is desirable, or even viable, at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we look at two alternative steps that will help us move towards solving the problems that licensing looks to address: a manifesto and certification.

What can be Done Instead — Manifesto and Certification

Similar to the original Agile Manifesto, I’d love for a group of product management thought leaders to get together and devise a “Product Management Manifesto” which stipulates the basic standards that we should adhere to.

While not being as “strict” as a universal product management licence, the manifesto and the principles it contains would heavily influence a product manager’s day-to-day approach and decision making.

One way to treat such a manifesto as a living and actionable document is by creating certificates which enable Product Managers to continuously learn about the core principles stipulated in the manifesto. There could, for instance, be certificates that cover “appropriate usage of customer data” or “continuous iteration”.

I guess the challenge with these kinds of certificates is to not make them too restrictive, as that would create the risk of removing the creative and innovative elements from product management. Equally, the certification content would have to move “with the times”, constantly adapting to evolving societal needs and circumstances.

Too Early?

I think it’s too early to look at a single, industry-wide licence that all product managers should comply with. Product management is still in its infancy, and a licence or code of conduct would create more confusion than good at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we start thinking about a Product Management Manifesto, outlining core principles to strive for in everything we do as product managers. This will in turn drive associated certification.

Given that product managers are rapidly growing in numbers and that our discipline is gaining broader appeal, I think it’s time to start a serious discussion about moving this idea forward.

The Agile Manifesto was conceived in a ski lodge, but before I start to look for somewhere similarly cold and inaccessible for a meeting, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts about the Product Management Manifesto and what should be in it. Let’s get started!

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