An anthropological take on product management

Alexander Spalding

When I was taking product management classes back in 2019, I was told that, whilst product managers are supposed to be ‘jacks of all trades’, they all tend to have a distinct kind of ‘flavour’ to them. As such, we were encouraged to think about which of these flavours might resonate with us the most. 

What might these flavours be, you ask? Well, some product managers are apparently ‘design’ orientated, some are ‘engineering’ orientated, and others are ‘business’ orientated. Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that these archetypes aren’t wrong, per se. Indeed, the majority of product managers that I’ve met over the course of my career do seem to gravitate towards one of these archetypes. I suspect, however, that the seeming representativeness of these archetypes largely stems from other possible approaches to product management being undervalued. These archetypes thus become self-fulfilling professional development prophecies, if you like. This, in turn, raises an interesting question: what can be done for people like myself who, on the one hand, want to exert more agency over the product development cycle but, on the other, don’t necessarily gravitate strongly towards any of these archetypes? 

To start a broader conversation about the possible answer to this question, as an anthropologist working as a product manager, I’m going to explore how a distinctly anthropological angle on product management might temper perhaps the most important task for any product manager: the articulation of ‘product-market fit’. 

This process is conventionally thought about as the alignment of business interests, technical savoir faire, and the needs of any given product’s target users (as per the left-hand-side of the image below). As the process of articulating product-market fit currently focuses so heavily on the balancing of business, engineering, and design capabilities, it’s thus unsurprising why the archetypes that people are taught about on product management courses feel so narrow. 

As an anthropologist working in the world of product development, however, it’s become clear to me that this conventional approach is worryingly limiting not just for the people who are going to be using any given product, but for those developing them as well. In this manifesto, I’m thus going to briefly lay out four interconnected anthropological product-market fit principles that provide a broader conversation starter for what it might mean for someone’s product management approach to have a distinctly ‘anthropological’ flavour to it. In doing so, I hope those within the product industry can begin to see why becoming more interested in anthropology, and the social sciences more broadly, can provide a constructive way through which we can begin improving the way we articulate product-market fit (as per the right-hand-side of the image below). 

We as product development specialists need to start complexifying our understanding of how ‘product-market fit’ ought to be articulated. Learnings from anthropology, as well as the broader human sciences, are going to be critical for this. 

Principle 1

Problematise the ‘person’ in ‘person-centric innovation’

It is indisputable that the embracement of a more ‘person-centric’ approach to product innovation has created an interesting place at the table for the qualitative social sciences. This is particularly true for those working in roles like ‘user’, ‘design’, or ‘market’ research. Little attention has been paid, however, to the ways in which different definitions of ‘personhood’ temper the real-world effects of ‘person-centric’ innovation practices. To put it simply: we as an industry need to reflect upon whose definition of ‘personhood’ we’re really operating with when we talk about ‘person-centric’ innovation. 

It goes without saying that ‘personhood’ is a multi-faceted, and oftentimes hotly contested, concept in anthropology (for a succinct overview, see this Oxford Bibliographies entry). For concision’s sake, what makes this topic a continued source of fascination for anthropologists is the way personhood seems to function not as the rigid and atomised notion that underpins our painfully prolonged global experiment with neoliberalism, but, more convincingly, as a fluid construct born from the material and immaterial social relations (or ‘ecologies’, as Mikkel Krenchel convincingly argues in this article) that people are embedded in. For anthropologists, this notion seems to be as true in the ‘Euro-American’ world as it is ‘outside’ of it. As such, the need to problematise our conversations around ‘person-centricity’ exists regardless of which parts of the world our product development strategies are focused on.  

As product managers, we drive the creation of products that people in any given part of the world will potentially want to use. It is thus our responsibility to also ensure that our work, as well as the work of our colleagues, is based on a comprehensive and accurate foundational understanding of what a ‘person’ can be in those parts of the world that are of strategic concern for our firms.       

Principle 2

Optimise for  ‘meaningfulness to people’, not ‘user desirability’

Problematising the idea of the ‘person’ in ‘person-centric innovation’ makes it possible for us to build an innovation toolkit in which the ‘body’, the ‘mind’, and the ‘self’ are not taken as self-evident concepts. This is important, as differences in how people around the world think about these concepts directly impacts our ability as product development experts to accurately understand human lived experience (especially if we’re not mindful of the fact that people do actually think about these core concepts very differently to ourselves). 

From an anthropological perspective, a useful starting point for navigating the sociocultural nuances that are embedded in concepts of the ‘self’, the ‘body’, and the ‘mind’ is to see them as a subset of a broader concern: how is it that the world becomes meaningful for different people? When we as product managers, therefore, start to ask ourselves how we optimise for the meaningfulness of a product (rather than its desirability in the ethnocentric Maslowian sense), we’re able to more accurately understand the problems that people want our products to tackle as well as what successfully tackling these problems might look like in practice.  

Principle 3

Take responsibility for the futures that product development can enable 

If we’re to accept that the ‘person’ in ‘person-centric innovation’ is a product of the material and immaterial networks in which we’re all embedded, we also need to think critically about the different social levels that can inform any one person’s understanding of who they are as well as how products can become meaningful for them. Here, product managers need to empathise with how people experience the macro on the level of the micro. How do matters of ethical concern like growing socioeconomic inequality, evermore unwieldy public mental health crises, societal algocratisation, the withdrawal of the state, and the environmental devastation of the anthropocene impact the problems that people want products to tackle within any given sociocultural context (for an interesting example of how these issues are being thought about in some product design spaces, see the Society Centred Design manifesto)? 

As product managers, we not only need to account for the way these phenomena inform how people relate to the products that we’re attempting to create, but also the possible effect  that our product can, in turn, have on the evolution of these macrophenomena. As such, we as product managers need to take greater responsibility for the way our products tackle current as well as future systemic crises. 

Principle 4

Become more reflexive about how ‘product-market fit’ is socially coordinated 

The prior manifesto points have made it clear that the process of articulating ‘product-market fit’ should be at least as much about meaningfulness and systemic integrity as it is about technical feasibility and business viability. From an anthropological perspective, however, we as product managers also need to account for the way the distinct social context that we find ourselves in at work impacts our assumptions of what it means for our product to be ‘meaningful’, systematically ‘integrous’, ‘viable’, or ‘feasible’. 

As my past ethnographic research within the healthtech start-up world makes clear, these are never stable constructs. They are, instead, born from a complex social process of mediation, deliberation, and (above all) coordination between colleagues, external stakeholders, and the respective social positionality of all those involved in the product development process. As such, to echo Gillian Tett, product managers and their colleagues need to learn how to see their work as the product of a fluid and distinctly situated social process. As such, a dearth of institutionalised social reflexivity is preventing product development firms from having meaningful conversations about the in-house factors that are, in turn, limiting the overarching impactfulness of their work.              

Conclusion

Not seeing myself and my academic background represented in conventional product manager archetypes is less about the value of incorporating an anthropological sensibility into the product management space, and more about there simply not having been enough concerted effort to make this value apparent to the broader industry. Now, while this manifesto doesn’t account for every conceivable facet of what else anthropologists might bring to the world of product management, it’s a start. As such, I hope that the preliminary ideas herein will encourage other social scientists to continue critically expanding upon these principles. In so doing, we can effectively facilitate the process through which we diversify what kinds of people can become product managers, and thus advance the fundamental work required to improve how product-market fit is strategised for across the product development industry.  


Alexander Spalding, a board member of Human Sciences in Strategy, is a digital health specialist and medical anthropologist. Alex is passionate about integrating knowledge of the lived experiences of patients, caregivers, and care team members into healthcare product innovation work.

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