Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky rocked the product world with his comments at Figma’s Config23 conference. Around 10 minutes into his talk, he announced that Airbnb had eliminated the classic product management function in favor of a model that elevates and empowers designers.
Some audience members seemed confused while others applauded at the notion of the product function falling to the wayside. Heavy discourse followed in the product community across many platforms.
As it turns out, that’s not really what he meant — Airbnb didn’t nix the product management function entirely. It did, however, merge product management and product marketing into a single functional unit.
With a wide range of opinions floating around about what Airbnb’s product restructure means for the PM world, we asked a few product leaders to share their thoughts about the announcement.
Why is Airbnb rethinking product management?
During his talk, Chesky explained his reasoning for the move. In a nutshell, Airbnb leadership is seeking to promote a more cohesive vision for the products and features they develop. If product managers are also responsible for marketing the product, they will naturally become better at talking about it. And, as Chesky put it, “You can’t develop products unless you know how to talk about the products.”
For many product leaders, Airbnb rethinking the product management function is a strategic move. Some say it bridges the gap between design and execution. Others think that instead of bridging gaps, it could unintentionally widen them.
“For product management to truly be successful, collaboration within the trinity (product management, engineering, and UX design) is essential,” said Kimberly Hale, senior product manager at Iterable. “I love my designers, but their skills are in designing beautiful, user-friendly experiences. They are not versed in uncovering user pain points, prioritizing features, and all the planning involved in getting a product out to market. That’s what the product management role is for.”
Haresh Raval, an executive product leader at Newegg who manages both product and design departments, said that the success of Airbnb’s decision will “depend on various factors — including the effectiveness of the new design-led model, the strength of the designers’ skill sets, and how well the organization adapts to the change.”
“Organizations need to carefully consider their specific context, team capabilities, and the dynamics of their industry,” he said, citing many areas in which Airbnb’s new design-led approach to product management may cause some disadvantages — strategic alignment, business perspective, technical feasibility, customer and market research, and more.
“I think the largest factors that play into the PM role are more dependent on the company, the company’s culture, and the stage of the company (startup, growth, or mature) rather than what is happening at Airbnb or in the industry as a whole,” echoed Joel Polanco, senior product leader at Intel.
Other product leaders see the new Airbnb approach as a way to experiment and break bad habits that run in a lot of big product organizations.
Kelsey Nintzel, head of product at Bounti.ai, said, “How do you prevent great ideas from various teams from being squashed before they’ve had an opportunity to be tested in the market? By a leadership team that limits bias for one function’s ideas over others. THAT is what seems the hardest to achieve at organizations large and small.”
Is product management actually going away?
Perhaps Airbnb’s organizational shake-up doesn’t portend a fundamental shift in product management after all.
“To me, it seems that Airbnb is just experimenting with ‘design-led’ to see if it improves their innovation and profitability throughput,” Nintzel said.
Now that the dust has settled, many product professionals have noted that, despite the sensational headlines and spicy discourse around Chesky’s comments, Airbnb isn’t actually eliminating the product management function per se; it is merely adjusting the way their PMs work in the context of their unique organization.
“It was clear that the PM function is only going away by name at Airbnb,” Polanco said. “This recent development highlights the fact that the PM role is versatile and, depending on what company you work at, your PM responsibilities may shift significantly.”
In fact, this shift is probably happening at more companies than we realize; Airbnb just so happened to broadcast it to the world.
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Janna Bastow, co-founder of Mind The Product and ProdPad, posted on LinkedIn: “This whole ‘we’re getting rid of PMs’ is basically just clickbait. That’s not what Brian Chesky of Airbnb actually said anyways, and the discourse around it isn’t taking into account the complexity of product management.
“I think it’s totally fair to reshape the role of your PMs if it makes sense in the context of your organization and your current challenges. It seems that’s all that’s happened here.”
The outlook for product managers
Chesky’s comments made people wonder whether product management as we know it is about to change forever. It certainly gave some product managers pause regarding their job security and the future of the profession.
If other organizations follow in Airbnb’s footsteps, will PMs need to acquire new skills? Should PMs sign up for a LinkedIn Learning course on product marketing to get ahead of what’s expected of them? Although it’s never a bad idea to brush up on existing skills and strive to develop new ones, the short answer is, not really.
Product management has always been a profession of “a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” PMs wear a multitude of hats, acting as or working closely with engineers, designers, customer spokespeople, decision-makers, and more, depending on what company they work for and its unique needs at any given time.
So, how is product management going to change? The answer is subject to various factors and trends.
“I do think that organizations, as they think about their structure and bottom lines, will adjust accordingly,” Hale said. “For instance, design-heavy companies with simple customer bases would likely benefit from a design-led product, technical products might benefit from being engineering-led, but at the end of the day, these teams have very specific skill sets.”
Raval predicted that the PM role might evolve into a more hybrid role “where designers are empowered and elevated within the product development process.” Other types of organizations might see their PMs take on strategic leadership roles, becoming even more data-driven and customer-centric.
“Ultimately, the PM’s focus is likely to remain on delivering valuable and user-centric products, but the specific responsibilities and skill sets required may continue to evolve.”
Nintzel echoed that sentiment: “Every company is looking to fill the void in connecting teams for better collaboration and execution of ideas. I believe that this connective tissue is what PMs will continue to fill, either by connecting product opportunities with technical implementation, or by connecting product opportunities more closely with marketing and CS.”
This attitude has been echoed throughout social media — though the PM role may change slightly as Airbnb piloted for us, the fundamental purpose of a PM will likely stay the same.
“Either way, PMs will continue to serve as the hub of the wheel between functions and either veer more toward engineering or toward marketing,” said Nintzel.
Featured image source: IconScout
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