Blog post

Socially Responsible Product Manager’s Manifesto

By Aapo Markkanen | September 16, 2021 | 2 Comments

Tech and Service ProvidersProduct Leadership

In our recent Maverick* Research: How Product Management Drives the Demise of Digital Giants in Three Acts [paywalled], Barika Pace and I envision a future where the digital economy has collapsed like King Ozymandias and his once invincible kingdom.

It’s a story of how the vicious cycle of filter bubbles, bias and and polarization — owing to certain Big Tech constituents’ addiction to hyperengagement and excessive personalization — puts the digital economy’s network effects in reverse and causes an almighty global mess. If you allow another gratuitous literature reference for further synopsis, in our story the self-indulgent Atlas doesn’t shrug, but rather shoots itself first in the foot and then drops the ball. I concede that we had a lot of fun drafting it.

For those who are not familiar with it, the Maverick program is where we Gartner analysts publish our more unconventional insights and positions, unconstrained by our usual, consensus-driven trademark research process. First and foremost, they are meant to provoke new thinking and fresh perspectives among our clients. Over time, many of such ideas often find their way into our mainstream research — or “the Borg”, as you may sometimes hear it being affectionately referred to.

What Barika and I put forward as the way out of the looming collapse is socially responsible product management. The way we see it, today’s tech industry is shaped by several ingrained bad practices that it should finally start growing out of. The infantile Move Fast and Break Things mindset needs its own grown-up Pottery Barn rule: If It’s Not Yours and You Break It, You Fix It.

That growth will start happening when enough people who hold influence over how tech products are built and managed start questioning the infallibility of the industry’s established belief system.

Think of tenets such as customer experience, strategic laser focus, and data-driven decision making. Taken to extremes, all those can have extremely harmful social and societal consequences.

If a product organization makes no concrete effort to mitigate, or even understand, such consequences then its approach to product management cannot be considered socially responsible. We want to see fewer of those organizations.

To illustrate the sort of mental shift that we are calling for, see our ten-point Socially Responsible Product Manager’s Manifesto and its accompanying juxtapositions:

  1. Digital products disintegrate withoudigital ethics. Build a lasting foundation for your product by incorporating digital ethics into your code of conduct — rather than leaving them open for individual interpretation.
  2. Not all product engagement is constructive and desirable. Break the chain of hyperengagement by treating your users as humans to be respected — rather than subjects to be endlessly nudged and manipulated.
  3. Your insights are only as good as the representativeness of your data. Ensure that the data you rely on reflects the full demographics of your market by critically reviewing its representation — rather than assuming that what you see is always what you get.
  4. Market impact is not the only kind of impact your product may have. Protect society from your product’s negative externalities by conducting a societal impact assessment — rather than hiding behind the dogma of customer centricity.
  5. Assessments count for nothing without meaningful action. Determine how your product can contribute to the corporate values by following through on the impact assessment and making the necessary trade-offs — rather than reverting to purpose-washing.
  6. Diversity in decision making is an antidote to unforeseen consequences. Future-proof your decisions by building diverse, equitable and inclusive product teams — rather than echo chambers of group thinking and management speak.
  7. Diversity, equity and inclusion are undermined by enormous systemic barriers. Drive systemic change in the demographics of your company and your profession by hiring for skills, potential and drive — rather than for signaling effect, social capital and cultural fit.
  8. Everybody follows and acts on incentives. Empower your product teams to behave ethically by rewarding them for doing the most positively impactful thing — rather than for doing merely the most productive or innovative thing.
  9. Attitudes and practices — good and bad — spread between organizations. Set an example for your partners and competitors by advocating more socially responsible and ethical product management — rather than parroting conformist orthodoxies.
  10. There are things bigger than your company, your product and your job. Be the last line of defense for socially responsible product management by challenging objectives that compromise it and quitting if all else fails — rather than defaulting to your careerist mode.

For the lack of a better term, that is still an MVP. We hope to engage with well-informed and well-intended individuals in the profession to develop it further.

Join the fight.

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2 Comments

  • I applaud the intent and this as the starting point. Point 4 and Societal Impact is critical. Digital and broader developments in business implicitly follow Friedman in taking financial or shareholder value as the only real goal and metric. Amazon focused on customer satisfaction in the short-term en route to the long-term. We are in the present calamitous position because of these narrow goals. Societal impact must weigh and measure the effects beyond shareholders or even customers, on employees, fans and critics. partners first; and then on neighborhoods and communities.

    I will follow your development with interest.

  • Aapo Markkanen says:

    Thank you for the comment, Stewart. The emergence of stakeholderism (with its different versions) is definitely an interesting trend in this context, and I think it many forms it can drive positive change top-down.

    At the same time, I also believe that greater social responsibility in tech can also be reinforced at the grassroots. By making impact an explicitly addressed part of their work product teams kind of force themselves to handle societally relevant aspects – positive or negative – more intentionally. And somehow making a negative impact can become much harder if you have to do so with your intentions clearly stated.