Is AI a Threat to Product Managers?

Good news is that Product Managers don’t need to be worried — at least not as yet

Let’s start with what activities Product Managers (PMs) are responsible for and how do they spend time. As per a survey with 2474 PMs, they spend 27% time on strategic activities and 73% on tactical activities; and they believe they should spend 53% of their time on strategic activities.

Source: The 2019 Pragmatic Institute Annual Product Management and Marketing Survey

The reason for spending less time on the strategic activities is neither the lack of skill nor lack of will but rather the unwanted consumption of more time on tactical work.

Interestingly, AI and Machine Learning will solve for repetitive and tactical tasks, thus freeing brain power for strategic thinking.

What AI can do to support PMs?

Provide Insights from Data: Identifying patterns in data wasn’t ever as easy as it is now. Multiple hours of PM time goes in collecting data and identifying patterns. Tools for data collection with AI enabled auto-insights are a boom to making data driven decisions. Companies like Narrative Science, Automated Insights, Tableau are enabling machines to augment humans in making data driven decisions.

Reduce the dependency on Surveys: Product teams conduct surveys for variety of reasons like elicit customer feedback, understand customer needs etc. However surveys come with their own challenges. Average survey completion rate is ~30% and surveys bring with them the risk of people being speculative. AI provides the customer information, product feedback and other much needed information basis real data and hence more reliable.

Eliminate Human Bias: AI helps shift focus from CXOs, VPs or loudest voice to data. However, we need to be cautious to not introduce bias through the Machine Learning models we use. If the models are trained on biased data then we are at a risk of biased decisions by machine.

Automate many Project Management tasks: AI enabled tools like Slack, Jira, Trello and Github have largely automated the project management aspects of a PM’s job. Also these and more tools continue to get richer with their AI Services that lead to less and less time consumed in management.

Does that sound exciting? That is not it. There is more.

Will AI enabled world see a shift in the Top Skills for PMs?

There are multiple sources that suggest the top PM skills to a be a combination of hard and soft skills as listed above. The importance of one versus another varies per the business you are engaged in. For a PM in fintech the domain knowledge for Strategic Thinking maybe way more important than a PM in social media product where understanding the customer needs may be more important. While the needed Top Skills may not change but PMs should be aware about what will change in the AI enabled world to inform them about their up-skilling needs.

Credits: Vishal Rewari, Siddharth Jhawar, Mathivatham Vhallatharasu, Priyank Ahuja, Padmapriya Swaminathan, Bhargavi Dingankar, Surbi Tiwari, Balaji Santhanam, Raunak Bhatt, Ankit Malhotra, Priyank Yadav and Ria Sahay

The changes PMs should expect with the advent of AI:

  • AI will help with Data Driven Decision Making and Prioritisation through cool tools and magical data science.
  • Need to understand technology will increase; engaging with AI demands a significant understanding of AI technology. Best is to start from what AI and ML can do and what they cannot e.g., AI is not suited for the products or areas that demand explainability of decisions whereas AI does wonders through predictions over structured data and natural language understanding.
  • PMs with stronger soft skills may have an edge as AI continues to automate the repetitive and mundane that supports the hard skills; the next era may belong to the creative and empathetic PMs with good relationship management and communication skills.

Overall, AI will free-up PM time to engage in more strategic thinking, engage with customers to understand their needs, master the craft of storytelling to become good product evangelists and boost creativity and experimentation.

Bill Gates once said, “Humans should be worried about the threats posed by Artificial Intelligence.”

Good News is that Product Managers don’t need to be worried; at-least not as yet.

Disclaimer: the views presented are personal and not of an organisation.