In Search Of A Metaphor

In a recent post, Saeed got me thinking (as he usually does) — this time, though, about something I’d said, about a metaphor I used in a presentation to describe product management to people unfamiliar with the practice.

It was about grease and glue. In context, it works, but I can see its limitations. And, well; it’s kind of gross. So, I went in search of other options…

Product Manager: Mini-CEO Of The Product?

You hear this one a lot.

I disagree with this metaphor, partially because of the issues that Ivan and Adam cite.

But mostly because “mini-CEO” makes me think of:

And, while I’m many things, I am not an ersatz caricature of a real CEO.

Product Manager: Parent, Raising A Family?

I like the picture that this metaphor paints:

Love, conflict, advice… but this one falls short, too, because… well… it’s a little patronizing, frankly. And don’t even get me started on comparing “business” to “family”.


If being a product manager isn’t exactly being a mini-CEO… nor raising a family… nor grease and/or glue… then it’s… what? Working in a kitchen? Punk rock? Cat herding?

There’s some truth to all these things, but none of them individually sums up what we do in a satisfying way.

And Then It Hit Me

It was so obvious.

What do we do?

We analyze market data to make intelligent decisions… chart the course… and pilot the product toward its intended destination.

We’re captains.

And what are captains?


Skilled tacticians…

Who keep it together when waters get rough…

Drive the ship & crew forward, even into uncharted territory…

And fight like hell to achieve goals and objectives.

Is It A Perfect Metaphor?

Maybe, maybe not.

But is it something I can believe in? Aye, aye, captain.

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20 thoughts on “In Search Of A Metaphor

  1. In Search Of A Metaphor by @chriscummings01 images of what is #prodmgr #prodmgmt (love the Anne Bonny ref…)

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. Chris, I like where this landed. I was actually fond of your “grease and glue” metaphor (I’m not easily nauseated) and have used it to excellent effect in some conversations, but I get that its marketability might be limited.

    So a captain, eh? Given that we must typically lead by example, persuasion, and charm, (rather than force of will), I’m thinking we’re more Picard than, say, Hook.

  3. @Chris:

    It’s hard to find a concrete metaphor (is there such a thing?) for Product Managers because our roles are so diverse. Certainly the aspects of being a captain that you highlight apply to being a PM, but captains in any form have EXPLICIT authority, which is something that Product Managers almost NEVER have.

    There are those Product Managers who become captains due to some aspect of their expertise or who have the ear of someone in the organization who does have explicit authority or who are “appointed” captain, but as a general metaphor, I don’t think this fits with the typical Product Manager.

    I don’t really have an alternate to propose. My example of COO as a better metaphor isn’t perfect, either. Maybe we’re all just utility players…good at many things, great at a few, and master of none.

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  5. Chris, thanks for the call out. Now if you extended this exercise and came up with metaphors for other roles (Sales, Marketing, Project Manager, Development etc.) what would they be?

    Or would one even need metaphors to explain them?


  6. @Saeed –

    The more traditional business roles, I think, are well-established in our culture so they don’t really require metaphors to explain them. But you could definitely use metaphor to extract more value or change someone’s thinking about those roles.

    For example, “Metaphorically Selling” describes sales in terms of fishing–the type of bait you use, the location you fish at, the equipment you bring, the size and kind of fish you’re seeking… all of those things can help get a point across that otherwise might not be evident.

    – Chris

  7. I tend to agree with this metaphor as well. But in a company I once worked for, the Product Management function was a resource into a larger team under a Program Manager. At that point, the metaphor fell apart for me and I had to modify it to Navigator. I hated this seeming downgrade at first, until I really started thinking about how much of our focus is spent in making sure we get our entire team to the right location. With every functional area I worked with, I would find most of my advice and guidance centering around where we need to go and the best way to get there. It was not always my responsibility to manage every area in the ship, but it was always mine to make sure everyone knew where we were going.

    What do you think?

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