Anthropologists are often unique individuals. Most are naturally curious and often obsessed with getting to the root cause of human problems. These traits led many to the exoticness of anthropology in the first place, but it is also why anthropologists make great product managers.

If you are trained in anthropology and enjoy defining problems and solutions, researching consumers, leading cross-functional teams, and making a dent in the world, then you may want to consider product management.

The History of Product Management

The concept of product management as we think of it today got its start in advertising, where one person was tasked with the responsibility of managing all aspects of a brand. This person, the brand manager, was meant to oversee everything from design and copy through launch and was accountable for the success of the brand.

In the 1990s, as the tech sector started to scale, companies such as Microsoft began to leverage the concept of product management to fill a gap between engineering and other functional units in the business. The goal, like in years earlier, was to create a role that would be responsible for owning all aspects of the product development process, including its success.

This role took on the name product manager instead of brand manager, and our modern concept of product was born.

But What Does a Product Manager Do?

Product management is a function within many modern organizations but is most notably present in the tech sector, where it is referred to as digital product management. Digital, in this sense, implies a software product that the product manager owns.

A product manager’s role is comparable to that of the CEO. In fact, they are often called mini-CEOs because of their responsibilities to the product mirror the responsibilities the CEO has to the entire organization.

Summarized, a product manager coordinates the research, design, strategy, engineering (operations management), and marketing functions to build, launch, and scale software products. To this end, they are not managing the people, as much as the process.

Overcoming the Challenges of Product Management

Some people in the industry like to joke that product management is akin to herding cats, and in many organizations, it is. While that is unfortunate, the truth is leading cross-functional teams is hard work, and understanding consumers is even harder. Why wouldn’t it be? We are talking about various stakeholders with different beliefs, languages, rituals, work practices, needs, and goals.

But have no fear, while this may be maddening to product managers who graduated from roles like design or engineering, it is a treasure trove for you as an anthropologist.

Not only do you get to play a role in consumer and user research, but you will also have the opportunity to conduct an ethnography of the workplace. And even if you don’t overtly make that public, understanding the needs and motivations of your team and the departments they represent will help you succeed in the role.

Furthermore, since product managers are responsible for internal and external stakeholders, they also represent the voice of the customer and lead the process by which that voice gets converted into products to address needs. This is powerful, and when executed well, has the opportunity to change consumers’ lives and, ultimately, society.

As a product manager, you will lead the process of mediating between stakeholders of different cultural backgrounds to develop a product and create change. In this sense, product managers are the ultimate culture brokers in product organizations, and who better than an anthropologist to fit that role.

What Anthropologists Bring to the Table

In case you are still not sure if you should consider working in product management, let’s reflect on the anthropological toolkit and why that can make anthropologists excellent product managers.

  • Culture: One would be amiss to discuss the assets of anthropologists without first mentioning culture. But our version of culture is not the watered-down version in HR or organization management books. It’s the original concept that appreciates and seeks to understand everything that stakeholders think, do, and produce.
  • Holism: We compare and contrast all of the dimensions of stakeholders we are researching and working with, be that consumers or coworkers. We like to zoom in and out and work across time and space. Everything is in play, and that helps us to build a more accurate, though complex understanding of the problem space. But this type of understanding is exactly what helps us to develop products that solve real needs.
  • Ethnography: Our primary method of research. Not to be confused with the “ethnography lite” you so often see in organizations today. Anthropology’s ethnography is situated in the context of social theory, and because of that, it helps us to better understand the root causes behind what we are observing. By using ethnography to understand consumers as well as our workplace, we develop an understanding of the market and our organization that enables us to make better product and organizational decisions.
  • Emic & Etic: We understand the concepts of emic (from within) and etic (from the outside). This knowledge, paired with our ability to navigate between these states, helps us to dive deep and develop an insider perspective, but it also allows us to back out for analysis purposes. This lens enables us to develop a rich understanding of consumers and our coworkers from their point-of-view while situating our findings in the broader context, thereby supercharging our analysis and decision making abilities.

For all of these reasons, anthropologists can make great product managers.

If you are either an anthropologist looking to get into product management or a hiring manager looking to understand better why anthropologists are a great fit, feel free to contact me.