The Myth of the Single Wringable Neck – Episode 2

Show Notes

If you’ve been around Product Management (or are a Product Manager), you’ve either heard the phrase ‘Single Wringable Neck’, or even more, that Product Managers are ‘The CEO of the Product’. We chat about these myths, along with the idea that making and designing products really is a team sport.


Product Outsiders – Ep 2

Product Outsiders – Ep 2

[00:00:00] Will Sansbury: Welcome to Product Outsiders. We’re not product managers but we’re close

In a world awash in MBAs and fancy suits we’re the people standing on the outside , our sleeves rolled up, ready to get some stuff done. We’re not product managers in the way you might think, but we’re passionate about solving problems for real people, in ways to create real value, Whatever you call us, we’re passionate about building great collaborative teams to make incredible products together.

Today’s episode is all about the myth of the single wringable neck and product design as a team sport. Both things might seem simple in concept, but are really hard to master. My name’s Will Sansbury. I’m a user experience designer turned product manager, and I’m here with two wonderful folks.

[00:01:05] Tammy Bulson: Tammy Bulson, I’m an agile coach by day, writer by night.

[00:01:11] Amber Hansford: Hi, I’m Amber Hansford. I’m a UX design manager, former product manager.

[00:01:17] Will Sansbury: I can’t tell y’all how excited I am to talk about this first topic we’ve got tonight. How many times have you heard that the product manager is the single wringable neck, the CEO of the product, the person where all decisions are made and everything stops with them.

Ever since I heard that the first time it really struck me is absolute garbage. You can’t be the person that has all of the responsibility and all of the control because we work in teams. And it takes a lot of people to get a product out there. So I’m curious, have you heard those, what other, uh, analogies have you heard about the product manager role that just make you bristle?

[00:01:52] Tammy Bulson: So Will, that thinking though, the single wringable neck was so prevalent that I was trained that way in my scrum master certification course. They actually did an entire segment on the single wringable neck. Yeah. I’m with you. It, it just can’t be that way. If it is, it creates a bottleneck. We all need to be invested.

A product owner needs that diversity of opinion. You know, they need the different perspectives. Good products are built by people who have different areas of expertise, who all take responsibility. So I’m with you single wringable neck should not be a thing.

[00:02:30] Amber Hansford: I actually grew up in product management with that being the one completely immutable law.

I would look at my teams as we were working on some major initiative. And I’ll be like, if we succeed, we succeed as a team, but if we fail, it’s all on my head. I really internalized it. And it took a solid year of working in a true balanced team in a lean environment to have that hammered out of my head.

[00:03:03] Will Sansbury: What do you think is the origin story of that bit?

Like why do we latch onto this notion? I mean, obviously I think we’re all smart enough to know that when you’re talking about business, if the slogan rhymes, it’s probably not true. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not, not really necessarily going to encapsulate it. But it is, like you both said, it’s there, it’s omnipresent.

This idea that the product manager is like two steps below God. One step being the CEO, and then you’ve got the product manager, why do we have that sort of thing?

[00:03:31] Tammy Bulson: I think it might be because the product owner was the person that was that layer between the people that did the work, you know, the hands on keyboard folks, and then the people who looked at the P and L statement, right? The people who needed somebody to say, yup, it’s on me. We needed a person to pin it on if things went well or didn’t go well. So in my mind, that’s kind of what started that whole single wringable neck thinking.

[00:03:59] Amber Hansford: I think it also comes into play with the fact that when product management really came to the forefront of these big, huge companies kind of embracing it, they don’t always know what to do with product managers. They’re like, yeah, that sounds great. Um, so how do we hold you accountable since you’re not doing anything? You’re facilitating, you’re negotiating. None of that shows up on a spreadsheet.

[00:04:30] Will Sansbury: Yeah, I’m laughing because I just spent a week at the beach with my in-laws where I had a conversation with my father-in-law asking about my new job and what I do and the question he kept asking that he couldn’t get past is, so you don’t make anything? Like, yeah, no, I really, I don’t, but we do collectively. Maybe that’s what’s so hard about it is that it’s easy to pick one person out and say that they’re the one ride or die that’s responsible for the success. It’s so much harder to actually get an empowered team motivated, pushing in the right direction, strategy, clear, really able to go and work together like a level of machine that actually sounds kind of hard.

[00:05:08] Amber Hansford: Nobody who’s done good product management in my opinion thinks that it’s easy. It’s the ones that, you know, look at the shiny title that may not be very clear as to what your day-to-day responsibilities are, they’re like, yeah, that’s cool. I want to do that. Most actual product managers who do their job well, know that is such a hard slog.

[00:05:32] Will Sansbury: The way you said that’s perfect, Amber, because I think one of the things that I’ve always disliked about that notion of the single wringable neck or the CEO of the product is that it tends to attract people who have a very strong butthole gene and their DNA. You know, people who are just drawn to an autocratic way of being who want to be in control, kind of totalitarian authoritarian people.

And that’s not me, you know, even though I love working with people to create products, I’m not wired to be the one shouting orders and demanding compliance. And I’ve never in any of the roles I’ve played in building products, I’ve never wanted to work with those people. So much more fun when you’ve got an ownership stake in what you’re doing, you can know that the people around you feel the same way and you’re working towards that goal together.

[00:06:16] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, you mean like collaboration is a thing and it’s fun?

[00:06:23] Will Sansbury: Exactly it. Yeah. Yeah. I have nothing to add to that. I saw, my other soapbox and I have to climb up onto it for at least a minute here. You know, we’ve talked about single wringable neck, a lot, the CEO of the product. That was the one that I got beat up with the first time I had a product management role that I needed to be the CEO of the product, the CEO of the product, the CEO product.

And it was always being told that by the CEO of the company who was telling me I was doing things wrong. So, you know, you hit that moment and you’re like, well, wait a minute. No, no, no, you don’t have people breathing down your neck telling you you’re doing things wrong all the time. Now, granted yes, CEOs have boards of directors and that sort of thing, but they also actually have executive authority and agency. And at that point in time in that company, I did not as a product manager. So being told to be the CEO of the product was really de-motivating for me. And the other thing that really struck me as like, if you’re the CEO of the company you’re getting compensated and very different and more meaningful ways, than most product managers be compensated, right.

If I was the founder of a startup, I’d be working my butt off, but it’s because I’d have the opportunity to make this product really grow and be incredible and have tremendous benefit for me and my family in the long run. When you’re the product manager, you can a nice base salary and you might have a bonus, but you’re not going to completely change your world by working on it, right? And you see so many product managers who work themselves to the bone, to the point of absolute exhaustion and burnout for what? Why, why do we feel that much responsibility? Why do we, why do we take the negatives of being the CEO of the product? But we don’t demand the positives?

[00:08:12] Tammy Bulson: That’s gotta be absolutely exhausting. And de-motivating. I can’t see anyone raising their hand to say, yep. Oh, I want to be that. I want to do that. I mean, it, things are so much easier if you don’t have to do all the things. If you have a team of people around you to support you and make you better and make your product. Who wouldn’t want that?

[00:08:35] Amber Hansford: I think CEO of the product also to me is a misnomer because you’re not getting that compensation. You’re getting all of those negatives, like you just said, you got to focus on you’re building something that solves the customer’s problem. You’re satisfying a customer need. If you can change that, focus away from that CEO of the product because… Let’s be perfectly honest, very few CEOs know what their customer’s problems are. They may get told, but when you’ve reached that point, unless you’re in like a three persons. You really don’t know those. So when you’re the CEO of the product, if you can shift that, thinking that that is your goal, and that is your purpose versus a lot of folks who like to keep that old saw going of the CEO of the product? They think that the next step is to be a CEO or at least to be put directly into leadership. And I’m like, oh, you got a long way to go, sweetheart. I am so sorry. And that’s only if you actually figure out what you’re supposed to be doing.

[00:09:47] Will Sansbury: Amber, it never, never ceases to amaze me how you can say the word sweetheart. And it comes off this the most threatening and intimidating thing ever.

[00:09:59] Amber Hansford: I try. I try. I mean, I grew up on the “How Nice”.

[00:10:05] Will Sansbury: Just need some sweet tea and some jugs. All right. But you know, there, there is one CEO of the product I can get behind and that would be the chief exploratory officer. There’s so much that matter. So much of this job is really about asking really good questions, getting out there and learning, probing, not taking our own perspective and view as the universal gospel truth of all things, but actually knowing our customers.

Finding out what they need and, and working to, to deliver that for them, which brings us to our next topic design as a team sport. So I know this is one dear to all of our hearts, because we’ve had the fortune of being on a team, working together towards these goals together. What is it that makes design as a team sports, a meaningful concept for us?

[00:10:49] Tammy Bulson: This, and I know that this is where all three of us, our hearts are for sure, but it just makes so much sense to have the team of people that can discover what the customer wants. Someone who can understand our users can collect insight and do some research, maybe help with, you know, do some quick light weight prototypes and user experience type of people.

And then someone that understands, you know, what makes a product valuable, what’s the market like. How can we deliver to not only customers, but to the business too, because we want to solve customer problems, but we need to be profitable while we’re doing it. That’s why we’re doing the thing, so we stay in business. And then someone from the development team, like somebody, a senior engineer or somebody that knows that, yeah, we can build this thing with the technology that we have, or know that that would be huge. We, you know, that’s probably not very feasible. This in my mind, this is the way everyone should build products. This team, as a team sport. Okay. I’ll curb my enthusiasm. Amber, what do you think?

[00:11:57] Amber Hansford: I completely and wholeheartedly agree. I mean, having the, the shared purpose and the shared process and the right people who all believe in it? Uh, you can build amazing things that solve customer problems and are profitable. It’s amazing how those two tend to go very closely together. You know, having a balanced team, I will all the live long day talk about balanced teams as the only way to be successful in a product-led organization. And I also truly believe that every organization who’s going to be successful and knock it out of the park needs to be product led, but that doesn’t again, mean product led in the single wringable neck. It’s the shared purpose of a team sport. Everybody is there to make sure that we’re doing the best by our customers.

[00:12:55] Will Sansbury: Being product led is such a concept that people can get twisted up on very easily, but really it’s about having that mindset of the organization existing to deliver meaningful solutions to the customer. That’s what being product led is. And if you’ve got that, then so much falls into place, right? I do have to ask this question though.

You think about design as a team sport and you can take it a couple of different ways. I’ve actually heard people talk about design as a team sport, meaning that you couldn’t have a UX team of one that you needed to have multiple designers to get any meaningful outcomes. What do you think about that?

[00:13:28] Amber Hansford: You can do great things with one person of each discipline focused on the customer problems. You don’t need design by committee. You can just get that small group that all brings to the table, not only their institutional knowledge, but also their views onto what we actually mean by a customer problem.

[00:13:55] Will Sansbury: So, Tammy, I’m going to put you on the spot here. I’m curious if, to see, if you can tell us a story about a team you’ve worked with that you think fit this bill. A team that understood design as a team sport, being a balanced team, all on it together to serve the customer.

[00:14:11] Tammy Bulson: Yes, it is a rare thing, but I think I worked in a team with the two of you that were doing that. Right? We were out there trying to understand a customer’s problem and discover a way forward and then work together as a team to solve that problem. It was a short period of time, right? That we had the opportunity together to do that. And it really condensed amount of time, but the feeling is almost palpable when you’re doing that type of work and you’re on a team and the energy is there and you’re, you know, you’re reminding yourself to fall in love with the problem. And to find the best solution for the customer. Yeah. It’s just, everybody’s opinion is important. I think it is a rare thing and I think it’s hard to accomplish. It’s hard work to get to that level.

[00:15:06] Will Sansbury: Yeah.

[00:15:06] Tammy Bulson: I think when you’re doing it, you know it because you can feel it.

[00:15:10] Will Sansbury: Absolutely. Amber, so you introduced me to a concept that I have absolutely latched on to and stolen to describe and explain this.

And it kind of takes that ubiquitous venn diagram that we’ve all seen that the three overlapping circles of product tech and design and flips them on the head adds another layer of meaning. So will you tell us about your twist?

[00:15:30] Amber Hansford: I blatantly stole this from somebody’s SlideShare that I saw years ago, I will try for those listening to, to dig up the originator of it.

It may take a little while, so keep track of our socials. Cause it’s been that long. I used to get really annoyed with the Venn diagram because you could always take away one of those circles and it was still a valid venn diagram. Which in turn, made it not a valuable venn diagram.

[00:15:57] Will Sansbury: And what have you, you also noticed with that venn diagram that whatever resides at the center happens to be whatever audience is being taught to.

[00:16:04] Amber Hansford: Yes, yes. That too, when you can swap things out, it makes it completely, you know, useless. I saw somebody present at some point, the idea of taking that Venn diagram and throwing it out the window, making each of those different disciplines that were shown in the Venn diagram into propeller blades, because at the end of the day, you cannot take away one of those blades and still expect the plane to fly.

That just completely resonated with me. And I took it wherever I went. I do very distinctly remember showing this to you and Tammy back when we all work together as just a better explanation. You have a blade that is development. You have a blade that is UX. You have a blade that has product. All of them working in conjunction, will make the plane fly. You take one of them away, plane no longer gets in the air.

[00:17:01] Will Sansbury: And I know we’ve talked about this in a previous episode, you know, it’s such an impactful concept, but what I love about it in this context, we’re talking about design as a team sport, as you think about those old propeller planes, right? The old movies where they would pull the propeller up and pull and throw it down.

[00:17:18] Amber Hansford: Biplanes.

[00:17:18] Will Sansbury: Yeah. Biplanes, thank you. But there’s that moment when you see a biplane gets spun up where there’s this kinetic energy building and the sense of movement that’s about to happen, and then it takes off. Then you’ve got Snoopy chasing the red Baron through the skies.

But at that moment it feels like such a palpable metaphor for that experience of being on one of these balanced teams. When you, you can just feel the energy. You know that what you’re doing is going to matter that this going to drive you forward and that you’re going to find your way off the ground. And if you’re lucky, you’ll land again, right.

I love that analogy. I think it’s so powerful.

[00:17:54] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, and that is the feeling that I was trying to describe. So, yes, perfect.

[00:17:59] Will Sansbury: Awesome. Last thing I want to say about design as a team sport, you know, we’ve, we’ve talked a little bit about meeting the different disciplines there. One of the things that hit me fairly early on with this notion of balanced teams was that sometimes you get a perspective from a place you don’t expect it. So it’s not necessarily that you need a person whose job title is product manager, a person whose job title is engineering, a person whose job title is designer, you just need those perspectives covered. One young engineer we worked with at a previous company who would push the boundaries of design, every chance he got. And he would very often be the one bringing that user-centered perspective into the conversations. So if you’re working in an organization that maybe doesn’t have the funding or the resources to go and staff all of the things you, one of those places where you’ve got a hat rack in the corner of your office, cause you’ve got a swap hat so many times throughout the course of the day, you can still build a balanced team, just look at the capabilities you have out there, figure out who’s covering what and make sure that you don’t have any gaps so that you don’t end up crashing into the ground.

[00:19:04] Amber Hansford: Some of the best product people that I’ve worked with in the recent past, they technically held the title of development manager.

[00:19:12] Will Sansbury: Yeah. When I think of one of the best product managers and I seek to emulate all the time, she was a marketing director. There are people everywhere who are good at understanding this problems, articulating them and motivating people to work together, to solve them.

[00:19:24] Tammy Bulson: And sometimes it’s the person that’s the furthest away from the problem that lands on the best idea, the best solution. I remember being in a situation with you guys, where we did the crazy eights. I had no design ability and I remember someone telling me that’s okay. Sometimes it’s the person that doesn’t, that isn’t the closest that’ll come up with those ideas. That’s hugely true. Well, sometimes you get out of your lane and, and you find the best things there in the other lane.

[00:19:53] Will Sansbury: Thank you both for joining me tonight to talk about this thing that we care so much about, and figuring out how to do day by day through our day jobs and our night passions.

That sounded weird, but we’re grateful for you for you to be here, to listen to this with us, please take a moment, subscribe to our podcast. If you’re interested in hearing more or have a topic you’d like us to cover, check us out at and you can find this on any of the podcast providers.

So with that, we’ll just say Stay Gold.

[00:20:20] Tammy Bulson: See you later.

[00:21:29] Amber Hansford: Stay Gold.

If you've been around Product Management (or are a Product Manager), you've either heard the phrase 'Single Wringable Neck', or even more, that Product Managers are 'The CEO of the Product'. We chat about these myths, along with the idea that making and designing products really is a team sport.


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Closing up Shop

Dear Loyal Listeners and Podcast Guests,

Thank you for your involvement with Product Outsiders. Whether you’ve been a guest on our show, listened to just one episode or listened to them all, we appreciate you.

To everything there is a season, and we’ve decided to close up the podcast to focus on other endeavors. The three of us still have very strong opinions about building great products and anticipate sharing those opinions in other forums, as we can’t help ourselves. It’s just how we’re wired.

Thank you for being on this journey with us. We’ve learned and we’ve had fun – we hope you have too.

Until next time, stay gold outsiders!