How We Use Names

Dictionaries are collections of names. They collect the names of all the things we do and say to define them and standardize their usage.

I never used to think of dictionaries that way. When I was younger, especially as I was learning my spelling and grammar, dictionaries seemed not like a collection of words that people use, but as the source of those words. When you needed a word, you just looked in the dictionary. I never thought to think of where the dictionary came from in the first place.

Lots of the words we use are like dictionaries. In retrospect, they seem like the source of something; in truth, the name came after the thing or action it describes.

Take my job title for instance: “product manager.” Today, the function of product management is often defined by what it does. A PM “develops products by: identifying potential products; conducting market research; generating product requirements; determining specifications” etc, etc. This is what you might see on a job description. It’s prescriptive; it defines the set of things a PM is supposed to do.

As a new PM, this was my starting point. I assumed that to be a PM, I should do the things defined in that job description. But as it turns out, this makes a poor definition for the job, because it says nothing of what a PM is supposed to accomplish — there’s no why.

This is a better definition: “The job of a product manager is to help your team (and company) ship the right product to your users.” The things that a PM does fall out of this definition. Sometimes that does mean generating product requirements; other times, it means getting coffee with someone on the team to see how they’re feeling about things. Ultimately, this “why” is the essence of what the name “product manager” means much more than what PMs do.

Just like people were using “google” as a verb before it ended up in the dictionary, people were doing product management long before there was a job called “product manager.” Organizations found a need for someone focused on helping the team ship the right product for their users. Those people tried lots of different things to achieve that goal, and eventually, the work became consistent enough to give it its own name.

It’s only after something is named that we look to the name and its definition as the source of what should be done. This also means that when we’re doing something that has a name, we don’t have to stick to what’s defined by that name. We should know the “why” of what we’re doing and do the things best aligned with that purpose. If that way of doing things is novel and effective, we’ll give it its own name. And, if enough people use that name, maybe someday it’ll wind up in the dictionary.