Not a day goes by where the topic of product management doesn’t surface in our current digital landscape. For many of us, product management encompasses many things. Where did the concept of product management come from and what is its value?
As Martin Eriksson describes in The History and Evolution of Product Management, the profession emerged in response to a need identified by those at Procter & Gamble, and later implemented by Hewlett-Packard, to put decision making in front of the customer by having product managers be the internal “voice of the customer”. These concepts of being customer-centric, brand vertical and lean in thinking are all attributed to ideas as far back as 1931 (or possibly even earlier).
Product management, while initially thought of as part of the Marketing department and more recently as an Engineering function, is now considered ubiquitous throughout organizations and is often considered stand-alone. Ironically, the independent nature of how product management operates has more to do with its necessary intersections across key business activities than anything else.
What Product Management Is
Product management means many things to many people. For the purpose of this article, we are talking about the context of software development, where a product is an application (web or mobile), an online service, or a website that users interact with. A product manager focused on software development may be responsible for an entire system or part of a system.
In order to describe what product management is, we should briefly discuss what it is not. Product management is not program management and it isn’t product marketing; it is a business function focused on deriving maximum value from products in the market and it is both strategic and tactical.
In the software world, it is also a technology function. Understanding how products can be delivered and having the skill set to interact with developers constructively is a critical component to being successful in the role.
Product management also has a function in user experience, as digital products that consumers interact with require a deep understanding only gained through user feedback and testing. User experience and the usability of a product tie back to the requirements, design and delivery of the product itself.
Why Product Management Is Needed
Product management is a key function that works across various stakeholders in an organization, helping to ensure priorities across company goals, customer demand and competition are balanced. This is one of the reasons product managers are needed in both startups and enterprises, across industries, and during new and existing product development.
As new features and functions need to be decided and prioritized, it is the product manager’s role to facilitate effective conversations in accordance with the product roadmap. Deciding what to implement based on strategic goals and customer needs and wants is a necessary function best handled by product management.
In fact, as more and more companies become innovation-focused, the role of product management has become a key differentiator in the success of those organizations. The following are a few key ways product managers deliver successful products in innovation-focused companies:
Identify Target Market Needs
Developing the wrong features and functions in any product or service often leads to failure. As this research article from CB Insights points out, one of the key drivers in startup failure is not understanding market needs which has contributed to the demise of roughly 42% of new businesses.
Product managers are not only skilled at identifying user needs, organizations that empower product managers to spend a good portion of their day interviewing customers are succeeding at a faster rate by delivering products that are usable and valuable to the market they serve.
Keep Focus on Core Business Strategy
Every successful product or service needs to be focused on its core strategy and product managers are responsible for being in tune with the business strategy by sharing meaningful input at an executive level.
Product managers who not only invest time in the market but ensure products align to the core business can be more certain that what is being developed has characteristics and intended uses that position the product – and the organization – for success.
Champion Lean Product Development
Organizations that over invest time and money without iterating and testing the impact of development as they go lose sight of the big picture. Innovation requires focus and conservation of resources, which is exactly what lean product development provides.
Product managers well versed in lean principles know how to deliver “just enough” in terms of value to realize gains. They are also able to re-use knowledge in effective ways that minimizes time through the product development lifecycle. By testing ideas in a coordinated, strategic fashion, success in a target market can be realized faster.
A Product Organization Mindset
Organizations that employ a product organization mindset are those that believe in open and transparent communication, empower their product managers to conduct user research and product discovery, understand that a roadmap should be flexible yet align stakeholders and hold them accountable to their respective commitments, and support the testing and measurement of the products and services being developed.
Further, a product organization mindset brings the product management function early to the company’s life and ensures the proper product management resources are brought on as the company scales and grows. Having product managers work outside of their core area or become a bottleneck is not only detrimental to feelings of success, it hinders the important work product managers are doing by reducing effectiveness and impacting downstream teams.
To help combat this common issue, some experts believe product management should be seated at the executive level. As Saeed Khan points out in this article from Pragmatic Marketing, “While a good individual contributor can certainly help a company avoid common mistakes, an experienced executive can help drive the company forward and accelerate success.”
Product managers are valuable in today’s workplace because they manage a product’s lifecycle, taking ideas from the executive level and creating a strategy and guiding the execution of the product to market. Products today are the lifeblood of many companies, all of which require continuous innovation to stay competitive.
By positioning product management as a strategic function with executive level decision-making, a mindset is created that influences an organization to identify trends, focus on the market, and ultimately balance today’s sales with tomorrow’s investment.
If you are interested in learning how product management can help your organization innovate, or have ideas on how to make the value of the profession stand out, please get in touch.
About The Author
Shelley Iocona is a product strategist helping startups and enterprises innovate. Her approach to building great products is based on the belief that ideas should be validated using a lean approach before development begins, and that having the right team is pivotal to a company’s success.
Before founding ON ITS AXIS, Shelley held leadership roles at companies like Outcast Media (now Verifone Media), Yahoo, Connexity (formerly Shopzilla/Bizrate), and DIRECTV, and led product strategy and lean product development for numerous start-ups and incubators.
ON ITS AXIS is a full-service consultancy consisting of technical, business, marketing and product strategists.