What Is Product Management?

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The role of Product Management has become increasingly popular in software product development over the last decade, as the software industry has embraced Lean and Agile methodologies, and with software development becoming increasingly productize’d and consumer focused.  Despite its rising popularity though, the role remains often misunderstood, particularly in relation to the core responsibilities of Product, compared to orthogonal disciplines such as user experience or project management.

Product Is a Strategic Role

Whereas Project Management is responsible for reporting and delivering on a defined plan, PRODUCT MANAGEMENT researches and defines what that plan should be – answering ‘what & why’, Understanding the problem space and how to solve it effectively & meaningfully.  This means understanding market dynamics to know when to enter a market, appropriate competitive positioning, and discovering product-market fit, creating meaningful value for customers.

The History of Product Management

Product Management has its roots in consumer product Brand Mgmt at Proctor & Gamble. Meil McElroy conceived the role in the 1931, in an effort to justify hiring new people, and argued it would be a role focused entirely on one product per manager.  That PM would be focused on understanding the intimate needs of the customers and tailoring a product to suit their needs.  They would be the “voice of the customer” within the organization and have end-to-end ownership of the product.

Overtime, the evolution of iterative processes have informed how to interact with customers, to better accomplish these goals.  In the 1950s, Toyota began to experiment with “Just in Time” manufacturing, which would reduce overhead of expensive warehousing and stockpiling of products that may not ever get used.  By the 1970s, they had tuned these new processes and developed a couple of important philosophies.

The first is Kaizen, which means continuous improvement and is the hallmark of what we know as lead methodology today (build, measure, learn).  The second is Genchi Genbutsu, which means ‘find the facts’, in other words, proactively work with customers to learn what they want and what’s needed.

These philosophies eventually led to the Lean movement that has gripped the software industry since the early 2000s, with Steven Blank’s book Four Steps to the Epiphany, and later, Eric Reis’s best seller, The Lean Startup.  These have become like a bible for modern day Product process, and describe an iterative approach for product discovery and optimization.

The Intra-preneur

Nearly every Product Manager I’ve met, is a closet startup entrepreneur.  Either they’ve previously built a startup, they’re working for one, or they’re planning to do one in the future.  It is only natural, as most Product Managers love building products, and are generalists that understand both the business and how to build a product.  With that in mind, it is interesting to compare the two careers.

Many aspects are the same, to the extent that some even regard the Product Manager as the “CEO of their product”. Personally I find the comparison a bit trite and that ownership often does not exist until you reach the upper ranks of the Product team.  Nevertheless, there is some truth in it.  The differences primarily boil down to appetite for risk and the potential upside.  Much of the day-to-day however can be similar.

Product Management Role In Context

The Product organization represents the market (external or internal), defines the right product to build and when to deliver. UX often is a subset of that Product org. Engineering responds with well-designed solutions. QA often is a subset of engineering, validating acceptance criteria.  The key difference between the Product org and the Engineering Org, is that Product seeks to answer the questions of what to build, why to build it, and when it is needed. Engineering focuses on how to build it and how long it will take.

The Roles of Product

There are many activities that fall under the umbrella of Product, that cluster into a few distinct roles. In smaller organizations, all those activities fall under the role of Product Manager and may even be a single person. But as the Product org grows, breakout roles emerge.

The Technical Product Manager is focusing on executing initiatives, and prioritizing work.  Confusingly (albeit reasonably) Microsoft refers to this role as the Program Manager.  The Product Strategist, sometimes referred to as a Product Planner, focuses on market strategy. User Experience (UX) deals with the human interaction with the system and details such as workflow optimization.  Product Marketing is the outbound evangelism and messaging that takes the Product into the market, driven by the strategy defined by the Product Strategist.

Product Roles & Activities

The Pragmatic Marketing framework has done a good job of capturing 37 activities typically associated with Product Management.  I’ve color coded those activities to illustrate how they typically group by role.  Product Strategy typically deals with the upper-left quadrant and is driven by understanding the market, the right product to build.  In a larger organization this is typically driven by Product Leadership.  Technical Product Management is the bottom left quadrant and focuses on fleshing out tactical requirements and executing on the product strategy.  The Agile Product Owner role is a subset of the Technical product Manager, focused on requirements, user scenarios and maintaining status updates.    Product Marketing meanwhile, is the right half and deals with launch and go-to market activities such as lead generation, channel marketing, and events.  This could be a single person working on a small startup product, or it could be spread across a Product group of 50, in the case of a large intricate platform.

Challenges of Product Management

Product Managers work with multiple groups within the organization in order to bring a product to fruition.  They often know more about everyone’s roles that surround product development than anyone else, yet they’re rarely the best at any of those disciplines.  It is often necessary to act as the ‘glue’ that fills the cracks between disciplines and binds them together to build cohesion and see a product forward.  For that reason however, it is not uncommon to encounter others with opinions or who think they should be the Product Manager.

It is easy to fall into being an ‘order taker’ in such contexts, particularly when interacting with executives or sales teams with strong personalities.  The Product Manager must systematically handle requests, put them into product context, and ultimately do what’s best for the product, and be able to defend that prioritization to those who challenge it.  .

It is also easy to fall into the trap of doing project management, wherein the Product Manager is spending too much time executing process or delivery. It is not uncommon for Product Managers to fill in and provide project management (being the glue) when that function is absent,  but it is important to remember this is not the core responsibility of Product Management. Too much time spent on tactical delivery will detract from the core responsibilities of the Product Manager, and reduce the actual value that Product is suppose to provide to the organization.

Conclusion

The purpose of Product Management is to fundamental ensure that the organization is building the right product, at the right time, for the right customers.  To achieve this, one must have a strong understanding of market neeeds, align with business strategy and  ideally will leverage modern product development methodologies to optimize output and reduce risk. The Product Manager must also resist distractions such as succumbing to orthogonal roles such as project management or obliging to prioritize the wrong features that are not aligned with Product strategy.  Instead, if the Product Manager focuses on the needs of their customers and finds a compelling solution to those needs, creating meaningful value for that customer, then they will have succeeded in creating maximum value for the organization, ensuring the team delivers the right product.