The Essence Of Product Management
Defining product management, and the skills & responsibilities of a product manager
This is not the first article about digital product management. During the last year, I’ve read dozens of articles about this subject. Everything I read was also very different. It’s like people can’t agree about what product management actually is. I’ve also visited a ton of companies this past year and each intervention at a company has something to do with managing a digital product. Let me give some examples. I’ve organized or participated in:
innovation strategy sessions with the goal of figuring out what products or services to develop in the medium or long term.
threat modeling workshops with the goal of identifying the crown jewels of a company and its customers to gather knowledge about where to focus security measures.
technology assessments with the goal of aligning the technology strategy (including the key technologies and the people using those technologies) to the digital product strategy
software development process assessments with the goal to build a better product more efficiently.
During all these activities, the same same “product” questions were asked to provide more context:
What problem are you solving and who exactly are you solving it for?
What key product features help the user solve this problem?
What are the alternatives including competitors? Who are your competitors and what key features do they provide to solve the same problem?
What are the benefits of your solution compared to the alternatives? What makes your solution better than the alternatives?
What does the high-level solution look like?
What are the key technologies used as part of the solution?
These seem like easy questions, but companies seem to struggle with the answers. Answering questions about the high-level solution and the key technologies is often easier than answering questions about the problem this is solving and the value it is creating.
I thought, why not give it a try to also express my thoughts about the essence of product management, and the responsibilities and skills of a product manager?
At most companies or at least the ones I visited, product management is an underdeveloped capability. Many are talking about product management but few are actually (really) doing it. This is not a blame, product management is hard to get right since many people are involved in the product management process.
Although most of this article can also be applied to managing physical products, it’s focused on managing digital products.
I’ve also added an additional challenge for myself. I’ve decided not to use any additional fancy tools like ChatGPT (or other large language models). It’s not that I’m against this technology, I love to use it for inspiration and ideation. It’s been a while since I have published something and I want the article to feel imperfectly human. In an age of information overload and limited attention spans, I believe we don’t need additional AI-generated content. I’ve also time-boxed writing this article to two hours. I will view this article as an MVP that I will iterate upon once I gather more feedback and new insights.
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What’s In A Name
Let’s start with a simple definition.
A product manager's responsibility is to bring the business closer to its goals by ideating, developing, and launching products and services that the market loves (and customers want to pay for).
Most often services like training, custom implementations & integrations, and support hours are linked to a digital product. These services might come for free with the product or they might be charged.
In smaller companies or start-ups, the CEO takes care of product management. When there is only 1 product and this is the main revenue generator, it’s very logical that the CEO takes up this role. The CEO is an expert in the problem domain and is the one that is doing the sales and decides how to position the product in the market.
A product manager at a company that’s offering multiple products, can be seen as a mini CEO responsible for the whole lifecycle and value chain of one or multiple products.
In technology companies where the domain of expertise is about technology, it’s very often the CTO that executes the product manager role.
Sometimes the one responsible for the product is called the innovation manager, the R&D manager, or the product owner.
Sometimes the product management capability is scattered all over the place which makes the decision-making process including prioritization of initiatives troublesome.
In established or larger companies, the product manager is a leader without formal authority in the sense that he in most cases does not manage people. He only manages the product.
Establishing Strong Interfaces
While it’s the PM’s responsibility to create innovative solutions to market problems, he depends on a whole bunch of other people to create, develop, and launch successful products to the market. It’s important for the PM to establish strong interfaces with R&D, sales & marketing, the executive team, and customer service.
R&D: The PM knows how to align the technology strategy with the product strategy. He’s aware of the relevant technology enablers and works closely together with the CTO. He provides the R&D team including designers and engineers with problems to solve. He does not provide them with solutions. He fosters collaboration and trusts them given their specialized skills to come up with the best solution to the given problem. The PM makes sure the solution is desirable and feasible. The PM manages these risks by first creating prototypes that can be tested by the market before going all in on a given solution. Managing risk is key to success.
Sales & marketing: the PM makes sure that the benefits and the positioning of the product are crystal clear. He makes everyone aware of how the product differentiates itself in the market and how it is better (different) than the competition and the alternatives. The PM knows how to leverage marketing to verify assumptions about market needs by creating low-fidelity prototypes. The sales team is perfectly positioned to learn about the existing objections prospects have to buying the product. It’s important that this information reaches the PM.
Executive Team: It’s not only enough to build products that are feasible and desirable. The product should also be viable and aligned with the business goals. Without a working business model, the business goals will never be achieved. Simply stated, in the long run, the total revenue should exceed the costs to build and operate the product.
Customer Service: The PM knows that customer service is the best spot to gather valuable customer feedback and insights about how existing customers use the product, what they love about it, and also what frustrates them or poses problems. While it is very useful to look at the reported bugs in the ticketing system, it’s not enough. The PM knows he should create an interface with the customer service representatives to get more insights and hear qualitative feedback that aids the PM to start building hypotheses for product improvements.
Strategy, Alignment & Focus
Although a great PM possesses technical skills, it’s the PM’s soft skills that make the real difference. Using his soft skills, the PM excels at creating alignment and focus:
Alignment: the PM launches and manages initiatives that do not fight but strengthen one another.
Focus: the PM knows how to prioritize and focus on solving problems that have the most potential impact
Creating alignment and focus is the result of developing a strategy and communicating that strategy in an effective way.
Developing a strategy starts by diagnosing the problem to be solved. The strategy is crafted by gathering knowledge and insights about the company’s or team’s current strengths & weaknesses (people, processes, current products, and technologies), and the opportunities and threats in the external environment (market trends & needs, competitors, new technologies).
A product manager is a strategist. Crafting a strategy is a collaborative and cross-functional effort with the product manager as the key figure. It’s not an implementation. It provides a guideline to leverage opportunities and reduce threats. It should ease and facilitate lower-level decision-making and create alignment and focus.
The PM is great at communicating and making people collaborate. He’s an empathetic listener, and he is open-minded. He loves different points of view that help him to collaboratively build a solution with minimal complexity and maximum impact. He knows that a random team of individuals with different specializations is always better than one expensive consultant (that is even great at his job).
When the PM detects misalignment, he uses his communication and negotiating skills to resolve the conflict and steer the ship back in the right direction.
AI and automation help out the PM during the job but his critical thinking skills can’t be replaced by a bot to solve complex problems.
The product manager knows that data is a critical component for building successful products. He knows that automation and AI are enablers for building better solutions and creating more efficient internal processes.
The PM knows that 360-degree company and product data can give him superpowers and that it will allow him to better support his decisions and convince team members about the chosen direction.
Automating the build process through continuous integration, deployment, and delivery help to confidently release software more frequently and create an experimentation culture.
Creating a (semi-automated) feedback loop using the 360-degree company and product data has the ability to further boost the experimentation culture and help to minimize market risk and maximize opportunities.
A product manager's responsibility is to bring the business closer to its goals by ideating, developing, and launching products to the market that customers love. He’s market-focused but he’s also aware when it’s favorable to leverage a specific technology to build a solution. He’s also a master at identifying and assessing risks.
He’s the key figure that enables a diverse team of people with specialized skills to work toward a common vision and solve a common problem. While he often has no formal authority, he is able to lead and motivate teams and individuals.
The PM is a strategist and excels at creating alignment and focus. The product manager is able to establish strong interfaces with R&D, sales & marketing, customer service, and the executive team.
He complements his critical thinking skills with data insights and automation. While he possesses a technical skill set, his soft skills make a bigger difference. He’s an empathetic listener and has great communication, collaboration, and negotiation skills. These skills enable him to navigate complex situations and always find a solution to a given problem.
Love to Hear Your Thoughts
I’m curious about how you think or feel about product management and the product manager role.
What did resonate and what didn’t it?
How does product management work at your organization?
Who’s responsible for the product?
What are the biggest challenges or obstacles when it comes to product management?
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