© Linda Gorchels (2011)
There are two fundamentally different – through related – classifications of product management functions: upstream functions and downstream functions. Upstream functions deal with the strategies of product roadmaps and new product development efforts. This usually includes identifying critical portfolio needs, and then providing marketing leadership throughout the development process up until launch. Downstream functions deal with ongoing lifecycle management. Some medical device and diagnostic manufacturers (in particular) hire separate people for the two job categories. GE Healthcare, for example, has had upstream product managers responsible for global product strategy and launch. The downstream product managers handled the marketing and sales support necessary to manage the profitable sales of products after launch and beyond. Sometimes the downstream product managers are responsible for marketing the products in different countries. Beckman Coulter has similar split positions, but refers to them as strategic product managers and tactical product managers.
The split between upstream and downstream is not consistent across industries, either. For some companies, particularly in highly technical fields, upstream activities end before commercialization, with downstream product managers taking over at launch. And some companies shift from upstream to downstream at the start of a new product project (at the shift from R&D to development). The “best practice” for a company depends on what works best for their specific circumstances. Long development time, heavy regulatory oversight, and/or prolonged testing prior to approvals may suggest an appropriate environment for splitting the product management function into upstream and downstream. Without question, however, the vast majority of companies I deal with expect product managers to handle both upstream and downstream functions.
Upstream product managers must think long-term. Strategic product thinking is a precursor to new-product development because it forces product managers to envision a future that does not yet exist – to lead the market and create products before customers ask for them. This requires a certain level of risk and creativity. Product managers must ask themselves: How will the customers of tomorrow be different from the customers of today? What products/services will these customers expect? What existing capabilities can we expect to use in the future and what new abilities will we need to develop? The emphasis is not on projecting the present into the future. Rather, the emphasis is on trying to understand how the future will be different from the present and the impact that will have on present planning.