Product Management 101: What is Product Management?

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    what is product management

    Is product management a job? A career? A discipline? It depends on whom you ask. The landscape is forever changing, yet forever staying the same.

    My Story

    When I started out in product management (quite a few years ago) it was pretty much uncharted territory. Except in consumer packaged goods.

    While being a female with an MBA wasn’t exactly rare, it also wasn’t common. I had successfully run a marketing research department. I had customer knowledge. And several direct reports. Presumably that would be a good foundation for product management. But that was true only to a point. As a product manager with no direct reports, I had to attain my goals through influence. I had to work with all levels and types of people. The entire life-cycle was my responsibility. And I learned not all views of the job were the same.

    Conflicting viewpoints

    Different companies and industries (and people) see things differently. That’s why the number of consultants and books has exploded. And various membership societies coexist. Like the Product Development & Management Association (PDMA). And the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM). Indeed, a search for product management in the LinkedIn Groups yields over 1,000 results. While most groups are quite small, some have thousands of members.

    But product management titles vary

    Not surprisingly, titles and their meaning vary. Some product managers handle strategy and innovation related to upfront activities. Relevant titles include:

    • new-products manager
    • strategic product manager
    • upstream product manager
    • product development manager

    Others are more focused on marketing and sales. They manage positioning and price changes as the product matures and evolves. Titles include:

    • tactical product manager
    • downstream product manager
    • assistant product manager or product coordinator  (although these titles are commonly associated with experience)

    Still others deal with all or some of these activities. They are likely to be held accountable for the business and commercial success of their products.These product managers—with the full gamut of responsibilities—are common in most mid-sized and small companies. (I refer to them as full-stream product managers.)

    The PDMA argues that the main focus should be on new product development. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the focus should be on sustaining customers and profitability. This requires a mix of new products, enhancements, and ongoing management. That’s the essence of full-stream product management.

    Experience counts

    Product management is generally not an entry-level position (except for some technology jobs). Therefore, when there is a need to bring a less-experienced individual into the role, firms may precede the title with assistant. (Assistant and associate seem to be preferred in the United States. Junior is a familiar prefix in Europe.) To get a general gauge of experience for different prefixes, I analyzed LinkedIn data. As a rough guideline:

    • junior product managers typically had 1-5 years of experience
    • assistant and associate product managers had an average of 3-10 years of experience
    • senior product managers generally had more than 10 years of experience

    Product specialists, product coordinators, brand managers and product developers ran the gamut of experience. I found no position where the majority—or even a significant percentage—of the people had less than a year of experience.

    With that in mind, I have therefore used the following definition in my writing and training.

    Product management is the entrepreneurial leadership and management of a piece of business (product, service, product line, brand, segment, etc.) as a “virtual” company. Product managers are generally accountable for the success of this “company” without having direct authority over the functional specialists who “make it happen.”  

    In other words, the product manager’s job is:                                   

    Job of product management

    A ShortRead book on what is product management

    … to oversee innovation, development, marketing, product support and product rejuvenation.Their goal is to provide concrete value to both customer and company.

    Templates, Templates Everywhere … But Not a Stop to Think (Using product management templates)

    I see this happening over and over again. Product managers (and others) shift into firefighting mode, working harder and putting in more hours. In an attempt to simplify their lives they seek out preconfigured templates to make their jobs easier. They fill in the blanks of the templates (sometimes almost mindlessly) and then move on to more ‘urgent’ matters. But did they make better decisions or plans because of the product management templates?

    Do product management templates cause better decisions?

    Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.

    Let’s take a step back to think about what templates are. Historically, templates were patterns or molds used in technical or mechanical work. They guided the effective duplication or reproduction of something. The term was later extended to guide the effective duplication or reproduction of processes, plans, and approaches.

    But if you duplicate the processes of others (including your competitors), are you really creating new successes? True, someone at some time put a great deal of thought into the content and “look” of the template. But does it contain the right set of questions? Does it have the right tenor at the right time for your particular situation? Does it provide you with novel insights? Can you really offload your decision-making responsibilities to a tool?

    Templates may reduce errors of omission

    Templates that help you ensure no critical factors are overlooked can be useful. They can highlight relevant topics and ideas to examine.They can provide a framework to organize your thinking. I admit I often use templates, and I have included many in my books and articles for others to use. But I always caution users to adapt and modify any template to their unique needs. Discard templates that no longer work.

    Templates are just one tool in the toolbox

    Let’s look at the FACTS. There are several tools you might consider in developing and implementing decisions, plans, processes and procedures. Templates are one tool, but there are others. Here are my tool facts:

    product management templatesFlowcharts provide graphic representations (generally using symbols connected with lines) of sequential procedures. They provide visual cues and clues to better understand and follow standard approaches in a process or system. Project management is filled with flowcharts of select paths and overall modus operandi. Stage-gate processes, activity networks (such as critical path and PERT), and other step-by-step operations are examples. Some types of flowcharts, e.g., affinity diagrams, capture information useful as an input into planning.

    Action maps are visual or textual representations of future direction. Longer-term maps, such as technology roadmaps, scenario plans, and portfolio strategies emphasize visionary thinking. Shorter-term maps, such as verbal descriptions of activities, tactics and financials provide more complex details for current-day implementation.

    Checklists are very basic listings of tasks, but can be quite powerful due to their simplicity. Checklists of important standard tasks to be completed prior to a product launch or gate review meeting can reduce the probability of a critical piece of a plan falling short.

    Templates (as already discussed) are generally simple fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Similar to checklists they help minimize the chance of a product manager overlooking an important element of a plan. However, also as mentioned above, it’s important they aren’t used as a substitute for adequate examination of data during the planning process.

    Schedules, the last item in the FACTS toolbox, are essentially annotated calendars with specific individuals assigned specific dates to complete required activities. As such they are necessary for assigning responsibility and deadlines for implementation of plans.

    Different tools serve different purposes

    While any of these could be used at any point in the planning process, flowcharts and

    product management templates and tools

    action maps are most useful for analysis and process. Checklists, templates and schedules are important tools for compliance (with internal requirements) and implementation.

    All of these tools serve a purpose. However, they are worthless without the discipline to act on them. Regardless of the template or tool(s) used, always take the time to stop and THINK.