What Exactly *IS* Product Management, Anyway?

What Exactly *IS* Product Management, Anyway?

Trying to come up with a single, global definition of what “Product Management” is and what it incorporates, often seems like a massive exercise in folly. Wikipedia describes Product Management as “an organizational lifecycle function within a company dealing with the planning, forecasting, or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle.” And, while that is an entirely accurate statement, it’s also completely useless to those of us who have taken a role in a company that calls itself by that name. Looking further afield, you’ll find others who claim to have a definition that’s both specific and useful. Consider the following:

  • Pragmatic Marketing: “Product Management is the messenger of the market.”
  • AIPMM: “Product management is the cross-functional discipline within a product development organization responsible for managing a product (a tangible good or intangible service) throughout all phases of its lifecycle.”
  • Marty Cagan: “The job of the product manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.”

Some of these are better than others, but to me all of them fail to capture the practical side of what exactly it is that a Product Manager does, and why it’s important to a business to have a professional PM in that role. To that end, I’ve coined the following definition of Product Management, that I’ve polished and updated over the course of my years in the profession:

“Product Management is a multi-disciplinary role that guides the strategic and tactical efforts of a product to ensure that, in the end, a marketable product is delivered to the end user. Their primary purpose is to gather market intelligence, perform customer research, translate customer ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ into requirements, and occasionally to shepherd those requirements through to delivery.”

Wow, that’s a mouthful! But, it’s easily broken down into some easily-understood component parts:

  • Product Management is multi-disciplinary. There isn’t one specific skill set that prepares someone to be a great Product Manager. Rather, it’s a combination of a variety of different skills, all combined in one role, that makes a successful Product Manager. The various disciplines might include user experience design, software development, information architecture, sales and marketing, negotiation, public speaking, entrepreneurship, and many, many others. In some ways, Product Management is the home of many “Jacks of all trades” – though by being such they master the trade of Product Management.
  • Product Management is both strategic and tactical. Most roles in a business can be pretty clearly classified as either a primarily tactical role (sales person, software developer, customer support phone representative), or a primarily strategic role (CEO, Director of Engineering, Sales Manager). Product Management is a sort of odd duck here, in that it really is a role that has to constantly find a balance between both the strategic vision that the company and/or product is seeking to make happen, and the tactical needs to get things done that are sometimes contrary or counter to that progress. Product Management requires someone that can balance their view of the “forest” and their view of the “trees” – focusing too much on one or the other is extremely risky for this particular role, whereas others in the business can often do so without any major risk.
  • The goal of Product Management is a marketable product. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good a Product Manager you are, how bad a Product Manager you are, or whether or not you’re loved by your developers, your marketers, your sales people, or even your CEO. What matters is whether or not you’re delivering a product that is “marketable”. What matters is whether or not you’re solving problems that are actually valuable and important enough for your customers to buy and use your solution. What matters is whether or not you’re solving those problems in a way that is effective, efficient, and delightful to your customers. What matters is the user.
  • Product Management cannot occur in a vacuum. The answers to your problems generally do not exist within the four walls of your office. The problems that you need solve generally do not exist within the four walls of your office.  Your customers usually do not live within the four walls of your office.  Do you notice a pattern here?  To be a good Product Manager requires that you get outside your office and actively engage with your customers to discover both the apparent and latent needs that they have, and that others in your market has. You need to actively watch what your competitors are doing, and analyze why they are making whatever moves they are making.  You need to step outside what you “know” and what others in your company “know” and evangelize the voice of the customer.  You need to collect objective data to battle the subjective beliefs of those around you.  You need to get outside.
  • Product Management is about translation. The biggest problems that any Product Manager encounters are usually related in some way, shape, or form to “translation”.  Whether that’s translating what you hear from your customers into defined market problems, translating those market problems into proposed solutions, translating your proposed solutions into requirements, or even translating between different stakeholder groups to ensure that they’re all of the same page, there’s a lot of translation going on.  This means that you have to be at least passingly familiar with the different languages that all of these people speak.  Your customers don’t speak the same “language” as your developers; your CFO doesn’t speak the same “language” as your sales team; your support representatives don’t speak the same “language” as your services organization — but you have to be able to work effectively with all of these people, and to communicate with each of them in a way that makes your vision and your goals as compelling to them, both individually and as a team.
  • Product Management is a shepherding job. There are going to be a lot of cats that need herding in your daily role as a Product Manager — and it’s going to be your “job” to do so, even when it’s not your “job” to do so.  Product Management is often a role with a ton of responsibility and very little direct authority.  It’s more often than not about managing through influence, not position — people aren’t going to listen to you just because you’re the Product Manager (in fact, it’s often the case that you’ve got a bullseye painted on your chest instead), they’re going to listen to you because they respect you and the job that you do, as well as the things that you do for them.  A lot of the day-to-day business of Product Management is like a poker game being played with social capital – you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em, walk away, or run.  You’ll have to intervene in discussions that have nothing to do with your job; you’ll have to work more closely with some developers than others because they need the hand-holding; you’ll find some sales people who will never stop making promises that you can’t keep.  But at the end of the day, you’ll have to deal with all of this and more, without any position power to back you up.

It is definitely a lot to swallow, but so is Product Management — and, depending on the company and the department or division, it could be that you’re required to cover all of these bases at once, or you may have resources that you can depend on to be delegates for some or all of these job functions.  If, for example, you have an in-house services team that actively uses the product that you’re in charge of, they can be used as a proxy for the customer some of the time (beware the risk of relying solely on them as representing your customers, though!).  If you have a strong project management team, then you’re going to spend a lot less time in the weeds of the delivery of your solutions than you are on the definition and strategy.  A great Product Manager identifies those people and groups within the company that can provide this kind of support, and leverages their knowledge, customer contact, and organizational affinities to make the Product Manager’s job that much easier.

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