A Brief History of Product Management
Product management originated sometime in the early 20th century. At that time, industrial companies focused on mass production and efficiency. As competition increased, companies realised the importance of understanding customer needs and preferences. This led to the birth of market research departments responsible for collecting and analysing data on customer needs and preferences, which they used to inform product decisions.
In the 1930s, Procter & Gamble introduced the concept of brand management. These brand managers were responsible for creating product strategies, conducting market research, and managing the entire lifecycle of their assigned brands.
The role of product management continued to evolve through the 20th century. In the 1950s, IBM introduced the concept of the "product planner," which was responsible for defining product requirements and coordinating the efforts of different teams involved in product development.
The 1980s marked a shift towards a more customer-centric approach to product management. The focus was no longer solely on the technical aspects of the product but also on understanding user needs and delivering a great user experience. This led to the emergence of user-centered design principles and methodologies.
The rise of the internet in the 1990s brought about new challenges and opportunities for product managers. With the advent of e-commerce and online services, product managers had to navigate a complex landscape of rapidly evolving technologies and changing customer expectations. This necessitated a deep understanding of the products' technical and business aspects.
And the role has kept evolving since then.
What is product management
Product management is tricky to define in a sentence or a paragraph primarily because every practitioner defines it differently.
That said, a few core aspects of product management are always the same irrespective of the company, industry, team size, product type, and team.
At its core, product management is:
- understanding customer's needs
- identifying pain points of the users while meeting the needs
- building solutions to reduce the pain
- Also create value for the business, while doing the above
Doing this consistently over an extended period is what product management is primarily about.
While this definition is the most authentic representation of the role, it is vague.
The exact definition applies to any role and function in a company.
In this article, I will explain the "real" meaning of product management and how a PM can stay true to the meaning.
Let's dive in.
What does a Product Manager do?
To summarise, a product manager's job is to consistently create value for customers while capturing value for the business.
To make this happen, a PM has to go through four broad phases (with a few sub-phases). Each phase has specific deliverables associated with it, and it is the PM's responsibility to do everything that is required to deliver the deliverables.
The four phases of product management:
Phase 1: Planning, which includes
Phase 2: Alignment
Phase 3: Execution
Phase 4: Measuring and Improving
Here, you can see the four phases. Please note that these phases are circular or repeating in nature i.e. you will keep going in the same loop over and over again.
Before we move on, I will say this:
- The right way to think of what you do as a PM is to focus on the deliverables or the outcomes of each phase.
- Once you understand the outcomes, you must identify the tasks and the actions you must take to ensure each outcome is met or deliverable is delivered.
- The actions that you identify will form the core of your responsibility.
In this article, I will help you understand the meaning of each deliverable so you have the knowledge to identify and create your responsibility areas.
Let's dive in and understand the phases -- what they are, why they are essential, who leads them, and the deliverables for each.
Phase 1: Planning
This phase includes two different aspects. Each aspect focuses on answering a few critical questions
- Where are we headed?
- How will we get there?
What milestones do you aim for to get there?
In the planning phase, critical stakeholders get together and create a plan to answer vital questions that define the direction of the company and the product. It primarily involves thinking, researching, and analysing. There is very little doing in this phase. The doing kicks off in the "Execution" phase.
It is important to note that each phase/aspect has a primary owner who is responsible to get the group to the intended outcome. But getting there is always a joint effort (as we'll learn today.)
Before moving on, you should know that answers to the above three questions (Where, How, What) are commonly known as the Vision, Strategy, and Roadmap, respectively. Here is a visual that explains it better.
Phase 1.1: Vision statement
The vision statement is meant to show where the company wants to be if it had all the resources in the world. The vision is intentionally broad, overarching, and ambitious.
The ideal outcome from the vision to get a clear and inspiring long-term goal for the organisation. This long-term goal guides in decision-making and building a shared sense of purpose among employees.
Here are some of my favourite vision statements to help you put things into perspective.
- Airbnb: Create a world where anyone can belong anywhere
- Amazon: Be Earth’s most customer-centric company
- Coinbase: Increase economic freedom in the world
- Doordash: Grow and empower local economies
- Dropbox: Design a more enlightened way of working
- Figma: Make design accessible to everyone
- Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
- Meta: Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together
- Microsoft: Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more
- Netflix: We want to entertain the world
- Slack: Make work-life simpler, pleasant, and more productive
- Snap: Empowers people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together
- Stripe: Increasing the global GDP of the internet
- TikTok: Inspire creativity and bring joy
- Uber: Reimagine the way the world moves for the better
Who creates the vision statement
In a typical tech and product company, the vision statement is jointly created by the senior leadership including the CEO, founders, and members of the executive team. They aim to capture the company's long-term aspirations, which typically has a time horizon of 5 to 10 years or even more.
When formulating a vision statement, leaders often contemplate the broader impact they aspire to make in their industry or on society, while also considering the unique strengths and capabilities of their company. It's a process that requires a deep understanding of the company’s core values and a forward-looking perspective on the industry's trajectory.
Most product managers are usually not involved in crafting the vision. However, it is important for them to understand it because it impacts almost every aspect of what they do (as we will see in this article.)
Vision statements tend to remain stable over time to ensure there is a consistent direction for the company. It might change on the rare occasion when there's a significant shift in the company's goals, market conditions, or in response to unforeseen opportunities or challenges.
Phase 1.2: Strategy
The primary motivation behind crafting a product strategy is to outline how the company plans to achieve its business objectives and fulfil its vision through the product. A good product strategy includes many vital aspects, which are detailed below.
The time horizon for a product strategy can vary widely depending on the nature of the product and the market. Still, it generally covers a medium-term period, ranging from 1 to 3 years.
Product strategies are typically created, changed, and updated regularly to respond to changing market conditions, feedback from customers, and learnings from product performance. Unlike vision statements, product strategies may see more frequent updates, often annually or even more frequently if needed.
Who creates the product strategy
Creating the product strategy is a collaborative task led by the Product Leader (typically the CPO) in partnership with other product leaders (Directors, VPs, GPMs) and cross-functional team heads (like engineering, design, marketing, and sales.)
It is essential to know that there is no "perfect" product strategy. Hence, the goal is not to be perfect but to create a strategy that meets the intended goals and everyone can understand and agree to.
Important aspects of product strategy
Goals and success
I always include this section in my strategy document. The goal of this section is to clearly define the metrics that will measure the progress we'll make towards the overall goal.
In this section, I answer two questions:
- Which potential user segments exist?
- Which one(s) should we target and why?
The answers to the above questions are very critical to the success of this planning phase. All subsequent strategic decisions are derived from the above answers. If we get these answers wrong or omit this section, the entire strategy can go for a toss.
Secondly, this section provides everyone with clarity on which user we're targeting. So when they create their team's strategy, they know precisely the user they should think of.
Customer needs and pains
In this section, I discover the target user's needs, how they meet them today, and how the product can improve the process. (This process -- of finding the user's needs and pains -- is also called product discovery.)
The pains we discover in this section will inform the problems that we will focus on while trying to create value for the users. It is essential to get this right, even if it takes a long time.
Market (competition, industry, trends)
In this section, unlike all others, the focus is outwards. Here, I aim to capture relevant industry, competitive, and market trends that we should know or leverage.
SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)
This section is a mix of internal and external analysis, and it summarises the SWOT for the product based on everything we know about our users, goals, and the market.
This section allows me to align our goals and focus areas towards our strengths and to decide if we should focus on any other areas from the "WOT" of the "SWOT".
Focus / big opportunity areas
This section is a summary of all of the above. Here, I list the most important and the highest-impact problems that we should focus on based on all the data, evidence, and research shared in previous sections. I would also include the rationale behind selecting the problems I did and ground that rationale into an objective opportunity sizing.
Non-focus areas (to show the tradeoffs)
In this section, I summarise the areas we considered but did not select as the most important. And share my reasoning for dropping them from the final list.
This provides clarity and transparency to everyone about the tradeoffs we made and the things we should NOT focus on.
This part of the strategy highlights if and how our product is positioned to solve the selected problems. If it is not well-positioned, then I would add ideas to make the positioning better. If aligned, I would re-iterate the positioning clearly and concretely so that all teams understand it and create their plans with that in mind.
Every plan has risks and unknowns. I like to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about them, and then I summarise all of them in this section. The goal is not to mitigate all risks upfront. Neither is it to avoid doing things that have a high associated risk. Instead, the goal is to document the known risks comprehensively so everyone is aware.
The roadmap is typically a part of the strategy. It translates all the strategic decisions into a tactical plan.
The roadmap is a critical deliverable for product managers, and hence, I will talk about it in the following section.
Phase 1.3: Roadmap
The roadmap aims to help everyone understand what to do today, tomorrow, and later to meet the goals set in the strategy.
In the simplest form, the roadmap is a list of problems and the sequence to solve them.
Different teams and companies do roadmaps differently. Some think of it as a list of outcomes, whereas others think of it as a list of solutions or features to build.
In essence, however, the roadmap is the same for all companies -- it is a list of problems sorted by a logical and objective methodology.
Like most things, I have simplified the process of creating a roadmap into three simple steps:
Before we dive in, let's understand who the primary owner of the roadmap is.
Who creates the roadmap?
While the product manager is the primary owner of the roadmap, the roadmap is not created in isolation—the PM partners with engineering and design leaders to understand technical feasibility and constraints. The PM also collaborates with other teams (especially those close to the customer), like sales, customer support, account management, and marketing. While the PM is ultimately responsible for the roadmap, it requires collaboration across the organisation to ensure it is grounded in reality and focused on delivering value.
Let's now jump into the three steps required to create a roadmap.
In this step, the main output is a list of problems you want to solve.
But the challenging part is ensuring the list is comprehensive and overarching. The list must include the aspects that are the most critical to provide value for the customer and the business.
To ensure that my list includes high quality and quantity of ideas, I do the following:
- talk to users
- seek ideas from teams that know the users better than I do (like sales, marketing, customer support, etc.)
- identify ideas based on what the competition is doing
- leverage market and industry trends
- evaluate past wins and failures
- talk to experts in the space (even if they're outside my organisation)
- analyse customer support tickets and issues
Once we have a list of problems, the next step is to create a sequence to tackle them.
I like to create a logical method to prioritise the list. The method is usually a function of:
- Impact that the problem has on the goal
- Cost to develop the idea.
Many product teams use complicated frameworks or mathematical models to do this step. But I keep it simple:
- I estimate the impact and the cost
- Then, translate estimates into the same unit of measurement
- Then, primary sort by impact and secondary sort by cost.
(Here is a post explaining this process in more detail.)
The final step of roadmap creation is alignment, which I will discuss in detail in the next section.
Before we move to the next step, it is essential to highlight that many product managers confuse Vision, Strategy, and Roadmap. And sometimes even use them interchangeably. (Read the replies to the below tweets here and here, if you don't believe me.)
Doing that is a grave mistake. They are NOT the same. Each serves a different and vital purpose in the larger scheme of things.
A quick refresher before moving to the next section.
- Vision: where do we want to go
- Strategy: how do we get there
- Roadmap: what do we do to get there
A concrete roadmap marks the end of the "Planning" phase. At this time, the team moves into the second phase of "Alignment."
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Phase 2: Alignment
There are three major goals for this phase:
- Collect ideas from and provide feedback to the people who shared ideas in the “ideation” phase.
- Use their input and ideas to enhance the quality of the roadmap. For ex: engineers comment and share thoughts on feasibility; designers share opinions on user needs; go-to-market teams share commercial viability, and so on.
- Ensure that everyone who shared ideas or is impacted by the product’s success agrees that the proposed strategy, goals, and roadmap are effective and impactful.
This step can get messy. The PM alone tries to get a diverse set of smart people to agree on the same thing. But it is critical.
I do not proceed to the next step before doing this one right.
Alignment ensures that you will have support from the right people – people who will play a very important role in enabling the success of your roadmap, product, and career.
Who does the alignment
The product manager is the primary lead on this one. It is her responsibility to share the roadmap and decisions with the right people, to get their feedback, and get sign offs before moving to the next step i.e. execution.
Phase 3: Execution
This phase marks an evident transition from the strategic "planning" and "alignment" to the more tactical "doing."
The goal of this phase is to ensure that the team delivers everything they've "planned" and "aligned" on. Bad execution can ruin a fantastic strategy.
In this phase, the working group (designers, engineers, PMs, DS, etc.) works together to:
- Create the highest ROI solutions for the above problems
- Validate (with users) if the solutions solve the right problem
- Build the validated solutions
- Deliver them in the correct sequence
- Deliver the solutions at the right time
- Keep all relevant teams updated with progress, issues, risks, wins, and failures.
- Create methods to measure if the solution created the intended impact.
Who does the execution
The Engineering Manager is the primary lead for this phase. However, the success of this is a joint effort between the EM, PM, designers, and other relevant teams (like marketing, GTM, etc.)
It is clear that success at this stage heavily depends on how well the working group teams collaborate.
Phase 4: Measuring and Improving
This step is an interesting one.
Many product managers see this as the last phase in the process. But this step is actually the beginning of the next round of planning.
If you're measuring the right things and then learning from them, you will have the required insights to create/update your strategy to maximise the impact and minimise the errors.
More tactically speaking, as a PM in this phase you should focus on achieving the below:
- Define metrics to measure the success of the product
- Ensure the metrics align with the larger strategic goals
- Ensure the data and metrics are logged and available for analysis
- Analyse data to validate if and what worked vs. failed
- Learn from wins and failures and use that to inform your strategy
Who does the measurement and improvement
PMs take the lead in identifying the right success metrics. They work closely with engineers to ensure that the data for the required metrics is being logged in the right way. Then, work with engineers and analysts to ensure the metrics are readily available for analysis.
The last step in this phase is to analyse the data and create learnings and insights that help the team collectively learn and improve for future iterations. This analysis and learning is usually a joint effort between the PM and analysts, the BI team, or data scientists.
So that is it – a list of questions, answers, and deliverables that the PM should enable for every product. PMs need to understand these phases clearly so they can do the things required to deliver all the deliverables.
To succeed in product management, you need to understand the real needs (or the deliverables) and then do EVERYTHING to make it happen.
I leave you with this visual that summarises everything we spoke about in the article.