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What is Product Management?

If you ask 10 product managers to define product management you’ll probably get 10 very different answers. Question a company’s senior management about exactly what their product managers do and you can expect an even more varied set of responses. That’s because product management is one of the most diverse and all-encompassing roles in modern businesses.

The core responsibility of any product manager is relatively clear – to guide the product through its lifecycle, from the creation of initial ideas to the time customers are actually using it (and beyond). However, the way a product manager actually puts this into action can vary significantly – each PM has their own style.

The basics of Product Management

Essentially, the product manager decides what should be built, and defines why it should be built and how it should work. They then make sure the plans are completed on time, while consulting with other departments and stakeholders, such as design and development, along the way. The aim is always to ensure the best possible experience for the end user.

In most companies, however, each product manager is free to choose their own preferred strategy, methodology and tools. For example, many product managers have begun taking advantage of dedicated product management software like Craft.io while others prefer to use old-school methods such as sticky notes.

This variation in approach results in enormous differences in day to day practices. Essentially, as long as the product continues to be developed and users appear to be satisfied and using the product, upper management are rarely too concerned about how this is achieved.

One thing they will all agree on though, is the vital significance of product management to the organization. Without product managers it would be almost impossible for any company that produces products to be successful. It is essential that someone takes control of the process, even if they are not responsible for the direct management of the majority of the people involved.

Software Product Management

These days, product management is mostly associated with software development. Look at any piece of software you use on a regular basis, from an app on your phone to the internet browser on your computer, and there is no doubt that product managers were responsible for deciding how the software operates.

Having worked in product teams at leading technology companies for coming up to a decade, almost every time someone asks me what I do I’ve found myself explaining what product management is. Usually the easiest way is to give an example that people can easily understand, such as online email software like Gmail. I tell them that while the email system is a product, each section of the software is usually considered a sub-product and is under the responsibility of a product manager.

So for example, there’s probably be one product manager who is responsible for the “Inbox” section that you see when you open your email. That person will need to create an overall strategy plan for how the Inbox will be developed in the long term – what they want it to do and how it will help the users.

They will drill that strategy down to individual features, like the option to delete multiple emails at once or to automatically move selected messages to trash. These features will be placed in a long-term “roadmap” so the product manager can easily track what is coming up and let the company’s management and customers know. The product manager then needs to define exactly how these features will work, and collaborate with the development and quality assurance teams to ensure they are created as expected.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, as we’ll discuss in this article 😉

The History of Product Management

Product management started way before the invention of consumer software, let alone the emergence of agile methodology, scrum, user stories or any of the terms and processes we associate with the role today.

It’s an age-old issue – even when the wheel was invented back in 3,000 BC, someone had to come up with the concept and make sure it was produced according to the requirements: to take a lump of stone or wood, put it on an axel and add a cart on top so things could be pushed around! At that time, one person probably hold all of the roles involved: product manager, designer, engineer and QA.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and most product historians agree that modern product management began in early 1930’s USA, in the advertising department of Proctor and Gamble’s Cincinnati office to be precise. That’s where a Junior Executive by the name of Neil McElroy had a brainwave.

McElroy was responsible for advertising a brand of soap called “Camay” but was being forced to compete with P&G’s far more dominant soap brand – “Ivory” – despite having less support and resources. When he decided this wasn’t the best way to achieve success, McElroy wrote a famous internal memo to his bosses recommending the creation of a new role called “Brand Man” who would manage each product, track sales and run promotions etc. With each product managed separately, Camay was able to compete with Ivory on an equal footing.

The evolution of the Brand Man

Over the last half century, the role of “Brand Man” has evolved to become “Product Manager” and be largely connected with tech companies. Arguably, this began in the early 1980s at software development company Intuit with the development of its home finance software “Quicken”. The Intuit management realised the advantage of making the user interface as simple and accessible as possible and also put more emphasis on customer feedback.

Once the software boom of the 1990s kicked in, the role of product manager became far more significant. Microsoft was one of the first companies that allowed what was then called the “Program Manager” to be responsible for establishing usability and business value of features and left the development team to work on the technical aspects. And Hewlett Packard was a trailblazer in separating the Product team into a separate division within the company. Since then, the role has evolved to allow product managers to take control of the entire product process but not actually work on the development itself.

The biggest change in Product Management methodology came in 2001 with the launch of what was known as the “Agile Manifesto”. Until then, most companies were using the “Waterfall” approach, where new versions of software we released every few months after a laborious process which required product managers to write long requirements documents which often ended up over a 100 pages. The aim of agile is to have a more responsive, shorter development process, with releases every few weeks. This allows for much more flexibility and opportunities to change the direction of the product.

What are the different product management roles?

The number of people in the Product team totally depends on the size of the company. A small startup with one core product might have just a single product manager who is responsible for every aspect of the product. Massive companies that have multiple products can employ dozens of people within a larger Product team and a hierarchy of management roles.

Here’s a guide to the main roles you may encounter:

  • Chief Product Officer – the CPO is the head honcho, who is at the top of the Product tree and reports directly to the CEO. They are responsible for overall product strategy and lead all of the product teams who often work across a range of products. The CPO also liaises with other C-level management to make sure the company vision is fully aligned.
  • VP of Product – works below the CPO to manage a group of product managers. They may also have responsibility for the team’s budget.
  • Group Product Manager – a team leader who managers a group of product managers who are all working on one product. The GPM works to ensure all the PMs in the team are working together well and the features they are developing are complementary.
  • Lead Product Manager – usually a senior product manager who is tasked with developing one of the key features or products in the company’s portfolio. The LPM may have a number of Product Owners working under them.
  • Product Manager – the person with full responsibility for a specific product or feature. The PM is required to set the product’s long-term strategy, build a roadmap for the future, define and schedule the features in the backlog, collaborate with the dev and project teams, gain customer feedback and sometimes even market the product to users. Phew!
  • Product Owner – PO is usually a more junior position. Like the PM, the PO is responsible for defining features but focuses more on the technical side and works directly with the development team to make sure the requirements are clear.

Responsibilities of Product Managers

As a product manager there’s a good chance you’ll often feel like you have to be all things to all people. The dev team needs you to update them regularly, the marketing team wants to discuss the impact of your features, customers are contacting you to offer feedback and complaining they are waiting for things etc. It’s an exhilarating, yet sometimes exhausting position to be in.

So it is important to establish the main responsibilities, to try and ensure you don’t get spread too thin at the expense of the product quality.

Set the strategy

One of the most important things a product manager needs to do is to set the overall product strategy. You can then create a roadmap containing the goals and initiatives that reflect this strategy and can they put together a list of features to achieve the goals.

The best way to organise this strategy and share with colleagues is to use a tool such as Craft.io’s Roadmap.

Craft.io product roadmap tool

Write user stories

The PM then writes short documents called user stories which describe how each part of the feature will work in practice and shares them with the dev team who are responsible for building the feature.

Using a product management platform like Craft makes it easy to manage your backlog of features and user stories. And integrating with development task management tools like Jira ensures a smooth process.

Collect feedback

On top of all this, the product manager is also likely to be responsible for collecting feedback and ideas about their feature and product, both from internal stakeholders and external customers. This feedback can be essential when it comes to deciding which features to develop next.

A dedicated feedback tool, like Craft.io’s Idea Manager optimizes the process.

Market the product

In recent years, Product Marketing has evolved into a separate role, but often the Product Manager is responsible for marketing the product and features to existing customers. At the end of the day the one thing the product manager wants to see is that customers actually use the features they invested so much time and energy in developing.

Product Strategy

Product strategy is always the starting point. It’s a high-level concept which defines exactly where you want to be going with the product and how you think it will impact the users. This should affect everything you do as a product manager – without a well-defined strategy you might see your product going in all directions.

To define your strategy you should first ask “what exactly is this product and who is it for?” It is essential to define the product’s unique selling points, i.e. why would someone really want to use this product rather than something else that they already have or a product offered by one of your competitors.

You should then get into the details: such as your target audience. At this point you can even create personas of the different types of people who might use the product. Then it is important to set specific goals, such as to reach 10,000 active users by Q2 or gain 10,000 likes on Facebook. It’s also worth checking your competitors and including information about their features and pricing in your strategy document or roadmap.

Product Marketing

There’s no point spending numerous man hours on developing awesome products and features if hardly any of your users even know they exist. That’s the job of product marketing.

In many companies product marketing is a separate role or even a team of people who work with the product managers to produce marketing material that promotes the products to current and potential customers.

However, this role can also be included in the product management position, which means that the product manager is also responsible for marketing their product in collaboration with the marketing team. This can include producing email flyers advertising a major new feature or building a presentation giving an overview of all the most useful features in the product.

Product Management Tools

With so many different responsibilities, and expectations sky high, product managers need to use a variety of tools to get their products from planning to reality while managing the backlog and retaining the flow of new ideas.

Traditionally, product managers have relied on a range of disconnected programmes and tools to stay on top of their product and collaborate with internal teams, which has always been far from ideal.

They might use a word processing programme like Word to gather their ideas, write user stories and product requirements documents. A separate spreadsheet program like Excel could be used to keep a list of all the upcoming features that are in development and another for those they are planning to release. Roadmaps are usually written on presentation software like Powerpoint and then they need to open tasks in development planning software like Jira so the dev teams know what to work on. At the same time they need to keep notes from meetings with customer or feedback received from sales teams.

Talk about confusing!

Product Management Software

The introduction of dedicated product management software has changed the game. Platforms such as Craft.io allow product managers to plan and manage their products all in one place, with all features and ideas fully connected.

This means the product manager can easily check exactly where they are with each product and feature, see what is coming up and which customers are asking for what. At the same time the collaborative nature of cloud-based software means each team member can be given access so they have full visibility and the opportunity to comment on any feature or idea.

The main tools include:

Prioritization Tool

his is where you list all of the product features and requirements – including those you are planning to develop and those that are currently being developed – so you can see the complete picture. In Craft, it is easy to switch from a traditional table to Timeline view and even a Kanban.

Product Requirement Editor

This is used to write your user stories and feature requirements. It is essential that this uses a clear and simple interface but also is powerful enough to allow you to include images such as mockups.

Story Mapping Tool

This is a tool where you build a visual map linking all the relevant user stories to illustrate the full user experience. It replaces the traditional approach of using physical sticky notes on a whiteboard to map user stories.

Roadmap Tool

A roadmap is where you list all the main features that will be added to the product in the long-term. This is usually a periodic exercise with the year split into quarters, although when you are using an integrated tool like Craft it is easy to update your Roadmap, so it is no longer a static document produced once a year but a live representation of your plans.

Customer feedback

These are the tools used to gather and view requests and feedback from users and internal team members. One of the best options is an idea management program like Craft’s Idea Portal. This allows you to quickly create an external website that can be sent to users and colleagues so they can add their feedback in just a few clicks. Each idea can then be directly linked to a feature or user story.

Try Craft Now – get a Free Trial

Craft’s Product Management Platform has been specifically designed to help product managers plan their features and make better product decisions. Try it out right now with a 14-day free trial or book a personal live demo with one of our product experts.