What Is A Product Manager? Reaching Success One Product At A Time
If you are looking to understand what is a product manager, you are not alone. I work in a project world, and I did not know 100% who we can call a product manager in our business either, which was bothering me. Hence, I did some research to combine with my experience and filled the gap, and this is what I found.
A product manager is a senior officer and a strategist responsible for a product or a feature, addressing essential client problem. Thus, the individual leads a cross-functional team and creates roadmaps, feature definitions, development, or market research to support and develop the solution.
I am working as a project manager in a large organisation. Hence, I have an excellent understanding of project lifecycle and principals. Although the firm has many investment products, the product manager role never came up, at least not officially.
Thus, in the post, I will explore different angles with you to understand who is a product manager. Also, look into the responsibilities the manager has in the various phases of a product lifecycle, what skills he/she needs, what tips there are to help with the job.
It was fascinating to research the subject; I hope it will be as interesting for you to read. There is a lot that the product manager does.
Who Is A Product Manager?
Why Is A Product Manager A Senior Officer?
This person needs to be high up in the organisation ladder as decisions on resources, strategy and tactics will need to be made, and they need to have the right level of authority. Ben Horowitz called a product manager “CEO of the product”. Yet, it might not be entirely accurate as there is often no full direct authority over all people to make a product successful.
What Is A Link Between A Product Manager And A Product?
As the definition goes, a product manager looks after the business product, which generates (or will be) a large portion of revenue. Some smaller firms might be highly dependent on the success or failure of the product. On the other hand, some larger companies may have more than one product and product manager.
Why Does A Product Manager Need To Solve Essential Client Problem?
You would hope that product that is being created is solving an actual customer problem. When you solve the problem you are likely to be renumerated. If you solve the business problem without consideration to the client you are likely to get it wrong and have low demand for a solution.
However, the business mission and goals should not just be solving customer problems but also be commercially viable. A product manager will be that individual who will need to take all into consideration and consider if a particular solution is worth pursuing.
Why Does A Product Manager Need To Lead A Cross-Functional Team?
When we go through the product creation lifecycle, a product will hit multiple areas in the business. Thus, a product manager needs to enlist a cross-functional team to support product bringing into existence and then later on to clients. People like engineers, sales, marketing and support team would be those in the group.
What Are Main Project Manager Roles?
The product manager is the ultimate expert on the company’s product and knows answers to several important questions:
- Why: Question “Why” represents the company’s objectives and purpose.
- When: As in any endeavour, teams and business needs to know when the product and separate features will be implemented, where the roadmap comes in. Say you have built a new app you need to communicate when the ad will need to be prepared and launched for marketing.
- What: Before you start building anything, you need to know what is needed. Thus, a product manager would complete market research, define features or the whole product.
Plus, the manager would work with technical teams to support the development.
What Are Similar Roles To A Product Manager?
Product managers would often work in technology companies as they usually have products to build and sell. If you would be in a different company, you may have individuals who have similar roll but slightly different names, e.g. a brand manager in a consumer packaged products company or a product strategist/development manager in the financial industry.
A Final Word On Product Manager Definition
In some cases, A Product Manager responsibilities may even extend to marketing, forecasting and profit and loss (P&L) duties. Hence, product managers set goals, define success factors, help motivate teams, and are ultimately responsible for the product’s business success.
How Does A Product Manager Defining Product Strategy?
One of the most critical tasks is to come up with the product, which solves a problem, viable for the business to pursue with current resources and has a good demand. That is super hard.
Then when you start generating some ideas, you begin to see various existing players with similar products. Thus, a product manager will need to find a way to differentiate the product, whether it be features or business models, i.e. product delivery method, pricing, etc.
As a result, a product manager would define both strategies and tactics for the product, ultimately aligning with business objectives and mission.
SWOT analysis could help. I have written multiple blogs about strategic tools’ applications to companies, projects and products. So, check out the SWOT analysis post first, which nicely leads to the other four posts. Altogether, they nicely round up strategic decision-making, such as what kind of product should be in the market and the company’s strengths in the delivery.
Other tools you will see used to build SWOT analysis:
The product manager’s goal is not just to bring value to a business but to a customer. When there is value to the customer, they will buy a product, and the company gets revenue.
However, the strategy needs to change depending on where is the product in the lifecycle.
What Is The Product Manager’s Strategies Over Product Lifecycle?
A product manager needs to strategise when releasing a product to the market and adapt strategy while the product is live. Any product usually goes through four phases:
Introduction In Product Lifecycle
A product manager would work very hard to get a good market fit. Although there was a lot of research done in product development, and he/she became an expert in it, the product might not be ready for full adoption. A manager needs to track new data coming from the market, i.e. users, and adjust accordingly.
Growth In Product Lifecycle
Hopefully, a product manager has listened to the customer and adapted. Things are starting to look up now, and customer adoption is increasing. Yet, this is not the time to stay still. A manager needs to ensure that the company can accommodate newly increased demand without sacrificing quality and continue optimising the product.
Maturity In Product Lifecycle
By this time, competitors had time to catch up. So, the product manager needs to consider strategies to retain customers and keep the market share. Maybe there could be a new value proposition or maintaining an excellent customer service rating. However, it will take a lot of energy to be on the top.
Decline In Product Lifecycle
Inevitably, the product runs its course, and there is a stage when customers start to move on to new products or value offering. Time to think if some new features could revive the product for a second life or it is time to phase it out.
How Does Product Managers Role Look Through Venn Diagram?
We have explored the definition further and looked into defining strategy and vision. The position also requires juggling different tasks and teams, which we have not thoroughly investigated. For that, we are going to look into a Venn diagram, which will show three areas in the business associated with managing any product:
- User Experience (UX)
First of all, a great manager will have excellent knowledge of all three areas and ideally great experience in one of them. They do not have to be experts in all three as tasks can be delegated.
Secondly, all companies have limited means, and a manager cannot get the best result in three fields simultaneously. It is not just about maxing out with business value or making excellent UX. It is about finding the balance and trade-off to bring the most significant business and customer benefit, with available technology and achievable UX.
Product Manager Venn Diagram: Feature Example
Suppose we take a new feature consideration example. The product manager would need to understand how this new feature fits with existing business goals (objectives), mission and initiatives. Then consider a value to the customer and business.
If both considerations allow proceeding, the manager needs to define user experience (UX), what colour buttons to use; where to place them on the screen, etc.
Finally, he/she will need to discuss with engineers the technical aspects of the delivery; do we have the technology; do we have all information they need to create this new feature? Hence, you have to manage the trade-off between business, UX, technology and find a sweet spot.
What Are The Critical Skills In Product Management?
12 Critical Product Manager Skills
A product manager’s role is quite a hybrid one, including strategic decision-making and detail execution. Therefore, there is a diverse set of skills required to be excellent in this position. Let’s explore these further.
1. Strategic Thinking & Strategy Ownership
A product manager needs to examine available information about the business operating environment, highlighting opportunities, threats, weaknesses and strengths.
Then, he/she can introduce strategies and products to utilise opportunities using a firm’s competitive advantage, i.e. strengths. It would be helpful if the product solves a big customer problem as well.
Of course, a manager cannot do everything alone. Hence, a bit of good storytelling with some abstract term explanation is also required to convey benefits and secure buy-in from an organisation.
2. Technical Acumen or DDaT
A product manager needs to grasp the company’s technical capabilities and understand design and data principals. Thus, he/she can weight the potential solution’s cost & benefits to the customer and firm against the backdrop of available technology and engineers’ capabilities.
Also, a manager would need to have experience with technical tools, like Power BI, python or Google Analytics, to evaluate data coming from the customers and generate insights, which could support new ideas.
Multiple external and internal individuals will play their part in product development. Thus, a product manager needs to have excellent soft skills like emotional intelligence or communication abilities (also see next section) to manage teams and ensure that work goes smoothly.
If there are internal group’s issues, a manager should address those head-on and avoid delaying the progress.
Often, product teams are dependent on third parties, i.e. external contractors or other business areas, which do not usually participate in product work. A product manager needs to support collaboration efforts here as well.
Check out my post: WHAT IS A PROJECT TEAM? PEOPLE, YOU NEED TO DELIVER EXCELLENT RESULTS, which covers many aspects of teams in project type environments.
4. Communication or Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
Excellent internal and external communication is paramount to manage expectations; gain information; ensure business support.
Many stakeholders who participate in product development want to be informed about the latest plans’ changes, goals, expectations and progress. Thus, excellent stakeholder management is super important.
You can engage people in multiple ways, like email, chats, SharePoint, Confluence, etc. Also, a manager needs to consider the frequency and level of communication.
Also, a product manager would be leading customer interviews to gain insights. However, he/she should be tracking not just what is being said but how. Is the customer demonstrating negative or positive body language on a particular suggestion or feature?
Check out my post on stakeholder management for more insights: HOW DO YOU EFFICIENTLY ACHIEVE GREAT STAKEHOLDER MANAGEMENT NOW?
5. Detail Orientation
It is easier to fix something in the planning or design stages in any endeavour instead of when you have started the build. Product management is not an exception.
Thus, a product manager needs to keep an eye on all little details in the initial stages of the process and correct them before development. It will cost more to fix problems later down the line.
In particular, when a product is live with a lot of technical debt, which needs to be addressed, and business is pushing for more features or products.
6. User Focus Strategies
Ultimately, there is no product or idea if a product manager cannot engage the user and understand their problems. To understand the need, a manager will collect data from the market, which then can be converted into insights using previously mentioned tools like PowerBI. The key is to distinguish between user needs and desires.
Getting accurate data from the potential user is not that easy. You would need to ask the right questions or device precise experiments. For example, instead of asking if somebody wants to have a particular product, a more helpful question would be how much they are willing to pay for it.
Some other tools that a product manager may employ:
- AB Testing
- Focus Groups
- Prototyping: Proof of concepts (POC), MVPs
7. Working With Constraints
No business has infinite resources; therefore, a product manager needs to identify, challenge and work within constraints. Often project and products will have six main constrains, time, budget, scope, quality, resources, risk.
8. Agile or Waterfall And A Product Manager
A product manager should know the differences between project management frameworks. Then, employ the best practices depending on which is being used in the business. For example, in Agile, you have terms like MPVs, sorting requirement per priority, WIP management.
9. Business Model Ownership
A product manager should be able to evaluate the cost & benefits of the product. It has to integrate well with other offerings by the business without cannibalisation. Also, he/she needs to manage work in progress back to the goals on the roadmap.
10. Lifecycle Management
A product manager needs to know when to move a product from one phase to the next. Thus, he/she is steering the team to provide appropriate standards of service relevant to the stage.
11. Operational Management
A product manager needs to create operating procedures both while building the product for the market and when it is life.
Let’s take a support team, which will need to know procedures to process clients’ queries and feed recommendations back to the planning and development phases. Therefore, a manager will need to work closely with operations delivery teams, data and technology to enable the feedback loop.
12. Risk & Issue or Problem Ownership
There are bound to be risks & issues in product development. A product manager is responsible for managing risks, preparing mitigation plans, and addressing them when risks become issues.
What Are The Product Manager’s Responsibilities?
Responsibilities will vary dependent on the type of product, company industry, size and structure.
If the company is larger, the product manager will be part of a company’s specialist team. You would have individuals doing a lot of leg work like researching the market or preparing sales material. Thus, the job would be more like a project manager to manage all the individuals, so they collaborate to complete everything on time and within the budget. If it is a massive company, a manager may be only responsible for a set of features and not the full product.
If the company is smaller, a lot of leg work will fall to a product manager. Yet, there will be less management of somebody’s else time.
Suppose we take my domain is banking as well as asset management. The product would be credit card portfolios, funds to invest money. A product manager would look after opening the fund or managing the credit card portfolio, making sure legal documents are expected; cash is coming in.
What Are A Product Manager’s Roles in The Product Management Lifecycle?
There are several phases of bringing a product from idea to physical thing. In my research, I have seen multiple names. In general, you could boil down to these six:
- Innovation & analyse: Generate ideas & Validate with the market
- Selling idea to business: Securing business resource
- Roadmap or plan: Planning the product lifecycles
- Design & Development: Building the product
- The launch: Validate fit to the market and prep
- Product is live: Selling and adjusting (see also phases of the product lifecycle)
- From strategy to tactics: Managing multiple products
- End-of-life: Considering when to close the product
1. Vision or Innovation & Analysis
A product manager would start with a vision or hypothesis. Then generate multiple ideas by exploring user and business value as well as the cost for development. Thus, this becomes the initial cost & benefits analysis.
Unfortunately, there is no database you can buy to advise you about all user needs out there. You will need to complete research and analysis to explore a valuable problem to solve for customers. A manager will have to do prototyping, collecting feedback, looking into market trends, understand opportunity cost and risks.
When you know what customers need and value, it is time to develop a fictional user and business proposal. The idea is to understand a company’s competitive angle and why should a user buy the product. There might be many players in the market, and a well-considered proposal could ensure that a business pursues the best ideas. Such preparation will help to sell the concept and define a vision, too.
If the travel direction is more clear now, we can start creating requirements and allocate a priority. It is essential to know very well the preference because not all flashy features will be important. By prioritising what is necessary, you may also avoid large tasks that will make the product very fancy but give no real value to the customer.
Finally, a product manager is not dependent on just one methodology; it depends on how a business operates. Requirements development could follow either Agile, Waterfall or any other methods.
If you would like to learn more about businesses’ innovations, I highly recommend Innovators Method: Bringing the Lean Start-up into Your Organization by Nathan Furr, Jeff Dyer.
2. Selling Idea To Business
You have your business case, passionate vision and requirements. Now, you need resources to make it a reality. Therefore, a product manager will have to sell a vision to the business and get the support.
He/she need to make stakeholders excited about the outcome of pursuing the product. You will try to give the best answer you have for the question “Why?”
3. Roadmap or Plan
If a product manager was successful in previous stages and he/she has the support. Then, you need an actionable plan to follow to move from idea to actual item. No surprises, that responsibility falls with a product manager.
What is a Product Roadmap?
A “roadmap” is a word used in many job descriptions related to products. So, let’s give an excellent definition to help us understand why it is so important.
It is a guiding strategic plan (or document) that describes how the product will develop over time with incremental improvements, including vision, strategy and direction. It should answer why and what. A roadmap should also be flexible enough to adjust to changing trends in the market.
The roadmap’s primary goal is to show everyone how short-term actions fit in with long term business objectives and product strategy. Thus, it is clear to everyone and the team is going in the same direction.
4. Working With The Team To Design And Build
Now, we are getting into details. A product manager will be designing and developing a product with engineers and the design team. Depending on the organisation, a product manager may assume a product owner role, prioritising a backlog, which includes requirements and features, solves ad-hoc problems, and manages scope.
If a product is already live, new requirements from the launch preparation stage or even when the product is life will need to go through a change management process and prioritised against existing requirements.
Either way, when you build anything, you need to complete testing to ensure that requirements have been delivered and meet acceptance criteria. If requirements have been built for an existing live product, regression testing will need to be completed.
5. The Launch
Great, the build is done. A product manager needs to make sure that the business and the developed product are ready for the launch. Do we have the right set-up channels; are there support teams available on stand-by; have we created user support manuals?
If there are concerns that the product might not be ready for the broader market, then the launch could be with the sample population, i.e. pilot or beta testing. The pilot would give additional data to further improve the product for the wider population and make the final launch a massive success.
6. Benefits Realisation, Product In Production
Ok, the product is there with the customer live and kicking. A product manager would spend days and nights going through any conceivable data to measure performance and look for improvement opportunities to bring more value to the customer.
The hope is that the product hit the sweet spot and is commercially successful, with customers starting to adopt it. If this is not the case, more work will need to happen to make the required changes or improvements. These will have to be added to the roadmap by the manager.
When you release a product and see many ad-hoc changes, firefighting and troubleshooting, and the support team feels hectic, there might not have been enough preparation in the beginning. Although in a way, firefighting is unplanned work, in reality, a product manager should have planned for the unexpected and manage the risks with mitigation plans beforehand.
7. Going From Strategy To Tactics
A product manager will likely have not just one product or feature to look after. Therefore, it could be that he/she may work on various products at different phases in a lifecycle at the same time. For example, you may need to plan a strategy for a recent new idea and manage ad-hoc tactical changes for a product already in the market.
8. End Of Life
Every product reaches the end of life stage, and a product manager with a business has few options and need to make a decision.
- First of all, should the product be discontinued or pivoted to some new offering?
- If the business needs to discontinue a product, then should it be immediately or phased out over time, which would keep some valuable customers for awhile.
A product manager with an organisation’s leaders would evaluate cost and benefit to make a decision. Then, a product manager would prepare a plan based on the chosen option.
What Is The Difference Between Product Manager And Product Owner?
Are you confused as I was in the past!? Wait, there are a product owner and a product manager? What is the difference!?
First, a product manager can work with any waterfall, agile or even Kanban frameworks; it does not matter. In contrast, a product owner role only exists in Agile methodology and SCRUM, which happens to be a prevalent tech build approach. Thus, you would hear a lot about them.
As you now know, a product manager defines vision, strategy, requirements and roadmap. In contrast, a product owner prioritises requirements and works with the development team to execute them according to specified deadlines (roadmap). Hence, a product owner mostly works in the development phase of the product lifecycle.
So what are the benefits of having a product owner? Well, helping with execution allows a product manager to concentrate on a bigger picture and utilise time to understand better evolving customer needs, further measuring performance, clarifying features, etc.
What Are The Best Practices And Tips For A Product Manager?
The job of a product manager is to solve customer problems. And in a way, Product Management is a mindset where you are always looking for things to improve.
1. Listen To Customers For Problems & Not Solution
The human’s brain is an impressive feat of engineering in nature. Back in the day, quick decisions meant life or death. Hence, brains like to jump to a solution when the problem is presented to save a person.
Unfortunately, what nature created sometimes hinders creativity and understanding of all possible solutions for the same problem; thus, as a product manager, you should concentrate on the problem first before finding a solution.
Suppose you are good with excel and you need to produce a report. Your brain will quickly connect the dots and would suggest using pivot tables. Yet, it might not be the best solution as it is not the most scalable. Maybe a python version of the same output would have more use.
2. Watch Competition
Say, competition is first in the market with new features or product—nothing to worry about as the latest release becomes your pool of information and testing ground. If people liked the new product or feature, then copy the hell out of it! If it did not, you just saved a considerable amount of money.
3. Do Not Get Depressed About Competition
You may not have all the same resources competition has, and you cannot replicate all the same products. But you do not have to. Just be good at your company’s diversifying factors.
4. Ask The Question About Getting Paid
You must ask a question: How much the customer is willing to pay for the solution. It helps you twofold:
- You will understand if anybody is willing to pay for solving their problem.
- Plus, you start exploring possible pricing and will evaluate how much the business could make from solving the problem and can assess if it is worth pursuing.
Yet, do not get obsessed with getting the exact price; otherwise, you will never move on to actually building the solution.
5. Take Action Sooner Rather Than Later
Both action and inaction have their price. We are much better at not taking action. The most prevailing reason for that information is not perfect, which does not exist. Guess what, then competition beats you to the curve.
Therefore, sometimes it is better to take actions and course-correct later. At least then, you have a fighting chance.
6. Saying No
People will want the world without consideration for constraints. Therefore, as a product manager, you must say “No” for features that do not solve a customer problem as a whole or do it very badly.
Still, avoid saying “No” if the idea is excellent and solves a customer problem. Even if you think that will be extra work for the team. If the firm and customer gets value, then this is why we are doing business.
7. Don’t Be A Visionary
We all know those one-off stories about crazy risk-taking and fantastic success in business, e.g. Facebook, Tesla, SpaceX, Apple etc. Those make a great read, like an excellent biography about Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance.
However, the vast majority of businesses, which took extreme risks, do not make it, and you never hear about them. On the other hand, a product manager’s goal is to deliver a product without taking so much risk as to sink the company.
What makes those high risks? Well, these are products or solutions that were not identified by the customer as needed. E.g. nobody was asking to have a phone with a touch screen, and Apple still made one. Now, you cannot live without it. You might be even reading this blog on the phone.
However, the product manager’s job is not to predict the future of what might the customer need but deliver solutions to existing customer’s problems.
8. You Are Not A Customer
Do not confuse yourself with the customer and build what you want. You should base the solution, build and roadmap on data and insights collected from the market research and customer interviews. Always try looking from the customer perspective.
There is a great book, “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie, which talks a lot about taking another person perspective to win them over.
Product Manager Conclusion
It looks like a product manager’s job is quite complicated. There are multiple stages and points to consider, like strategy, customers feedbacks, market research, human interactions and many more.
Yet, I think it super fun for one reason only; they get to take an idea or feature and lead it to a tangible result! Not that dissimilar to project managers.
The product usually is a critical delivery to the business as well, which should generate revenues and return on investments done to bring the product to life. Thus, there is a lot of responsibility on a product manager shoulders. So, if you are planning a career, keep in mind what it takes to become a product manager.
I hope you enjoyed my take on a product manager. If you have some suggestions on expanding the post, then I would love to hear those.
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