Product management is concerned with creating and sustaining products. It covers a wide range of:
- Product types
- Roles and job titles
- Frameworks, approaches, and techniques
A product is an entity that creates benefit and is sustained on an open-ended basis until it is no longer needed. Some examples are listed below.
Anything you can buy and take home with you or get delivered. These products are designed, marketed, manufactured, distributed, and improved over time.
Mass market digital products
Any digital product aimed at the general public. These products are designed, marketed, created by software teams, operated and sustained on platforms or as downloads, and are regularly updated.
Corporate digital products
Any digital product aimed at the other businesses. These products are often implemented in similar ways to mass market product, but with different commercial terms.
Internal digital products
Any digital product creating internal benefits without being sold or used outside of the organisation. It may be an enabler for customer-facing products or be used to make work more efficient or effective.
Roles and job titles
Product management includes all of the activities needed to launch, sustain, and eventually withdraw a product. There are a wide range of specific skills needed over the lifecycle of a product.. Two of the most frequently implemented roles are described here:
This is usually the person who is accountable for the ongoing success of the product, based on whatever success criteria apply. This will likely involve creating product strategy, communicating vision, and delegating work to implement this strategy. For digital products this can involve managing backlogs of requirements for engineers. In some organisations, product managers oversee teams of other product specialists. In the Scaled Agile framework (SAFe), the title specifically implies authority over teams of product owners. See What are the roles in SAFe?
This job title became widely used during the emergence of agile product delivery in the 1990s, and in particular the Scrum framework. The title was selected to signify a change from traditional product management based on fixed project planning, while maintaining the connection with product management. The role establishes an accountability for optimising the long-term strategic value of a product; including activities such as managing the product backlog and representing the needs of stakeholders to developers. Most product owner roles today are still based on Scrum accountabilities, even if the product is being developed with a different framework.
The job titles Product Owner and Product Manager have significant crossover in industry. Organisations sometimes use one or the other term, and others use both. There is also wide variation in the amount of autonomy and accountability given to these positions. Some roles entail significant authority to shape strategy; while other roles are more focused on the detail of implementing requirements received from sponsors. It’s therefore important to get clarity on how your own organisation defines these positions – a job title alone is not enough.
Other product related job titles include: solution owner; solution manager; product lead; “head of product; and director of product. There are often hierarchies implied by these titles, especially for large scale products.
Who works with product management?
To be effective in product management, a product professional will need to collaborate closely with other specialisms, such as:
- User experience and design: specialists concentrating on the experience of users of a system.
- Marketing: specialists in getting the product in front of people in a way they can connect with.
- Technology: specialists in implementing ideas and requirements, and shaping technical strategy. Roles include Architect, Software Engineer, Tester, Developer, with many variations and prefixes.
- Research and Analysis: specialist who support effective decision making through analysis of markets, customers, trends, and more. Roles include business analyst, market researcher, customer insights, analytics.
Frameworks and approaches
Product management is often carried out within a management framework or structure of some kind.
Product management in traditional IT settings is often broken down into two broad activities:
1) Change programmes
Commissioning the creation of new products, or enhancements to existing products. This can include design, creation of intellectual property, creating software, building platforms, and more. These programmes are often managed through project-based frameworks where a business case is created, budgets are allocated, and work is managed through a series of milestones. Specific frameworks used in this context include PRINCE II and PMI. Specific roles include project manager to oversea individual change projects; programme managers to oversea change across larger scales; and the project management office (PMO) to maintain and support the process within which people operate.
Day to day running of established products involves a wide range of operational activities. This includes routine maintenance, customer service, and support. There is often a formal boundary defined between change programmes and operations, where responsibility passes from one to the other. Specific frameworks used in this context include ITIL. Specific roles include engineering managers; customer service managers; and operational support managers among many variations.
The agile movement that gained traction in the early 1990s arose as a reaction to poor business outcomes seen with traditional approaches:
- Large change programmes delivering products that had become irrelevant in the years taken to deliver them
- Unvalidated assumptions in requirements and technologies that were found to be flawed late in delivery
- Success measured in time, scope, and budget bearing limited correlation to commercial success
The principle feature of agile product management is to significantly shorten the time between defining the requirements and validating the results. Working software can be created and evaluated in weeks, not years. Furthermore, there is a shift in mindset that is enabled by these short feedback cycles. Agile product managers are open to changing requirements and new information. They are measured on the success of their products such as usage, customer satisfaction, profit, or internal enablement rather than time, scope, or budget.
Specific frameworks used in agile product management include Scrum, Kanban, eXtreme Programming (XP), and others. There is a re-allocation of roles and responsibilities compared with traditional approaches, with no direct mapping possible – (for example, a project manager does not automatically become an agile project manager). New roles include Product Owner(see Roles section above), Scrum Master, Agile Coach/Lead, Developer, and more.
Scaled Agile frameworks
When a product or solution requires a large number of teams to build and sustain it, or when the benefits of speeding up development outweigh the overheads of multiple teams, agile product management can be delivered at scale. There are a range of frameworks specifically designed for this scenario, and most become useful when approximately five separate teams; or fifty people; are directly engaged in delivery. Scaled agile frameworks include SAFe; LeSS; Nexus; and Scrum@Scale.
Scaled agile frameworks allow product management to be conducted more effectively with large teams by adding additional roles and practices. These additions to standard agile frameworks usually anticipate and provide solutions to the challenges seen when lots of people work on the same product. Challenges such as alignment, dependency management, and clarity over decision making are dealt with by establishing clear planning cycles, synchronisation meetings, and clear accountabilities.
Product Management – Summary
Product management covers a huge scope of activity across industries and technologies. It can be approached with a similarly wide range of techniques and practices. Ultimately, successful product management can be distilled down to:<
- Ensuring skilled professionals are aligned on purpose and outcomes
- People are given the autonomy, resources, and support they need
- In return, the accountability is to deliver value to the organisation