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Product Management: What Product Managers Do

West Bromwich, UK • May 2020

To combat the spread of COVID, many of us have been home-bound over the past few weeks (and months). Though at times it has been challenging to see a silver lining in this, it has given many of us more time to do the things we've been delaying.

In my case, I took advantage of a promotion Udacity ran to learn about the fundamentals of product management (Product Manager Nanodegree). Even though I'm not seeking a career in this discipline (never say never), it's something which has overlapped on many of my projects. Hence, I wanted to deepen my understanding of this role.

In this essay, I'll be giving you an overview of product management. And, selfishly solidifying my understanding of the discipline as I do so.

What Is Product Management?

At its core, product management involves working across a spectrum of teams within the organisation, to ensure that the proposed product solves a real problem for real users.

As mentioned, product management involves working across a spectrum of teams. Some of the most common teams that those involved in product management work with, include:

In product management, you spend a lot of time defining problems, creating strategies, communicating, coordinating the development, and responding to unforeseen situations.

In turn, that allows those in the discipline of product management to answer the four w's:

The History Of Product Management

Before going any further, I want to share a brief history of product management with you. As with anything, by understanding the origins, it enables you to gain a deeper insight.

Let me take you back to the 1930s. A gentleman named Neil McElroy published a memorandum while working at Procter & Gamble, titled 'Brand Men'.

The memo touched on two parts for a function we now know as product management:

1. Full Responsibility

Those taking on the role of product management are responsible for the success of the product. Hence, PM's should be working across multiple teams to build great products.

2. Studying First-Hand

Those working within product management should witness the problems they're trying to solve with their products first-hand, interacting with users to gain deeper insights.

Forwarding to another advancement in the 1960s (after WW2), just-in-time manufacturing became common in Japan. On top of reducing waste, there were two key principles:

1. Kaizen - Change For The Better

This principle is about improving the business while driving for innovation. Today, you see those in product management working towards constant product optimisation.

2. Genchi Genbutsu - Real Location Real Thing

This principle involves going to the source to get the facts for better decision-making. Again, highlighting the importance for those in product management to experience the problem they're trying to solve first-hand.

What Does A Product Manager Do?

The core role of a product manager is to be that of a shepherd, let me explain. PM's must ensure their team is solving the right problem, and building the right product. And, since no company has unlimited resources (not even Amazon), they must be able to prioritise.

We can dissect the role of a product manager into the five areas below:

1. Problem Identification

One of the core responsibilities of a PM is to define the problem for the team to solve. Problem identification is one of the most critical responsibilities of a product manager.

2. Strategy Creation

Once the PM has a clear understanding of the problem and opportunity, it's then up to them to create a strategy for how to solve the problem through their envisaged product.

3. Communication Channels

PM's must ensure that the entire team is on the same page. Naturally, this it's achieved through a combination of channels, such as; presentations, conversations, emails etc. PRD's, written by PM's, play a crucial role in communicating the scope of a project.

4. Development & Launch Coordination

It may seem as if the product manager's do all the work, but that's not the case. Instead, they're in-charge of facilitating conversations and removing roadblocks across all partners, for example; design, marketing, engineering etc. With the end goal being to launch.

5. Responding To Information

Things change as new information comes to light over the lifecycle of a product; therefore, PM's need to stay in the loop and change the course of the work if needed.

It's important to note that the role of a product manager varies. At smaller companies product manager's tend to have more end-to-end responsibility. Whereas in larger companies, the product manager's responsibility will be more narrow in a specific area.

It may be the case that a product manager specialises in a particular type of product, such as data, growth, hardware, or software - each with their nuances as a product manager.

Finally, remember that the philosophy of a company's approach to building also shapes the role a PM plays from within. Common philosophies include; product-led organisations, engineering-led organisations, and a combination of the both working intertwined.

Product Management Glossary