Savvy consumers are now able to self-educate themselves, carrying out market research and exploring the competitive landscape on their own. No longer lured by fancy packaging and clever marketing moves, they cringe at catchy ads and loathe pestering sales force. With product-led strategies on the rise, a modern product is expected to bear the burden of selling and include a lot more than a set of nifty features. That alone leads to new management paradigms, among which is the product management process.
A product management process has shifted from the conventional authoritative to creative. It's a shift in consumer demand and market supply that more than ever requires granular control over the product development cycle. Apart from being an exceptional solution provider, the product needs to market and sell itself. This creates a need to involve more stakeholders in product development: from everyone interested in the product and its success to those who can influence product decisions and are impacted by the product.
The product management process aims at unifying the individual efforts of siloed teams - engineering, marketing, sales, product development. What has been previously handled by senior engineers, solutions architects, marketing managers, and growth strategists, has evolved into a role of its own. Developing a great product requires a scope beyond the sum of the above-mentioned areas.
There is no singular definition to accurately describe the product management process. It’s not simply an entity sitting atop of the functional teams, but rather a mechanism to influence without any authority.
The importance of a product management process
Research shows that 52% of B2C customers would switch brands in the absence of a personalized experience. Creating products nowadays requires a lot more levels of management and quality control. This spawns new roles and responsibilities.
Aspiring entrepreneurs often dread the word management, considering it too corporate and avoiding it altogether. Wary of inviting bureaucracy or smothering creativity, entrepreneurs and a new generation of CEOs tend to avoid traditional management practices in the new realm of a fast-paced culture. Even though established general management principles succeeded in the past, they are not adapted to the uncertainties of the startup era. Management in a traditional sense no longer suits a startup environment, leaving the job to the product management process.
Why is it important?
It calls for discipline, more in a sense of consistency and ownership, rather than control and punishment.
It’s a perfect tool for coordinating work between critical departments and spurs on people without any authority
The result of the product management process is a more complete product
What is it exactly?
The product management process focuses on bringing a new product to market or further enhancing and expanding an existing one. It lies at the crossroads of UX design, business acumen, and product knowledge. The process oversees several areas and entails a bit of everything:
What is agile product management?
In a small team, product managers tend to wear a slew of different hats, doing work from research to analytics. But with the growth of an organization, different teams are spun out to handle those specific duties, leaving the product manager to do lots of stitching and coordinating work without diving deep into any specific area.
Agile product management involves drafting product strategy and product roadmaps in an agile fashion. An adaptive approach to product planning allows you to be light on your feet to rapidly respond to feedback and create something customers want and love. In other words, agile product development is applying the tenets of agile development methodology to product development:
Incremental product development
Early delivery and validation
Continuous adjustment of the roadmap
Quick responses to the changing requirements
The best product management process
A great idea without an effective product management process is a catalyst for havoc across the organization. Carrying out the idea all the way to the market with an innovative product takes planning, discipline, and consistency. An effective product management process consists of the steps taken by a company to bring a new product to market or improve an existing one.
With six main stages of the product management process under your belt, you’ll be armed to tackle any bastion in the fierce market. Almost every digital product undergoes a journey similar to the one outlined below.
1. Refine the vision
Being the basis for an overarching strategy, a clear vision defines not only the direction but the protocol for movement. If you have a clear vision as to where you want to arrive in the long run, your current actions will form day-to-day activities as well as a roadmap to the next checkpoint.
So, continuously refine the vision to ensure that the rest of the actions are on par with your organization’s mission statement and core values.
2. Idea Management
Whether in a global aspect of a completely new product or on a scale of a single innovative feature, managing ideas and prioritizing them accordingly is a critical recurring task in the product management process. Struck by inspiration, one can be delusional about its actual applicability in this particular case.
So, thresh the ideas and cull the viable ones to be moved to the front of the queue.
3. Translate long-term vision into day-to-day activities
Manage day-to-day backlog. Considering the fast-paced environment and the speed with which priorities shift, it’s easy for the backlog to become out of sync with the roadmap and long-term vision.
So, always ensure that the backlog moves you in the direction of the organization’s long-term vision.
A roadmap is a high-level plan that defines an overarching strategic objective along with the main steps leading to that objective.
If you keep your long-term vision intact, you can effectively derive a roadmap that defines the desired outcome to be reached via a set of steps or milestones. A good roadmap will serve as a high-level document to help coordinate strategic thinking, allowing the stakeholders to synchronize their actions.
So, as with any other plan, to reach your goal, keep your roadmap in sync with your continuously evolving long-term vision.
5. Analyzing the metrics, customer behavior, and feedback
Tracking customer behavior and collecting feedback is the very next action after launching your product. It never stops and has no expiration date. Striving for fast iterations is the key, but doing so often leads to omitting analysis of metrics and customer behavior.
Short cycles leave very little time for such a scrupulous process causing companies to shrink these critical recurring tasks and driving the effectiveness down. The very same thing that was intended to be optimized by faster iterations is now at a risk to be inhibited or omitted altogether.
So, keep your batch sizes small for easier customer behavior and metrics collection, because it’s not how many hours your spend doing something, but rather how many iterations you were able to take a certain thing through.
6. Measuring product progress
“Validated Learning” is a unit of progress coined by Eric Ries as part of Lean Methodology.
In an environment of extreme uncertainty, it's common to positively measure the progress of building something nobody wants. Even though it has been done on time and on budget, the result was a waste of resources.
So, always track customer behavior and listen to the changing metrics to analyze customer feedback and figure out sooner than later, the right thing to build that customers want and are willing to pay for.
Who is a product manager?
As shown in the Venn diagram by Martin Eriksson, a product manager’s role lies at the crossroads of UX, Tech, and Business. It encapsulates the shared responsibilities of various stakeholders into a coherent non-authoritative role. So, a product manager has to balance and make trade-off decisions between those three areas, tieing them together and coordinating their collective work while ensuring that everyone’s needs are met.
A leader holds the long-term vision that molds the strategy, but a product manager is the one guiding and steering every step of the way, ensuring the current course is in alignment with the strategy.
Ben Horrowitz’s definition of a product manager “CEO of a product”, which is often met with criticism, calls for a wide range of responsibilities:
Motivating the team
Defining the mission
Shaping the vision
Defining high-level problems
Clearly defining what success looks like
Fusing different team cultures
A CEO of a product implies an authoritative approach, which is not always how product managers work. So a better way to define a product manager’s role is a leader responsible for the product’s long-term success and who guides others by influencing them.
What do product managers do?
A product manager’s daily activities might include:
Making great trade-off decisions between participating teams
Properly allocating the available resources based on priority and needs
Ensuring that what’s being built is feasible and at the same time building something that the market needs
Juggling between all these activities while solving a challenging customer problem
Marty Cagan, the author of “Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love”, defines the goal of a product manager the following way: “to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.”
What are the product manager's responsibilities?
A product manager’s responsibilities vary from company to company. In small organizations, it is to cover research and analytics. In larger organizations, it is to navigate the organizational landscape, drive prioritization, balance business and customer needs.
In a nutshell, a Product Manager is responsible for the product and its success. The product manager’s responsibilities narrow down as the organization grows and new dedicated teams and roles are spun up.
A product manager keeps the overall vision while breaking it down into weekly tasks and daily activities through an iterative approach to product development.
Product Manager vs Project Manager
The Product Manager covers a wider range of activities and thus informally oversees the project manager. The latter is responsible for product development, which is just a single part of the product's lifecycle. A product manager, on the other hand, leads the product from the idea inception to solution launch and beyond, focusing on features, customers, and business value.
Popular companies that have shared their own product management processes
Spotify’s Autonomous Squads
In Spotify's realm, squads are teams with the freedom to work in any way they find most optimal. Each team consists of six to twelve individuals. This allows to "tailor" each team member to a specific project.
This allows for the best alignment-autonomy combination:
With the focus on making a great product at minimal risk and operational cost, Spotify is able to deliver to their huge user base by following a simple iterative process they call “Think It, Build It, Ship It, Tweak It.”
Think It. The initial stage is for discovery, idea research, problem validation, and experimentation with concepts. Usually accompanied by high risk, this stage requires a rigorous vetting process to avoid redundancy and wasted effort down the road.
Build it. Time to develop an MVP and capture feedback from a small subset of users. In a quest for early adopters.
Ship it. Each new feature is released to a limited number of users. Monitor user behavior and assess the success level of each new feature. In case of success, release it to the general public, otherwise, go back to the drawing board.
Tweak it. During this critical stage teams rigorously evaluate gleaned data and tweak the feature or even the product. Fine-tuning operations for cost reduction and performance optimization also take place here.
Amazon’s “Working Backward”
Amazon’s famous “working backward” approach to the product development process is not mere hype but an art of reverse engineering a perfect product. It starts with the team vividly imagining the final product and a journey to it with the order of steps flipped.
The Press Release should specify
The intended customer
The problem that the product solves
The benefits to the customer
A brief from a firm member explaining with enthusiasm the purpose of the product and its benefits to the customer
A CTA nudging the customer to act to take advantage of the offer
Ian McAllister, Head of Product at Airbnb and a former Amazon director, argues that a product team needs to devote time to edit and shrink text to a concise, clear, and compelling reflection of the product.
Amazon takes a step further in a LEAN startup approach: prior to even planning for MVP, draft a press release which is a lot cheaper and faster to build. Not only does the press announcement help gather stakeholders' thoughts and outline the future product, but it allows for gauging the team's enthusiasm and excitement for the product. If the product idea doesn't excite the team, it's a big red flag. The idea might lack something essential. Consider revising the idea or shifting to another one.
A press release isn’t thrown away if the team decides to move forward with the idea, but instead, it’s used to derive a product roadmap. At Amazon, they treat the press release announcement as a very early version of the product roadmap.
Typeform’s two-part framework
Discovery and Delivery! That’s how simple it is at Typeform. Although the framework might sound simple, it’s a lot more intricate to execute in an iterative and cyclic manner.
Here it is as developed by Typeform:
Unlike the traditional MVP approach, Typeform breaks it down further into:
Earliest Testable Product. The fastest way to get metrics for the idea and avoid wasting resources on a doomed MVP. This might be a simple landing page describing a product with manual fulfillment upon the order.
Earliest Usable Product. This is an actual product developed for early adopters. It will have the core functionality, but won’t delight anyone. The goal is to collect data and feedback to decide whether it’s worth continuing with the product development.
Earliest Lovable Product. This product strikes customers with Cupid’s arrow. As a result, customers share their love for the product with their friends and are eager to pay for a premium version. It’s not a finished product, but a baseline version with all the core features implemented and working flawlessly.
Top tips for ironing out your process
Instead of recapping and repeating the main points, we’ve decided to get opinions on the subject from the actual product managers and people involved in the product management process.
Perfect products are not built solely by the development teams. It’s a collective effort of various stakeholders and to coordinate such an effort is the function of an established product management process. It requires a deep understanding of UX design, business acumen, and good product knowledge.
Sally from fastpeoplesearch.io puts in her two cents on the subject
A product ought to provide value and deliver on its intended purpose. The process has to include listening to the market and the customer, tweaking the product, adjusting the strategy, and prioritizing the work. A Product manager oversees the product throughout its entire life cycle, from conception to launch and even retirement.
Her key takeaways:
Listen to the market
Analyze customer behavior
Adjust your strategy accordingly
Re-prioritize your work items to stay in line with the adjusted strategy
Nathan Gill from Epos Now shares his thoughts
Complete a well-thought-out product strategy as part of your product management process. Have a great understanding of your market and your target audience. A time-proven tenet of any sales-led strategy still applies today: create detailed user personas prior to trying to map out the strategy and avoid extrapolating into oblivion. It’s done to understand your customer’s needs and desires. The more characteristics and traits you assign to your user persona, the better understanding of the customer you will have.
Continuous product strategy adjustment is influenced by the key features of your product mapped to your customers’ needs. Gauged by the KPIs, it ought to be a detailed plan outlining your vision and continuously adjusting to your changing goals, product features, deadlines, and metrics.
Maksym Babych from SPDLOAD
Our steps in the product management process:
Chart a vision. It’s the first creation of the product before its actual manifestation in the physical world. It defines the final product and the way to achieve it.
Understand your customers. Compare similar products, study the competition, and check target groups. Analyze customer behavior to understand motives and map those to future campaigns.
Develop a roadmap. It’s a great visual guideline for product managers. Define goals and milestones. A roadmap accounts for the market needs, business goals, and key product features.
Enhance the product. Define the boundaries for the minimum viable product and its release dates. Establish a feedback collection mechanism to continuously acquire new feedback from your customers and refine the product.
Track the metrics. Release early with core features providing an opportunity for early metrics collection and analysis. Monitor user behavior and analyze the data accordingly.
Eric McGee from TRGDatacenters
Eric suggests having a visible and accessible product roadmap at all times. The document should be a result of collaboration from various stakeholders. This will help product managers to gain support for their product vision and strategy among crew members. A product manager’s role is to garner support for the product vision and strategy.
“You can achieve this by making your product roadmap accessible and visible across all the teams involved in the product development process. People naturally work better when they understand their specific roles in a project, as well as the objectives the leader is looking to achieve. Your product roadmap should entail how each step of the product development process leads towards the achievement of shared objectives.”
Patrick Crane the founder and CEO of Love Sew
The fastest-growing sewing company’s leader suggests keeping your sales team close. Their knowledge about customers will help resolve any friction between customers’ needs and your offerings. Involve the sales team in the product management process from the start!
Use the sales team’s feedback to adapt the product to customer specifications, this will lead to wider adoption and more satisfied customers in general.
Stephen Curry from CocoSign
Stephen suggests leveraging the existing tools tailored specifically to product managers and puts in his two cents:
Automate menial and repetitive tasks such as sending notifications to the team, tracking the progress, and allotting the resources effectively
Leverage agile methodologies which seem to be the best and the only option in such a high-paced environment
Focus on the key features and avoid doing too many changes or enhancements at once
Ensure good communication between teams to minimize any friction a customer might face while doing PDF editing using our product
Stick to agile methodologies and keep your sprints short for quicker iterations
“In our case, iterative product planning is more viable. It allows us to reveal all the key product features in an agile fashion. A product change usually reflects specific feedback received from the customer or compiled based on the metrics and customer behavior.
One of the critical stakeholders is our CEO team. They are on the frontlines of our organization. Our product, an online PDF editor, is in a fierce market. To stand out and not get lost in the heap of similar products on the market, we need to differentiate.”
In our ecosystem, says Stephen, the key steps involved in product management are:
Begin finding out the purpose of the product, its key features, and relevant use cases as early as during the ideation stage
Look for the product-market fit to come up with requirements. This helps to shape the go-to-market strategy as targeted market outlines become starker.
Keep the roadmap intact and updated to reflect the latest state of product development
Performing the analysis that involves checking the progress at each stage
Log the customers’ input and map it to the appropriate work items
Launch the product early
Ariana Dugan from Interplay Learning
Ariana, a VP of Product at Interplay Learning, defines the product management process as a multi-stage process:
“It starts with discovery (aligning on a hypothesis or problem statement to research or test) and then moves into delivery (development, release, and monitoring). The product manager is responsible for aligning on the goals and scope of both discovery and delivery, being the voice of the customer, and making good decisions in partnership with design, engineering, and customer stakeholders along the way.”
When it comes to the speed of a product management process, Ariana has no doubts about it being a fast-paced iterative process:
“It's fast-paced for clear, scoped work that's small-to-medium size. When we have strategic shifts in the direction of our product we want to take the time to understand lift and impact before making a systemic change, but when we have a clear problem and solution for a customer we want to get the solution out quickly to see how well it addresses a known problem.”
When it comes to stakeholders at Interplay Learning, Ariana thinks of them in concentric circles:
“If it's a small, more technical change, it's really PMs, engineers, and designers who are involved. As soon as a customer needs to be involved in research or the outputs of development, we get Sales and Client Success in the loop, and if it's a really big release we get marketing involved as well.”
When asked how often do you change/adjust your product management process, Ariana said:
“We do a comprehensive set of retro's after each quarter to see what went well and what didn't in our team rhythms and processes. We usually identify at least a small process change, if not larger ones, by giving ourselves dedicated time to reflect.”
When asked about desired expertise of the product manager, Ariana summed it up into 3 main areas:
“Tech, business, customers - being strong in 2 of these and basic knowledge in the remaining 1 gives you a reasonable amount of expertise to be focused on while not fooling yourself into thinking you need to know everything - that's what your collective team is for!”
Contrary to the popular belief that a product manager is a CEO of a product, Ariana disagrees, adding her own two cents to this notion:
“Ooooh, good topic - I don't think it's fair to call a PM the CEO of a product. CEOs have a lot of positional authority, decision-making power, and latitude to make big changes and decisions. Product managers have a lot more authority through influence, which by nature makes the rhythm and style of their work much different, even if they do get to make some pretty cool and weighty decisions for a product that are on par with being the "CEO" of a product.”