The role of Product Management

by Ivar Slavenburg

In several articles I wrote about the changing role of Marketing in organisations. As written, these changes are caused mainly by the faster pace at which products and services need to be developed. Traditional Market Research is to much focused on what happened in the past. Though the findings may be relevant, by the time products end services are (re)developed based upon these findings, the market may have moved on already. Consequently, if Marketing is based on such research, its effectivity will diminish. The Design competence is much better suited to correlate general knowledge to future products and services. Combined with a flexible operation, it can create a much more flexible and effective ability to tailor to changing consumer needs, both B2C and B2B.

Product Management is still immature

In this article I will try to give an generic description of Product Management (yes, with a capital P and a capital M), so it can be as a kind of baseline for future articles. Compared to Marketing, Product Management is a different beast, a competence that is widely popular in modern companies, but nevertheless isn’t mature yet. If you would ask different companies what product management is within their organisation you probably get a lot of different answers. Notice for instance the different way the competence is often written. Sometimes it is written as Product Management, but often you will find it is written as Productmanagement. Consequently, the function will be called Product Manager or productmanager.

Now this may look trivial, but it isn’t. While the former is usually used for a senior role in a company with far reaching responsibilities for a series of product and services, the latter implies a more operational role, solving issues around a product or service the line organisation (operations) can’t solve. You can imagine these two different approaches to what seems like the same competence results in totally different focus when it comes to daily tasks. Probably many Productmanagers are involved in determining strategy more or less, but they spent relatively little time on it and have no real authority in the decision process. Product Managers on the other hand are much more focused on strategy, whether it is marketing, technical or service. At least that’s what they should be focused on. Notice that when I speak of Product Management I mean the one with capital P and the capital M.

The Product Life Cycle

Many books have written about Product Management. Though it was already implemented in 1930’s, it took several decades to gain some popularity. This spawned a whole series of books. One of the more popular books has been "The Product Manager's Desk Reference" (Steven Haines, 2009). It is still widely used and provides an excellent and wide overview of all the tasks a Product Manager needs to fore-fill. It uses a clear procedural model for this, called the Product Life Cycle, consisting of three major bodies of work: „New Product Planning”, „New Product Introduction” and „Post-Launch Product Management”. The relationship between the 3 major bodies of work are displayed in the figure.

Product Management Lifecycle Model as described by (Haines, 2009)
Product Management Lifecycle Model (© Sequent Learning Networks)

Haines describes that it is vital that when an organization chooses to implement a Product Management function it needs to make a clear choice on how to manage their products and markets. Otherwise implementing it will not be effective. These clear choices are (Haines, 2009):

  • The organisation wants to implement a central body that oversees all its products and services;
  • This body gets the authority and resources to make decisions on the life cycle of these products and services;
  • It also gets the authority over the health of a product or a service and is in constant contact with operations on their performance concerning the products and services. As such Product Management needs to be genetic, it influences all supporting structures.

Haines notes that there is an almost natural conflict between Marketing, which is often focused on markets, and Product Management, which is focused on products, product lines or even complete portfolios. Also, he makes the observation that „it always seems to be some kind of a business problem that brings an organization to Product Management as one of the key answers to the problem”. These problems are usually poor product performance or a channel conflict.

Centralized position

So, according to (Haines, 2009), Product Management can be defined as business management at the product, product line, or product portfolio level. It should be clear that it, to be effective, should touch the whole organization. This is positioning Product Management central in an organisation. It is the competence that maintains not only existing products and services, but also is deeply involved in the development of new products and services. In other words, it is a key competence in driving innovation in an organization. As such, it is key that this competence is evolving to the new reality in business, with fast, incremental, development cycles and flexible, highly scalable, operations.

Rapid innovation will influence Product Management

Although I don’t think nor see signs that the competence is in any danger of becoming obsolete, there are many researches and signals from companies that product managers are having trouble adapting to this new reality. In all honesty, I think there is often a problem between the Product Management competence and other competences in an organizations and the new Design competence will not be an exception to that rule. That is caused by the fact that Product Management might have the responsibility for products or services, it don’t actually produces nor maintains it. It is totally dependent on other competences to function. Competences it doesn’t control. Combine this with the observation that in many organizations Product Managers don’t get the authorities mandatory to be effective and it becomes clear why in many organizations the job of Product Management is so difficult.

Further Reading

  1. Steven Haines (2009), The Product Manager's Desk Reference.