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What Exactly is Product Management?

We take a look at what it means to be a product manager, what the three fields of project management are and discuss the history of product management.
Despite the growing need for product managers, it is still difficult to define exactly what product management is! The reason for this is because it doesn’t perfectly fall into conventional functions that you may already know, such as business strategy, design, sales, marketing, or engineering.
Product managers need to meet the evolving and increasing demands of the customer while also meeting business requirements and objectives. Martin Eriksson, a product management expert and currently product partner at EQT Ventures, defines product management as an ‘intersection between business, technology and user experience’. [1] It is a multidisciplinary field consisting of numerous business and technology channels working together, as seen in this diagram:
Graphic shows a Venn diagram of Product Management: An intersection of three fields. There are three circles labelled: Customer Experience, Technology, Business. The overlap of the three circles is Product Management.
Product management: An intersection of three fields (2021)
The three main streams that intersect in product management include:
  • Business: Product management is concerned with ensuring sustainable product success to support the attainment of business goals. Product managers must be able to understand the broader business context they are operating within and how products they are responsible for can contribute to wider strategic goals.
  • Technology: A product manager needs to understand the fundamental considerations of technical product development, including the dynamics of the relevant technology and what is involved in its development and management. This helps them to make informed and realistic decisions.
  • Customer/user experience: Product managers need to be consumer-centric and focus on their consumer’s needs and experiences. They must be deeply interested in seeing their products deliver value for their customers. Product managers should be able to provide the voice of the customer through the entirety of the product development and management process.
The role of a product manager lies across all three fields and has evolved from a series of responsibilities. Traditionally, these responsibilities have come from managing developers and engineers. Product manager responsibilities include:
  • identifying customer problems
  • making key product decisions
  • having certain business acumen
  • having technical knowledge
  • understanding user experience (UX).

A brief overview of the evolution of product management

There is no definitive evolution of product management; however, it can be useful to understand our roots and see how the role has progressed over history. Having this understanding helps us to navigate organisational trade-offs as our skills and knowledge evolve.

The history

The modern product management role was created as a brand management position. It was first outlined in the US during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Neil McElroy, an advertising manager, proposed the idea of a ‘brand man’ to Proctor & Gamble (P&G). A ‘brand man’ would have the responsibility of holding a product’s brand, management, and success. McElroy asserted that brand managers needed to be responsible for the product’s plans in their entirety.
Over time, the principles of brand management (also known as consumer product management) were followed by the software market as it grew throughout the 1980s. As a result, many technology firms started recruiting brand managers who had a deep knowledge of the product and its various elements. These brand managers went on to become entrepreneurs and product leaders. For example, Scott Cook went from brand manager at P&G to founder of Intuit, developing accounting software products like Quickbooks.
However, as technology advanced, the gap between engineering and consumer product management grew, exposing some of the challenges that organisations were now facing as they scaled. For example, engineers were struggling to keep up with customer demands and concerns and they had limited time to collaborate with other teams for revenue growth. These challenges required a role to bridge the gap which ultimately led to the establishment of the product manager role.

Evolution to technology

The initial product management role was situated within the marketing function. This focused on understanding customer’s needs and fulfilling them through using the classic marketing mix of developing the right product, in the right place, sold at the right price, using the right marketing.
However, as product management progressed into the technological world, there was a separation between the development and production of a product. Most tech companies started to create whole new industries which could not solely rely on the old marketing-based activities of pricing and packaging to be competitive. A product needed to understand and align with consumer needs. [2]

Agility

Initially, the product development process followed a consistent, but siloed, waterfall method. This started with research to determine product requirements. These requirements were passed on to an engineering team that developed a product several months later. This process restarted again with every new product and is called ‘waterfall’ because each step follows on from the last and relies on the previous step to be completely finished before the next step can be undertaken.
In 2001, while away at a ski resort, a group of software engineers decided to develop the Agile manifesto, which underpins the Scrum methodology. [3] Agile is a project management philosophy that uplifts collaboration, communication, and stakeholder engagement. It is iterative so that products can be developed quickly to ensure room for feedback and improvement in later iterations. Scrum is a specific Agile methodology that teams, led by project managers, use to deliver a project. This manifesto clearly explained the principles that underlined some of these methodologies to date:
‘We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Working software over comprehensive documentation. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Responding to change over following a plan. That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.’ [3]
This manifesto enabled engineers and product managers to be collaborative, consumer-centric, and shift towards a lean methodology that centres on continuous improvement for both a company and product. The role of the product manager is to guide the product through its multiple iterations and to ensure the various departments are working towards a common goal.

References

  1. Eriksson M. The history and evolution of Product Management; Mind the Product Blog; 2015 October. Available from: https://www.mindtheproduct.com/history-evolution-product-management/
  2. Judson S. How to become a product manager, straight from a Hubspot PM; Hubspot Blog; 2021 June 17. Available from: https://blog.hubspot.com/service/become-product-manager
  3. The Agile Manifesto [Internet]; [date unknown]. Available from: https://agilemanifesto.org/
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Product Management Essentials

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