What does a product manager do? Where do a product manager’s responsibilities begin and end?
To answer the question, “What exactly is a product manager?” we need to understand the roots of the profession and the origin of the concept. Product management began with brand management and other tangible facets such as the look, pricing, and packaging of the product.
It all started in May 1931 as a justification for upping the headcount in the promotion department of Proctor & Gamble. Neil McElroy, an ad manager, drafted an internal memo to pitch his idea of “brand men.” He wanted two more hires to focus on brand responsibility: a “brand man” and “assistant brand man.”
Brand man areas of accountability include:
- Ad and promotional trends
- Brand development of new territories
- Identification of brand weaknesses with an action plan
- Accountability for printed words on the brand
- Ad expenses
- Product innovations
- Promotional strategy and execution
Assistant brand man areas of accountability include:
- Office work follow-up and editing
- Create field studies
- Establish pulse of the industry (printed word, at the time)
- Stand in for the brand man or other brand responsibilities
The request was the result of McElroy’s frustration with P&G’s handling of its Camay soap. He thought Camay should have its own dedicated advertisement and marketing. McElroy was dealing with competitors Lever and Palmolive as well as P&G’s own flagship product, Ivory. Years later, his campaign would lead to product differentiation, a key component of marketing. Did McElroy provide insights to Neil Borden, who was the first to use the term marketing mix in 1949? Quite possibly. It wasn’t until thirty-two years later when the Seven P’s framework model was developed by Bernard Booms and Mary Bitner:
- Product: quality, image, branding, features, variants, mix, support, customer service, use occasion, availability, and warranties
- Promotion: marketing communications, personal promotion, sales promotions, PR, branding, and direct marketing
- Price: positioning, list, discounts, credit, payment methods, and free or value-added elements
- Place: trade channels, sales support, channel number, and channel segmentation
- People: individual marketing, individual customer contacts, recruitment, culture and image, training and skills, and remuneration
- Process: customer focus, business-led, IT-supported, design features, and research and development
- Physical evidence: sales and staff contact with product, product packaging, and online experiences
McElroy knew quite a few things about markets and economics. His degree in economics from Harvard and his experience with brands helped McElroy rise to president of P&G in 1948. Brand management highlighted the need for both centralized oversight and decentralized decision making. McElroy’s goal was to place decisions into the hands of individuals with the best information.
McElroy stipulated that the brand man would be a full-time hire responsible for the product rather than this being a business function. Keep in mind that “product” has a broad definition. It pertains to any tangible or intangible good, service, process, or interaction.
Product ownership and differentiation
Product management, on the other hand, is an organizational function within a company involving the planning, forecasting, production, or marketing of a product at all stages of its lifecycle. Product management often is compared to product lifecycle management (PLM), which integrates, people, information, processes, and business functions.
Product management usually refers to tangible goods such as foods, technology gadgets, or appliances. However, recently the term “product” has been accepted into the software engineering space and refers to an application or system throughput.
With software, it’s not as simple as merely focusing on advertising strategy. Information technology or engineering teams must have a minimally viable product or working software. This urgency is compounded by the rapid pace of technology research and development and the need to decide which features to build or where to execute functionality.
Product management hasn’t had the benefit of being a consistent discipline and therefore varies widely from company to company. There are some standard distinct areas:
- Experience (design): Which features are required and why?
- Technology (development, project management): What technologies will enable or accelerate adoption?
- Strategy (business): What should the future of the product look like?
Even with a high degree of differentiation across industries, the need for standardization will eventually unify the roles and responsibilities of the product manager.
Product manager or product owner
What does a product manager do? Where do a product manager’s responsibilities begin and end? We’ll tackle these questions after a brief discussion of the role of the product owner.
The history of the product manager is outlined above, but I’ve said little about the history of the product owner. These roles are quite different from one another.
The product-owner role stepped into the mainstream much later. It was originated at the Snowbird Resort in Utah in 2001 during the development of the Scrum Agile Manifesto. Foundational elements of Scrum can be seen as early as the 1960s: quality improvements (pre-1960), Kanban principles (first appeared in 1953), iterative and incremental developments (IID’s) came along after 1960, evolutionary delivery (EVO) dates to 1985, and, finally, Scrum arrives around 1986. These led to lightweight software development in the 1990s, extreme programming in 1996, and Agile in 2001.
Product manager role and responsibilities
The product manager is responsible for product strategy, which includes:
- Owning the product lifecycle from concept to sunset.
- Championing the business partner (keeping their interests in mind at all times).
- Managing and communicating new product features effectively with cross-functional teams.
- Producing expert knowledge about relevant technological advances.
- Creating and building a roadmap for product adoption.
- Performing product and market analysis (working with product teams and business partners).
- Identifying new opportunities; producing enhancements and line extensions.
- Supporting the approval, design, development, and launch of the product.
- Leading the launch of innovative product accessories.
- Identifying new target markets.
- Identifying, specifying and prioritizing features, functionality, and capabilities.
- Defining, implementing, and maintaining the marketing mix and business models for the product.
- Facilitating, developing, and implementing impactful product positioning, messaging, and differentiated strategies.
- Envisioning and executing launch strategy.
- Identifying, analyzing, and adapting to trends in the marketplace and among customers and competitors for accelerated growth.
Product owner role and responsibilities
The product owner is responsible for business needs alignment, including:
- Owning program backlog refinement and preparation for program increment (PI) planning.
- Leading story definition, providing clarifications necessary to assist the team with their story estimates and story sequencing, and drafting the team’s specific objectives for the upcoming PI.
- Building, pruning, refining, and maintaining the team backlog.
- Reviewing and reprioritizing the backlog as part of the preparatory work for Iteration planning.
- Keeping the just-in-time, story-elaboration process flowing.
- Having ready at least two iterations’ worth of ready stories in the team backlog at all times.
- Developing story acceptance criteria, drafting these when feasible, and providing examples in support of acceptance test-driven development (ATDD) specification by example.
- Accepting stories as done. This includes validation that the story meets acceptance criteria and has had the appropriate, persistent acceptance tests and that it otherwise meets its “definition of done.”
- Assisting with decision making and sequencing of the key technological infrastructures that will host the new business functionality.
- Iterating review and retrospective.
- Coordinating content dependencies with other product owners.
- Running the weekly product-owner sync meetings.
- Presenting the system demo for program and value stream stakeholders.
A one-lane, winding road
It’s no wonder that the need for product managers and product owners has again surfaced in corporate America. Dynamic consumer choice, the explosion of social media, and creative business models make product management an exciting and confusing space. Whether you’re designing high-tech cars or designing the next blockchain application, product management will play a significant role in driving product strategy.
As a consequence of all these demands, you must be deliberate. As you identify, shape, and define new roles—even if internally facing—be sure to craft role responsibilities that reflect your company’s needs. Design an intelligent product-management discipline from the beginning.
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