The year 2020 shifted the world in fundamental ways. It changed the way we work, learn, play, travel, and socialize. It catapulted some industries into dominance (video conferencing, food delivery) while decimating others (hospitality, tourism). In fact, 2020 brought us so many shocks and surprises that it made identifying top trends in product management more challenging than ever. This year conditioned us to the reality that industry, a nation, and even the world can change overnight. How can we predict the future with any confidence?
Will our governing systems change in light of new threats to world health? Will a vaccine eradicate COVID-19? How long before we can attend a public event without wearing a mask? Who knows?
As a product leader, entrepreneur, and product management author, I have paid close attention to the product community throughout 2020. My team at ProductPlan has worked with hundreds of product professionals this year. We’ve gained an understanding of how the pandemic has affected their goals, concerns, and plans. We even recently released our 2021 State of Product Management report where we learned what the #1 thing product managers hope changes in their role in 2021 (hint: it’s not a higher salary).
Here are a few top trends in product management I’ve seen and that I’m predicting will continue through 2021 and beyond.
5 Tops Trends in Product Management for 2021
1. Distributed product teams will be the new normal.
I anticipate that the world’s health experts will bring the pandemic at least somewhat under control in 2021. But one temporary consequence of the 2020 lockdowns—remote work—will become a permanent part of the culture for millions of organizations.
After talking with hundreds of product teams throughout the year, I sense that many companies will adopt a hybrid model of remote and office work. There are strong business reasons for this:
It allows organizations to find the best product talent anywhere.
With an office-bound culture, a business limits itself to the best staff it can find within a reasonable commuting distance from its building.
Without the artificial limitation of hiring people only in the company’s geographic location, the business opens its pool of viable candidates to the best talent available anywhere in the world. This gives an organization the ability to build a world-class product team.
It makes an organization a more appealing place to work.
Many product professionals worked from home for an extended period in 2020 for the first time in their careers. A lot of those professionals realized both that they can remain highly productive and creative working remotely—and that they love it.
Businesses caught on to this as well. By allowing more flexibility in both when and where their employees work, an organization can attract and keep better people on their teams.
It can lower an organization’s fixed costs.
Another common theme my team and I heard during the 2020 lockdowns were our customers re-examining their office real estate. Many found that if they implemented the hybrid model of remote and onsite work, they could downsize their office space and lower their real estate costs.
With more employees interested in working at least part-time from home and businesses are discovering they can reduce their overhead with a smaller office footprint. The remote-work trend will become the new normal.
2. Product leaders will become more effective.
Based on my interactions with product leaders throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns, I believe 2020 triggered in the product profession a phenomenon known in the physical sciences as stress-recovery-adaptation.
Developed by a medical doctor and researcher, Hans Selye (pronounced “say”), this theory argues that when we’re exposed to a stressor, we go through three stages. There’s the fight against the stressor, a recovery period after that fight, and a general adaptation that makes us more resilient against similar future stress. (This is the process we go through during and after physical exercise that makes our bodies stronger.)
The pandemic forced everyone to adapt quickly to many new threats against their organizations. These stressors included the lockdowns, the sudden and forced transition to remote work, financial pressure on their businesses, and sudden changes to their customers’ priorities and demands.
From what we at ProductPlan witnessed during this time, many product leaders handled these external stressors with intelligence, patience, and compassion. They accepted—even embraced—the uncertainty. Product leaders trusted in their teams and strategically went about building new processes that would work under these rapidly changing circumstances.
I believe product leaders have already begun to adapt successfully to the new realities of a post-pandemic world. In the future, I foresee product leaders running their teams more effectively and successfully as a result. They’ve undergone an enormous stressor. They’re recovering from that struggle. And they will emerge stronger from it.
If you’d like to delve more deeply into crisis leadership strategies, I recommend this article from ProductPlan’s Chief Executive Brad Wills: A CEO’s Tips for Resilient Leadership During Challenging Times.
3. The essentialist product management movement will grow stronger.
When your house is on fire, you don’t run to the closet looking for your box of multi-colored paper clips. Your mind homes in on what matters—people, pets, photos, etc.—and ignores everything else.
This year left people feeling overwhelmed with level-one priorities. Many had to adapt to new working arrangements. Many others lost their jobs or businesses entirely. Parents had to manage children learning from home for the first time. And everyone had to figure out how to adjust their lifestyles to protect themselves from a worldwide viral pandemic.
In these chaotic times, many people began cutting away the things that didn’t matter so they could focus on the ones that did. This is essentialism, and it’s a useful approach for living a more productive, balanced, and fulfilling life.
Product managers, in particular, are vulnerable to overwhelm. They’re constantly putting out fires in their organization. They have so many responsibilities, so many teams, and projects to coordinate that they can fall victim to worrying about everything equally—even those multi-colored paper clips.
What I’ve seen repeatedly throughout 2020 is product professionals realizing the need to narrow their focus. The crazy events of the year forced them to de-prioritize all but the projects that could truly move the strategic needle for their products and their businesses. Many product managers and leaders have adapted by:
- Focusing on their product’s highest purpose
- Creating space and time for thinking
- Saying no when necessary
- Doing less, but better.
As a longtime technology product manager, I’ve experienced firsthand how effective the essentialist approach can be. That’s why I expect this trend to gain more traction through 2021.
4. Diversity awareness and action will increase.
Successful product teams don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a part of their larger society. Smart product leaders were paying close attention in 2020 to the changing cultural and political climate. If they hadn’t already made a material effort to create a corporate culture fostering diversity, collaboration, and integrity, these organizations must have realized that this was the year such policies became must-haves.
The civil unrest in dozens of cities around the country, primarily emerging out of protests against systemic racism, made diversity and inclusion top-of-mind for many product teams. This was true even for organizations that had already prioritized building diverse teams in the years leading up to 2020.
But based on what the ProductPlan team has seen firsthand in working with product teams in all industries around the world, I anticipate these noble goals becoming even higher on product organizations’ priority lists for 2021.
You can see what product professionals had to say about diversity at their organizations in our 2021 report.
5. Product teams will re-examine and update their strategies.
A product strategy that would have been effective in the 2018 world might fall short in 2021. For reasons, the product team could not foresee when they developed their strategy.
For example, a B2B software product sold only through a long-term subscription might have been wildly successful in the booming-economy days of 2018 and 2019. But by 2020, the product team overseeing that business app might need a new pricing model to accommodate its customers’ post-pandemic fears of committing to long-term expenses.
An ingenious COVID pivot:
One small but brilliant example of a product team that adjusted its strategy in light of COVID was a company that manufactures hollow, plastic eggs that parents can fill with toys or candy for Easter egg hunts. The lockdowns went into effect in mid-March 2020 for most of the world, just weeks before Easter Sunday. Of course, egg hunts all over the world were canceled.
But the product team hit on a great idea. They recolored their eggs from traditional Easter tones (light blue, yellow, pink, light green) to a black and orange that showed up under a blacklight. Then they marketed their new product as eggs that would be perfect for a “Halloween hunt.”
Throughout 2020, many product teams found themselves playing defense. They had to react to major disruptions to their businesses, their markets, and their employees’ personal lives. As I’ve noted throughout this post, I think many product teams have done an admirable job of adjusting to a chaotic situation.
But as we head into 2021, I’m confident these teams will become increasingly proactive. They’ll be taking an objective look at their pre-COVID strategies. Examining them against new realities and updating their plans to ensure they can continue to deliver outstanding products that solve real market problems in a post-pandemic world.
If you’d like ideas for creating a winning product strategy, even in the challenging period we’re living through now, I recommend the book written by our Vice President of Product, Annie Dunham:
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