For such a vital and pivotal position within many companies, the job “Product Manager” is often not well defined.
The role each product manager plays depends on many dynamics — the size of the company, the type of company, the type of product, the stage of the product, and the culture of the company all dictate the role and influence of the product manager.
Case in point: The three statements below come from three very different (and real) product management job descriptions.
- Has responsibilities to manage from concept, to design, sample production, testing, forecast, cost, mass production, promotion, support, and finally product end of life.
- Delivers the operating plan: achievement of growth objectives including market share, revenue, profit and return on investment for all the channels/categories of business and/or key customers.
- Responsible for managing and implementing marketing activities through research, strategic planning and implementation.
Quite different, aren’t they? Whether we look at three or 10 job descriptions, you can see that each product management role is varied and unique. What this underscores is that many businesses have vastly different views about what a product manager does, and where her ultimate responsibility begins and ends.
So, what are the key responsibilities of a product manager? And how can you use the role most effectively to usher successful products into the world?
The Key Role of Product Managers: A Working Definition
In most cases, your core role as a product manager will be two-fold:
- To set the long-term vision and strategy for your company’s products.
- To communicate this strategy to all of the relevant participants and stakeholders.
Typically, the primary tool you will use to accomplish your key roles — product strategist and communicator — will be a product roadmap, which is a strategic, high-level document that conveys the “why” behind the products you’re building.
How Successful Product Managers Create Product Roadmaps
As a product manager, it is important to understand that you are a central hub within your company for a lot of critical information about your products, market, competitors, customers, prospects, key industry analysts, and many other constituencies.
To succeed, you will need to continually gather and analyze data and business intelligence from all of these sources (as well as your internal sources like sales and customer service) — and use this data to inform the evolution of your product roadmaps.
Given that you will need to interact with a broad range of stakeholders and departments to ensure your products’ success, and that you will need to translate the input and data you gather to build a case for many decisions you present in your roadmap, there are several key skills you’ll need to bring to your role as a product manager. These skills include:
1. Be Transparent About Your Prioritization and Roadmap Process
Remember, much of your role as a product manager will be explaining “why” to various stakeholders and constituents — why you are prioritizing one feature or theme over another in a release; why you’ve chosen to focus more on one particular goal for the next two quarters versus another goal.
The best way to get the relevant constituencies — sales, marketing, engineering, your executives — on board with your strategic thinking is to be clear and open with them about why and how you are making decisions.
2. Be Able to Say “No,” But Explain Why in Terms That Stakeholders Understand
There will be plenty of times when an executive will ask for a new feature his gut tells him will be great… when an engineer will suggest tabling the development of a feature set to save time on the next sprint… and when a sales rep will ask (even beg) you to add a specific tool to the next release because a prospect has promised to buy if it’s included.
But if those requests will undermine your strategic objectives for the product, you will often have to say no. The key will be in your ability to articulate why (that all-important word in a successful product manager’s vocabulary) you cannot accommodate the request. Again, the more strategic and backed by evidence you can make your roadmap, the more likely your constituents are to understand when you need to say no.
3. Be a Ruthless Prioritizer While Balancing the Needs of Customers and Stakeholders
Regardless of your company’s size or budget, you will always face limited resources for your product development. That means you will always need to prioritize, and continually weigh the competing factors of your objectives for your products, your company’s limited resources, and demands from various stakeholders.
If you’re not sure how to set priorities or how to weigh various factors in developing your roadmap, there are several great models that can help you get started — such as weighted scoring and the Kano model.
For a detailed explanation of these and other proven models you can use to prioritize your roadmap in an environment of limited resources, download ProductPlan’s free book: Product Roadmaps: Your Guide to Planning and Selling Your Strategy.
4. Bring Evidence-Based Decision-Making to Your Communication
As I’ve stated previously, one key trait of successful product managers is their ability to answer “why” to the many questions they must field from stakeholders throughout their organizations. One of the most effective ways to answer why is with evidence. It’s much more compelling than your opinion — or anyone else’s.
If you have real-world user data, customer feedback, and metrics on your product then you already have an excellent source of business intelligence to inform how best to build your product roadmap. Let your own analytics help guide your decisions.
If you don’t have real-world user data on your products yet, don’t worry. There are plenty of other ways to gather useful intelligence about your product, customers and market. Ask your customers directly. Study your competitors’ products. Read online communities or comments on your company’s blog where your prospects or customers are discussing your products or your competitors’ products. Study research reports from the analysts who cover your industry.
When an executive or sales rep asks why you’ve selected one direction over another for the next iteration of your product, your ability to present a compelling explanation backed by real data will go a long way toward earning their buy-in.
Because you play a central role in your organization — always gathering valuable intelligence from various stakeholders, customers and your market — you are in a unique position to define the success of your product. Your role as the product’s strategist and evangelist will be central to your success and the success of your products.