A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
If you’ve worked as a product manager, or even researched job postings looking for your first product management position, you’re probably familiar with most of the basic product management skills. These include the ability to learn about your market and develop an accurate profile of your target customer, research the competitive landscape, deliver a strong operating plan for your product, and drive its development to successful completion. We’ve discussed these key product management responsibilities in a previous post.
But what you might not realize is that you can develop all of these product management skills and still not be a highly effective product manager. Why? Because there are also several other soft skills you will need to succeed in product management. We don’t talk about them as often as we do the more traditional skills, and they don’t typically show up in product manager job descriptions or postings.
Nevertheless, these skills will play an important role in your success as a product manager. So let’s discuss them.
As a product manager, a lot of your role will involve gathering information from many sources to help you make better-informed decisions about how-to guide and improve your product. In other words, you will often be interviewing subject-matter experts (both internal and external) about product details, the needs of the market, your competitors, your customers, budgetary and resource constraints, and other important strategic details. In fact, when we spoke to several product managers, they listed silence as one of the most under-appreciated product management skills.
To synthesize all of this information intelligently, and put it to use building the best product you can, you will need to truly listen — to hear and understand what each constituent is telling you.
In our 2021 Product Roadmap Survey, we at ProductPlan found that one of the top challenges that product managers face today is the ability to effectively communicate their product strategy to the various constituent groups whose support they need to bring a successful product to the market. Communicating product strategy is also a top objective.
One of the most important product management skills is the ability to communicate complex information clearly to many different audiences. You might know your product’s planned feature upgrades inside and out, as well as all of the intricate details of your main epics and stories for the product’s next iteration. But when speaking with your executives or other decision-makers, these details probably won’t serve you very well — and discussing them could undermine the support you are trying to secure.
That’s because your executives are generally going to be interested in your product’s strategic objectives only at the highest levels — how it will position the entire company for success, how it will increase the company’s bottom line, etc. So you will need to know how to effectively communicate with stakeholders at this level.
With your development managers or scrum masters, by contrast, you will need to effectively communicate why you need them to focus on one epic or theme over another, and what the next version of the product ultimately needs to develop.
And when speaking with sales or marketing about your product, you will need to communicate how your new product or upgrade will translate into leads or customers, and how it can create new sales opportunities among your installed base.
In other words, to be a successful product manager you need to be able to communicate effectively in multiple languages — executive, development, strategic, tactical, etc.
As a product manager, you will find you often have to shift rapidly between a strategic and tactical focus — discussing your product at a high level with an industry analyst or your CEO in the morning, and then jumping right into a detailed discussion of feature priority with your developers after lunch.
To be effective in both of these contexts, you need to stay organized at all times, to keep your strategic, high-level information handy at all times, as well as up-to-date information about features and other product details.
Returning to ProductPlan’s 2021 Product Roadmap Survey, we found that some of the most common complaints product managers had about their roadmaps were that they did not contain enough key information, did not help the product managers to prioritize effectively, and left their stakeholders with outdated information.
The product roadmap is often the central document product managers use to help drive the product’s development. Which means one of the best ways to get and stay organized — always able to easily refer to, update and communicate the right information to the right constituents — is to use product roadmap software designed just for this purpose.
Products often have a long development cycle, and while all of the teams involved might be enthusiastic at the very beginning of the process, that enthusiasm can wane with time.
As the weeks or months progress, development teams might want to look for shortcuts or question whether you really need a given feature set included in this iteration. Your executives might have second thoughts about the number of resources and budget the product’s development is consuming. Sales and marketing teams — and even your customers — might grow impatient with your development and demand an earlier release date.
Successful product managers know that part of their job is to serve as their product’s ongoing cheerleader, to remind all involved parties why the work they are doing (or the money they’re committing, or the time they are waiting) is going to be worth it when the product hits the market and makes a real difference for the company and the customers it serves.
In other words, one of the most useful product management skills you’ll need to be effective is to keep everyone’s eye on the prize, especially when they themselves lose sight of it.
Given how important these soft skills are to effective product management, it is surprising that they don’t receive more focus on job descriptions and job postings. That’s probably because they are harder to quantify. It can’t be easy to test in a job interview for the ability to be a sole cheerleader to jaded developers and stakeholders for a product in mid-development or to communicate information clearly in the right ways to different constituencies.
But even though these questions might not “be on the test” in your job interview, they are still vital product management skills to develop if you want to enjoy a successful career.