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...
Think of this as a pop quiz. If you’re a product manager or other product management professional, you spend hours every day driving your product forward—through development, over obstacles, past competitors, around challenges, and, if you’re really diligent, maybe even under budget. You probably know your product inside and out. You probably know your product’s target user inside and out, too.
But could you explain, in one crisp, compelling sentence—right now—what that product’s mission is? Not what it does. Not a list of its features. The product’s mission: a clear statement that explains the product’s reason for being, whom it serves, what it does for them, how it’s unique, and ultimately why you and your team come to work every day.
If you haven’t yet developed a mission statement for your product—a rallying cry that everyone across your organization can easily learn, understand and apply to every strategic decision—doing so should top your priority list right now. Here’s why.
When it comes to studying successful businesses in the hopes of emulating their success, you can’t find a better case study than Apple. In just about everything they do—from design to marketing to packaging to releasing new products—Apple has become the gold standard for businesses across every industry.
Apple does a lot of things the right way. But if there’s one unifying theme across the company, an organizing principle around which they base all key strategic decisions, it’s simplicity.
That’s according to Ken Segall, the longtime creative director for Chiat\Day, the ad agency contracted by Steve Jobs at Apple. In his book Think Simple: How Smart Leaders Defeat Complexity, Segall recalls his years working with Jobs and Apple as a case study in how defining and disseminating a compelling mission can help a product or a company create an enormous advantage. For example…
In Think Simple, Segall recalls an event in which Steve Jobs, newly reinstated as chief of the fledgling Apple after being pushed out years earlier, told his team about the company’s new mission statement.
Apple Mission: To provide relevant, compelling solutions that customers can only get from Apple.
This simple statement would inform just about everything Jobs and his team at Apple would do—and not do—for years, starting with the very first product the company would release under the new Steve Jobs regime, the iMac.
In an era when consumer electronics were simultaneously boring and difficult to use—consider the standard gray and black desktop computers and their complex interfaces—Apple’s original iMac was both simple and elegant.
The iMac came in bright colors, a first for the home-based computer industry. The computer was encased in a translucent plastic, which allowed users to see the inner-workings of the computer, meaning that even the chips, motherboards, and wires added to the design. It also combined both the computer’s guts and monitor into a single unit. And it offered a simplified graphical user interface, far more user-friendly than its PC-based counterparts.
Yes, Steve Jobs could have quickly released a new Apple computer model, perhaps even with a unique design twist or two. But those computers would have competed with an already crowded market for home-based desktop computers.
Instead—referring back to his mission to create compelling things that could come only from Apple—Steve Jobs and his team created not just another new computer but an entirely new category of computer.
That’s part of the power of creating and strictly adhering to a clear and compelling mission statement.
To flesh out this key benefit of crafting the right product or company mission, we’ll use two case studies—one from Segall’s book, the other from a major company that uses ProductPlan’s roadmap software.
In Think Simple, Segall explains that the massive success of event-ticket platform StubHub came largely from that company’s founders defining, sharing, and acting on a clear mission statement.
StubHub Mission: Where fans buy and sell tickets.
That seems pretty straightforward, even obvious, for a company whose sole product is an online marketplace for buying and selling event tickets. But this is an example of how, as Segall puts it in his book, “Simplicity is one of the most deceptive concepts on earth.”
Here’s what StubHub cofounder Jeff Fluhr said about the power this statement ultimately had on the company:
“Verbalizing our mission not only gave the company more focus, but it was also helpful in terms of just speaking to the world about what we were doing. We were about the fans—and therefore we were not about the venues and the teams and the leagues, or the performing artists and the music space and the music industry. We were about the fans. That was really, really important in guiding the company’s actions. Without it, StubHub would not have succeeded as it did.”
A simple statement articulating the reason for creating and supporting their platform—all for “the fans”—helped StubHub’s staff better understand its purpose, make more strategically focused decisions, and ultimately distinguish itself from other ticketing services.
The second example of the power of a compelling mission comes from Nike, the world-renowned sports-apparel brand and longtime user of ProductPlan’s purpose-built roadmap software.
Nike Mission: Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. (And if you have a body, you’re an athlete.)
Like StubHub’s mission, this reads like a simple, straightforward promise to customers. But consider how much power and focus is packed into this short statement. Nike is simultaneously speaking to all of humanity—everyone who has a body—but also speaking specifically to one aspect of us, our inner athlete.
What Nike has done here is incredible. They’ve identified their target market as everyone in the world—usually not a viable strategy, unless you’re selling a staple of survival like food or medicine. But because they’ve isolated just one key characteristic that’s universal to all of humanity—becoming stronger, faster, healthier, more agile, or in some way improving ourselves physically—Nike has found a unique connection to its customers.
That mission statement clearly informs every strategic decision Nike makes, not only in its product development but also in its advertising, packaging, partnerships, sponsorships, and endorsement deals. If an opportunity comes along that doesn’t in some way advance Nike’s mission to help us all support our inner athlete—even if that deal is lucrative for Nike—the company will turn it down.
With a simple mission for its products and brand, Nike has united its whole team (and the public) around a shared objective of serving one demographic—one that, fortunately for Nike, includes everyone—the athlete we all aspire to be.
In fact, it’s largely due to the power and laser-like focus of Nike’s mission to speak directly to our inner athlete that just about anyone you ask can tell you Nike’s tagline, which itself is a direct message to the athlete in each of us: “Just do it.”
Finally, developing and communicating the right mission for your product or business also yields another significant benefit. It can speed up and improve all of your company’s internal processes—making your company quicker, nimbler, and better able to act on great ideas and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
As Ken Segall explains in Think Simple, Steve Jobs had a two-fold hiring policy: First, hire only great people, no compromises. Second, make sure those people share the company’s core values and truly “get” Apple’s mission. Jobs didn’t want yes-people, and he allowed disagreement and an open sharing of ideas. But he did expect that his team would all embrace and participate in the company’s mission.
“A clear mission statement streamlines and simplifies internal processes, leading to better products.”
Think of the power of a team tightly aligned around a shared mission for its products and brand. When everyone is working toward the same goal, you’ll need far fewer meetings, committee reviews, sign-off forms, executive approvals, and other bureaucratic steps that at best slow your development—and, at worst, undermine the products you’re trying to create because there are just too many people involved in the decision process.
As Segall explains, StubHub’s Jeff Fluhr argues strongly against excessive processes, noting that:
“Process should not stifle creativity. It can’t end up being a barrier to innovation or to the fluid movement of ideas. There has to be balance. And that’s probably more judgment than some sort of special formula.”
So, assuming you’ve taken Steve Jobs’s advice and hired the right people for your product team, and you’ve taken Ken Segall’s advice to develop a clear and compelling product mission statement, you can now empower your team to use its judgment in driving your products forward.
Now consider the streaming content service Hulu, another ProductPlan customer, and a company you’ve almost certainly heard of.
Hulu Mission: To help people find and enjoy the world’s premium video content when, where and how they want it.
Imagine the company hadn’t built itself around such a strategically clear and simple mission. Imagine the company just saw itself as a platform to license and stream content, and perhaps sell advertising to generate revenue. Now imagine that a large corporate partner comes along and asks Hulu to post ad-supported celebrity photos on its platform, or to sell audiobooks or other types of content. A less-focused, less-mission-driven Hulu team might say yes. And before long, the company’s product might become scattered, its brand confusing and its staff unsure of what went wrong.
But because they are all working toward a shared mission—to help us find and enjoy the best video content on our own terms—Hulu continues to grow its platform, its brand, and its delighted user base.
They focus on finding and making available more great video content. They focus on improving their apps and relationships with the major set-top-box providers—to help us consume their content when and where we want. And when they realized that they themselves could create their own premium video content, the Hulu team spun off a production company to do just that. All of these decisions lead straight back to its original mission: To bring us great video content on ever-more platforms.
We hope the examples above—businesses who attribute their successes largely to the simple (but not easy) act of developing a clear and compelling mission—have convinced you to craft your own.
Indeed, this simple sentence could end up being one of the most valuable statements your product team ever drafts—leading to streamlined processes, better strategic decisions, greater clarity about who you’re serving and why, and ultimately a more successful product.
If you decide to develop your own product mission statement, or if you’ve already crafted one you’re proud of, please share them in the comments section below.