In recent posts, we have compared and contrasted the roles of project managers and product managers. At a high level, project managers are responsible for the execution and implementation of quality solutions that support business objectives. Product managers integrate external customer needs with business goals to suggest product development roadmaps. Project success is measured by meeting budget, schedule, and quality outcomes. Product success is evaluated by long-term margin contribution, market share, and customer satisfaction.
Product managers must develop somewhat obscure skills to be successful in their role. Often the role is ill-defined or conflated with other organizational roles. In one large company with which I’ve recently worked, project managers were given a title change to product managers with no training in the new role. In another situation, a medium-sized firm with whom I worked, converted project managers to product managers through specific skills and communication training. Not surprisingly, the second company had much higher success in adopting a “product mindset”.
Strategic Role of Product Managers
Product managers serve strategic, tactical, and operational roles just as project managers do (read more here). The two key areas of strategic implementation for product managers are (1) understanding business needs and (2) understanding customer needs. Product managers must clearly articulate the confluence of business needs and customer needs for long-term success of an organization in new product development (NPD).
Business needs fall into three standard categories: revenue growth, cost reduction, and regulatory compliance. Sometimes these arenas are called top-line, bottom-line, and maintenance. The medium-sized firm was clearly focused on cost-reduction for product development and articulated the business need to all team members. This helped to define the role expected of product managers.
Customer needs arise from changing technologies, competitive pressures, and product obsolescence. Product managers must monitor these arenas for broad-brush changes to their markets. These changes influence both upstream and downstream activities. Awareness of changes and the impact on customers is a key component of the product manager’s job.
Tactical Skills for Product Managers
Tactically, a product manager translates business and customer needs into a product roadmap. The product roadmap describes a future state and suggested product releases to maintain competitive advantage. Often, the product roadmap is dependent on a technical roadmap so that the development occurs ahead of necessary market pressures.
Marketing, especially in-bound marketing, is another tactical skill that successful product managers build. Being able to “read the tea leaves” and anticipate opportunities and threats is crucial to product development. How long will it feature last in the market? When does a product need refreshing? Are there security threats to an IT system?
Interestingly, the large company that enacted a title change without proper product management training failed to incorporate customer needs (marketing) into roadmap planning. Their technical debt and work-in-progress ranged to 40% of staff workloads. In comparison, the medium-sized firm adopted project roadmapping to plan new products even within market-driven schedules.
Operational Skills for Product Managers
Of course, strategies are translated to tactics, and tactics to operations. Operationally, product managers must master product testing and data analysis. While not as “sexy” as strategic work, these skills build the backbone of successful product organizations.
For traditional new product development with tangible products, product testing begins at the idea stage. WAGILE product development (read more in Chapter 3 of The Innovation ANSWER Book) requires customer feedback at each iterative stage to validate product feasibility. In software and IT projects, the Agile process demands customer inputs during regular sprint releases. Both of these activities are based on facts and statistics collected from real and potential customers.
These data must be thoroughly analyzed without bias. Examining the data for market trends, competitive pressures, and end-of-life product decline falls within the product manager’s job description. Many of these analysis elements rely on sales data but it is the translation of this data into actionable information that drives product success for an organization.
Product Management Skills
Product managers, like project managers, weave together different organizational inputs to add value to a firm through product development and product marketing. Strategic, tactical, and operational skills are traded among activities and approaches on a daily basis in the life of a successful product manager.
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