Strategic digital product management

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash
Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Engineering is concerned with building systems. We look at the requirements, design an architecture, do detailed design, implement, test and release. This may be a bespoke system for a specific customer, a product or a platform used to build other products with.

Whereas engineering is concerned with how to build systems, there’s another activity concerned with what to build in the first place. And, perhaps more importantly, why we should build the system in the first place. This activity is typically referred to as product management.

Defining the requirements for a system is the output of the product management activity, but a whole lot of work happens before that. This includes research to understand the market, interacting with customers, determining the way to release the system, what to charge for it, and so on. Because of these many facets, activities and responsibilities, product management is often viewed as fuzzy and difficult to understand.

In this series, we’ll dive into the world of product management and see if we can bring some structure to the topic. The intent is to identify the key activities, tools, mechanisms and approaches that are available to us, when to use these and to understand how product management has changed with the emergence of digitalization. Although I’ve worked on many techniques that could be considered part of product management, I’ve never worked as a product manager. So, I hope that you’ll let me know where I went wrong as well as what I missed.

In my view, one way of deconstructing product management is to discern five main areas: principles, scopes, activities, factors and roles. These will be discussed here as well as in the coming posts.

First, there are a number of principles underlying product management. Although we can identify several, we’ll focus on three. The primary principle is to maximize the return on investment on the R&D efforts that we put in. Second, we need to embrace uncertainty. Third, we need to recognize and manage tradeoffs, between different scopes, between stakeholders, between time scales, and so on

The second dimension is the scopes at which a product manager operates. On the one end of the spectrum, there’s the individual feature, whereas at the other end, we seek to engage with the entire business ecosystem. In between, we may find components, subsystems, products, portfolios, business areas and the company as a whole. In the upcoming posts, we’ll focus on three scopes: features, product and ecosystem.

The third dimension is the activities of a product manager or the activities conducted as part of product management by anyone in the company. Although these can be structured in many different ways, the way we’ll explore this in this series is to divide product management activities into exploration, strategy and execution. Traditional companies separate corporate strategy from product management. For digital companies, however, the technology drivers of software, data and AI are so fundamental for the business that strategy becomes an interactive, bi-directional process between technology and R&D leadership and the business leadership.

The fourth dimension is the factors or viewpoints that product management is concerned with. There are many that can be considered, but we focus on three: stakeholders, technology and exploration. First, product management involves a wide variety of stakeholders, both inside and outside the company. Second, although many view technology as part of the R&D realm, in practice product management tends to be involved in high-level strategic choices. Third, as product management is so concerned with maximizing ROI, it’s tempting to focus on improving existing functionality that’s already proven to deliver value to customers. However, we need to sufficiently invest in the exploration of new areas of functionality.

The final dimension concerns roles and responsibilities. In many traditional organizations, product managers have significant responsibility but surprisingly little authority. The roles and responsibilities dimension seeks to answer the question of who takes care of the various product management activities, for what scopes and from what viewpoints. And, of course, what alignment mechanisms are used to accomplish this. In the upcoming posts, we explore three main responsibilities: focusing on the vital few rather than the worthwhile many, organizing product management and balancing qualitative and quantitative data and insights.

Whereas engineering is focused on how to build a system, product management is concerned with what to build and why. In a digitalizing world, the role of product management is changing in that new technologies such as software, data and AI allow for much faster feedback cycles and, consequently, the use of experimentation to reduce uncertainty and significantly increase the ROI on R&D investments. To accomplish this, we need to clearly define the principles, scopes, activities, factors and roles and responsibilities of product management. As Marissa Mayer said, “Product management really is the fusion between technology, what engineers do – and the business side.”

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