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What is product management?

Last updated

11 May 2023

Reviewed by

Sophia Emifoniye

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Nurturing a product through its life cycle is an important aspect of development, but it often requires just as much focus on team building as on the product itself. 

If the development team and product stakeholders align their efforts, product management can be the key to continually improving product quality and customer satisfaction

What role is product management playing in modern business, and what are its benefits?

Product management: The backstory

Product management began in the 1930s to guide a product's growth over its entire lifecycle. In lieu of a more traditional company role, a dedicated employee, or "Brand Man," was responsible for product management. 

The experiment was successful and has since developed into other iterations of product management in various industries.

Today, product management has turned development processes into more of a team sport than exercises in pure technical grit. 

With the power to forge lasting bonds between stakeholders, product managers create a more cohesive product vision while guiding the product team's focus toward growth tasks.

What is the product management process?

The product management process maintains cohesion and purpose during product development

While it can take different forms, seven stages are at the core of product development: 

  • Defining the problem that customers or developers are having

  • Discovering the opportunity it presents to build a superior product

  • Researching and comparing solutions to these challenges

  • Building an MVP to kick-start the product lifecycle

  • Making a feedback loop of continual data-driven product refinement

  • Choosing a strategy for furthering product and company goals

  • Executing the roadmap and backlog deliverables

However varied product management processes can be, they usually involve just three fundamental tools:

Product roadmap

This is the project plan of action. It helps product managers maintain direction by outlining the vision and priorities for the product. The roadmap includes an overview of implementing the development plan to achieve short- and long-term goals. 

Product requirement document (PRD)

The product requirement document defines the product and outlines current and future product release capabilities. It comprises the design functions necessary for product release(s) and checklists of required design, testing, and delivery tasks. 

It also accounts for system dependencies, usage assumptions (such as work environments), and the product’s purpose in fulfilling company objectives and customer expectations.

Backlog

Through PRD discourse, product teams list specific action steps, such as bug fixes, new features to implement, and experiments for testing specific product outcomes. 

Once the team establishes backlogged actions, they can schedule tasks into sprints for smaller deliverables.

Backlog action items aren't solely about building a product. They also include activities to build greater understanding within the product team and other stakeholders. 

A product management strategy keeps teams focused on what problem they're trying to solve, who it's for, and why.

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Why is product management important?

Product management helps product teams know what they're building and why. It becomes easier to show how the roadmap, PRD, and backlog benefit everyone involved, earning greater buy-in across the company. 

Due to the breadth involved, product managers must speak the language of all parties.

With shared understanding, the product manager can be much more effective. Their responsibility for the product management process spills over into the development team’s confidence in the process and other cross-functional teams. 

For example, a solid understanding of the PRD should inspire the marketing requirement document (MRD), so customers have consistent expectations. 

What are examples of product management?

Some of the most well-known examples of product management include:

“Brand Man”

Bill Hewlett and David Packard used the "Brand Man" concept to achieve 20% year-over-year growth for 50 years.

"Just-in-Time" 

Toyota's "Just-in-Time" (JIT) manufacturing almost eliminated downtime by tightly coordinating raw material deliveries with production schedules. This would develop into the Kanban model of continual improvement.

Netflix’s evolution 

Netflix’s transition from DVD rental to online streaming captured a massive market share of video streaming as it became widespread. 

They also increased prices extremely gradually, timing it with significant updates so customers saw enough value to stick around.

Efficiency experts

Time-management experts Atlassian applied a business model of embedding product managers with engineers and design teams. This approach continually refines the company’s immensely popular suite of efficiency tools. 

What are the four stages of product management?

In the product lifecycle management (PLM) framework, lifecycles have four stages:

  • Introduction of a product into the market, the first bold attempt to turn a profit

  • Growth of that product, measured in revenue and brand recognition

  • Maturity, when growth rates slow and revenue plateaus

  • Decline, as profitability drops due to technology shifts, market needs, and other factors

What product management isn't

While guiding the processes is the product manager's responsibility, micromanaging it all certainly isn't. 

The product manager shouldn't bear sole responsibility for updating the roadmap, writing all PRD requirements, and managing each backlog item. 

With enough buy-in from all stakeholders, product management becomes a team effort, which is worth more than any number of procedural checkmarks.

In a way, none of the items above are product management—they're just a means to what really matters: Stakeholder cohesion.

Counterintuitively, product management is only useful with some dysfunction, as its first goal is to identify gaps in shared understanding. Product management isn't a specific end to achieve; rather, it's a continual refinement cycle.

The challenges of product management

A common challenge faced by product developers is misunderstanding customers' problems and intent. 

Maintaining clarity on the who, what, and why of any product development task ensures stakeholders:

  • Have enough customer context to know who they're solving problems for

  • Understand what problem they're trying to solve

  • Know why their efforts fit into the product's overall vision

Lack of certainty with any of these questions indicates gaps in team alignment and sense of direction along the roadmap. 

Product managers can coordinate a discovery process for actively answering these questions with:

What's most important is that development teams engage in these processes together. Overcoming product management challenges extends beyond product teams, inviting insights from any other team or user invested in the product. 

Gaining such insights often uses another three-part process:

  • Storytelling, especially customer stories that demonstrate user intent

  • Marketing, where marketers and other customer-facing teams report on what audiences expect from the product

  • Empathy, to establish shared understanding between customers, developers, business teams, and other stakeholders

The goal is to clarify the product’s vision and function within a clearly defined market. Doing so will result in more efficient collaboration on the product roadmap, PRD, and backlog. 

More importantly, collaborative insight-sharing gives product teams the cohesion and confidence to fulfill the product vision

What is agile product management?

Agile is a cyclical process of product management and software development that aims to deliver maximum value in the least time. It uses continual cycles of learning and product improvements, incorporating new insights into each iteration. 

A continual influx of customer insights and UX research shapes iterations, strengthening products through a constant workflow of value-adding tasks.

In agile, resources are fixed, while project scope is fluid. Product management should guide product teams through development cycles to achieve each sprint’s goals in the most adaptable way. It expects change and embraces it, finding strength in flexibility.

The Agile Manifesto encourages business teams (such as marketing, HR, and finance) to work closely with product developers. 

Agile product managers usually spend more time with the design, engineering, and testing teams and advocate for their needs as the engine that drives marketable product growth.

B2B vs. B2C product management

Because customer feedback is an integral part of any product management framework, different types of customers have a significant bearing on product management.

For example, B2C products have a more diffuse customer base. Insights require broader efforts and result in analyses with averages and generalities. 

By contrast, B2B products are usually for smaller, niche groups. Their feedback is easier to obtain, more reliable, and less likely to shift.

Product managers must handle B2B and B2C products very differently:

B2B product management

Because B2B clients require specific features and specs, prototyping can begin earnestly. The customer is well-identified, so developers don't require exhaustive market research, allowing roadmaps to conform to a tighter schedule. 

Certainty over "who" and "why" are easier to ascertain, allowing product managers to move toward "what" is most urgent to keep development on track.

B2C product management

With their greater breadth, B2C products usually have more potential uncertainty. Analysis paralysis can easily set in, especially with confusion over which development efforts will make the most significant impact. 

UX research may be open-ended to start, as B2C demands tend to be less concrete than B2B users. Product managers usually spend more time clarifying the “who” and “why” before committing to a design. 

For B2C and B2B, answering the “who,” “what,” and “why” is essential before investing resources into any product. What differs is the process for arriving at firm answers before compiling a roadmap and PRD.

Types of product management roles

Regardless of their specific role, all product managers must coordinate team efforts to guide product growth most efficiently. Who they coordinate with and the resources they use to drive growth varies.

These are the different types of product management roles:

Growth product manager

With only a secondary emphasis on solving customer problems, growth product managers are focused primarily on defining and improving business metrics. 

They pursue growth by prioritizing initiatives, negotiating access to business resources (on the strength of their proposals), and removing obstacles to growth.

Technical product manager

This product manager works closely with the engineering team as a former engineer or computer science professional. 

Because they're subject-matter experts, technical product manager positions are usually available in larger companies that can support high degrees of specialization.

However, they aren't working as developers, so they're still serving product management needs as consultants and relationship builders. Their relationships are also highly technical (e.g., third-party API developers), which usually do not involve business teams. 

Further, technical product managers work more in the design stage of product development than in other growth stages.

Data product manager

As experts in data management, data product managers apply their talent for adding value with data to enhance the product lifecycle. 

While all product managers are highly data-driven, true data product managers are a company's preeminent authority on data, using it to drive growth. 

Marketing product manager

In marketing, product management uses marketing insights to improve a product rapidly. 

In distinction to the more technical variations, marketing product managers work more with business and sales teams than developers.

How to start a career in product management

There isn't a standard, direct route to product management.

If you’re seeking a product management role, focus on the core competencies of related fields. This is primarily business and computer science, with an emphasis on data analysis.

Product managers span many organization-wide boundaries, so your skills must be just as broad as they are specialized. 

Key skills involve: 

  • User empathy

  • Problem-solving

  • Hyper-organization

  • Leadership

  • Strong interest in the field

  • Communication skills

  • Mastering value propositions

  • Time management

Further, product managers often come from backgrounds like:

  • Development

  • Engineering

  • UX design

  • Marketing

  • Business

  • Management

With no formal requirements, companies hire people with high school diplomas up to PhDs. 

More than anything else, industry knowledge and core competencies are crucial.

FAQs

How do I become a product manager without experience?

Numerous online courses and boot camps offer product management training, often with certifications and even job-placement help upon completion. 

You'll be competing with people who have four-year degrees, and colleges now offer product manager degrees. Still, the job outlook is good enough that online certifications are often perfectly adequate.

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