In this week’s Writer’s Room – a series of blogs and tutorials written by experts from our Andela Community – Benjamin Ndovi takes us through the mechanics of being a Product Manager, and offers all the essential tips you need to understand this increasingly popular role and industry.
What is product management?
Innovation is usually referred to as a process or act of introducing new things (products) or methods (an idea, a product or an improvement to a process). No wonder product management was introduced into the technology industry as a way to drown out the white noise surrounding industry evolution. Product management is the process of turning innovation into reality, by bringing together market needs and technical solutions. This art has been improved for many decades; however, the standard reserved processes have been maintained. These standard practices form the traditional structure of product management that fits in any organization or project and assist product managers to build a foundation for managing their respective products.
What is a product manager?
A product manager can be defined as a person who drives the vision and direction of a product by liaising with internal and external stakeholders through the discovery, research and innovation stages, through to delivery and customer satisfaction. This individual uses the product management processes to discover a product that is valuable, feasible and usable. These processes, that make up the product cycle, can be defined into four main categories: identifying opportunities, team and stakeholder management, development process management and product implementation/improvement.
One of the risks that product managers face is the ability to understand the root idea behind developing a product that would meet market standards and provide value. This is because as product managers, our focus is on the development process. I will therefore, focus on the first process of identifying opportunities and will dive deeper into the models that assist in bridging some of the project initiation gaps in the technology industry.
In most cases we believe that problems that need to be solved are identified by the business personnel, the users and the marketing team as strategies for improvement. However, product managers are also responsible for conducting market research and identifying areas of improvement through stakeholder engagement, market research and developing research labs. These provide insights to identify opportunities that can be leveraged into possible products and or improvements. The product managers are also responsible for following up on trends within the market, technology and business space. Being up-to-date with current affairs assists in making the right, evidence based and informed decisions for the users, the markets and the business development of the organization in order to produce impact on return. There are steps that a product manager can take in order to achieve this and these are product vision, product strategy and risk identification:
This also includes working with the business owners to produce product visions for the ideas accumulated. A product vision is an aspirational statement that communicates what the product hopes to achieve in the long term. This assists in driving the product objectives towards the same goal. The product vision answers the 3 Ws:
- Why is it important to embark on this development process?
- Who is the persona that we are trying to reach or solve the problem for?
- What is the problem that we want to solve and the measure of success?
Product managers tend to, or based on the best practices, are guided to focus on product visions that are linked to corporate or organizational goals. This helps sell the idea to the commanding chain, however, it has been noted that it somehow eliminates the user-centric focus. Therefore, an ideal product vision needs to be aspirational, achievable, realistic and support both the user and the organizational goals.
Why the product vision statement?
This helps to guide the idea, align with the team and stakeholders (both internal and external) on what is expected in terms of cost, resources and time. These are the crucial elements that each of them cares mostly about in order to achieve productivity and return on investment. The idea is to ensure that each member of the team understands the vision and is able to communicate it to other stakeholders.
A product strategy needs to be developed once the product vision has been agreed upon. This is a realistic work plan that lines up all the requirements and resources needed to execute and deliver the product. This involves prioritizing the requirements and staging activities.
Developing a product strategy requires the product manager to deeply understand the industry and the target market. This has to cover the larger epics of the product and the minimal tasks required. Just to elaborate that an ‘epic’ is a large chunk of work that can be broken down into smaller pieces. This assists in the process of alignment that we discussed in the product vision. It also helps identify responsibilities and focus on the work that matters most. This is also called prioritization. Therefore, a product manager is responsible for seeing the product strategy development through conducting ideation, concept development and testing, market research (value proposition, impact, budgeting) and goal setting. Note that this process involves the whole team including the stakeholders.
This is the process of putting together, evaluating and selecting ideas and or concepts. It focuses on grouping and analyzing the ideas through design sessions, consultation meetings and research. This enables the innovative and sustainable development of the product by engaging in concepts that look at sustainability as well as risks and their mitigation factors.
Concept development and testing
This is a process that involves breaking down the concept into actionable steps. Usually, product managers will detail the idea from the perspective of a customer/user however, it should be noted that the critical part of the concept is the outcome also referred to as the return on investment. Therefore, it is important to consider describing the concept using the end-to-end perspective. This is where you outline the features of the product encompassing the use and outcome. These may include usability, functionality, value, experience, performance, convenience etc.
Testing is the process of assessing the product with the actual market or users prior to development. Well, in most cases, product managers define it as prior to introducing the product to the market, however, it needs to be noted that this is the first process in product development and so it may not be essential to introduce it at this point. The testing process benefits the product manager to:
- Assess potential of the product on the market
- Assess potential risks
- Assess cost effectiveness and viability of the product
- Assess return on investment
This term has been used a lot in the industry to describe competition benchmarks. In product management however, this is termed as a systematic process to study and establish facts about how to meet your target market/users where they are. This is an opportunity to discover what your users value and regard as an improved facility or way of efficiently working with your products or services. By the way, it is still relevant to know what is trending and what your competitors are bringing to the market, however, the primary goal is to have a user-centered knowledge and behavior of your target market. Therefore, the best way to conduct market research is through knowledge, attitude and practice (KAP) research. This is where you get to know about:
- The users knowledge about your product/brand/company.
- Attitudes about your product/service delivery, price, usage as compared to what is on the market (your competitors).
- Are there ways that the users determine that can address the needs or the pain points?
This will help drive the concept into actionable goals that can now be put to development considering the facts and the ideas.
A goal can be defined as an item that can be achieved within a specific time frame and terms. Many companies have found it costly to develop in-house products because of non-measurable goals. However, it has been noted that setting goals using well defined objectives can lead to a successful product development. This is because defining tangible targets helps to identify risks even before the work is initiated. A lot of product managers would argue that agile/SCRUM processes tend to provide flexibility to product development. Well, indeed this is true, however, goals and objectives are meant to be precise and consistent. Even in our personal lives, goal setting is important because you need to put milestones of achievements in either your career or your home life. For example, you need to know what you want to achieve before having a baby, whether that’s getting married, buying a 2 bedroom house, organizing medical insurance etc. Goals are meant to guide the process and provide check points for success. It has been noted that using the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time bound) process of goal setting helps to achieve this. It also helps to align the product goals with the organizational goals.
There are risks in every product development process. These vary from process, resources to product expectations. In product management, a risk can be defined as actions, processes or possibilities that can lead to a loss. The loss can be internal or external in forms of revenue, tax, resources and time just to name a few. It is the role of a product manager to anticipate risks and recognize mitigating factors from the initiation of the projects.
Types of risks
There can be many risks, however, can be categorized into three main categories, schedule, cost, performance that can be defined as showstoppers – These are risks that can break the process if not dealt with properly.
Schedule: These are risks that affect the work plan’s timeline. In most cases, these cause delay and conflict in delivery. For example scope creep, holidays, other projects etc.
Cost: These are risks that affect the cost of the project in reference to the budget. They usually cause over expenditure. For example, a need to procure more test labs to accommodate a quality assurance team.
Performance: These are risks that affect the outcome/results of the development process. For example, an inconsistency in data latency when downloading data to the offline database of a mobile application.
It is the responsibility of the product manager to protect the product development process from unplanned risks by ensuring they are:
- Identifying potential risks and maintaining a risk register during the initial product management process.
- Proactive in identifying opportunities of risks as they unveil themselves instead of being reactive.
- Maintaining and monitoring a risk management process plan that will assist the team in identifying the risks, analyzing, prioritizing and assigning to the responsible personnel for mitigation.
It is important to keep track and mitigate the risks associated with your product development process as this helps in achieving your goals effectively and efficiently.
Most products that have failed on the market have done so because the focus is mostly on developing the products based on the need and quickly implementing/rolling out to the markets because of pressure from the market, the need to boost return on investment, pressure from the competitors and sometimes the need to solve a crucial problem. Product managers should recognize the four main processes that enable the development life cycle of a product to be controllable and engaging and these are identifying opportunities, team and stakeholder management, development process management and product implementation/improvement, refer to the below diagram:
It has also been noted that product managers can still enhance the value of their products by ensuring that the initial step in the development process is taken into consideration and with much detail. The cost of spending ample time during this process determines the value of the outcome regardless of the three elements, cost, time and resources. Below is a summary of the required steps during the initial process:
These processes work in all the product management methodologies such as SCRUM, Agile, Kanban etc. This is because they provide priority tasks and processes that govern the entire system development life cycle. A product manager needs to understand the three main aspects that encompass the processes which are user experience, business process and technology.
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