Does a Product need a Manager?
For those who don’t know or care about how product gets to market, I am going to answer the question; does a product need a manager? Or more to the point what is a product manager?
Are you familiar with the role of a product manager? Is it someone who is managed by a product or is it someone who literally manages or wrestles a product? And why should you care? The goal is to answer the question why a product needs a manager and hence the birth of the infamous Product Manager role.
What is a Product Manager?
Firstly, what is a product manager? You can probably guess that it would involve a product of some kind and that you be a manager of people, resources, processes and customers. The truth is that you are not a manager of anyone in particular – you have to lead through influence to develop, sell and make a product successful. The focus is not to be a manger of people but to be the manager of the product, processes and profit!.
A product, could be absolutely any product, sandwiches to satellites, they are all products that need to be managed.
In fact, most mass produced products are product managed in some form. And that’s the problem; there are different perceptions of what a product manager does. Is it pre-sales, marketing, marketing communications, price book management, product placement, product development, product research, market research and business analyst – guess what, they are all of these things. It is probably one of the only jobs around that touches on all disciplines apart from the CEO or managing director of the company.
Let’s look at a couple of similar products – from Sony and Apple to illustrate the evolution of the product manager.
These two walkmans basically do the same thing, play tapes and possibly the radio. Great idea – enabled a generation of portable entertainment, rollerskates and funky headphones. The difference between the two is not functionality (they basically do the same), but engineering and miniaturisation. The Walkman was a technically led not product management led.
The last version of the walkman is almost the same size as tape cassette but still retains the same features as one of earlier models. The product or technical managers of the day were happy with the functionality but they wanted to make the design more portable and even stylistic. Were they listening to the market or telling market what wanted?
So now let’s compare the Walkman with the iPod? They basically do the same things, play music, and entertain. But when you compare a walkman and iPod, they are complex in different ways. A Walkman is far more mechanically complex yet simple in features, whereas an iPod is far more complex in features and mechanically simple.
There is also a third difference, the approach. The product managers at Sony took a not so portable tape player and turned it into a portable version. Sony has been the tape business for many years and this was a classic example of technology and miniaturisation.
Conversely, one particular product designer at Apple, Jonathan Ive, took the idea of portable entertainment and flipped it on its head – Why, he noticed a change in technology and the market.
Sony was and still entrenched in the media market and worried about music copyright. Hence they were concerned about piracy and proliferation of MP3 files. Whereas, Apple decided lets leverage the new file format and give people what they want.
Apple was driven by innovation and striving for a new ways to listen to music – and at the time has no affiliation with the music industry. Jonathan implied through his design, “let’s re-invent personal entertainment and use the new emerging digital media formats. Let’s design a cool, practical, easy to use product that can be used by everyone“
Jonathan did his research, inspired his design teams, developed the product, released it via some fantastic marketing and created a new product / Brand. Basically, Jonathan Ive took a relatively old Sony product idea, re-invented and made it better – ironically, a Japanese tactic.
Sony have been playing catch-up ever since, even though they own a large percentage of the worlds music content, they lost the war of personal entertainment.
As I have discussed, the responsibilities of a Product Manager fall into four core areas, Market Research, Product Development, Product Release and marketing – basically a product manager looks after the complete life cycle of a product from beginning to end.
From Apple’s perspective, they definitely did their market research, looked at what was available today for personal entertainment and emerging technologies i.e. MP3.
They took a good design and developed additional feature, packaging and created a great design. They re-invented personal entertainment and they are continuing to do so through product management.
The aspect of product release and lifecycle is interesting. It a delicate balance between releasing a product with the right features at the right time. This is called the minimal viable product and ensures that that company invest just enough in R&D to get the maximum return on their investment. This is how all products should be developed but in some cases are not. Another way of looking at it is not laying down all your cards at the beginning of a poker game and use a combination of bluffs and reality to win the game.
Finally, doesn’t matter how good your product is – if there isn’t any product marketing no one is going to hear or see it. There have been some exceptions and are usually in the form of word of mouth which is a form of viral marketing. As you are probably aware Apple are absolutely fantastic at marketing and they are always pushing the boundaries for product placement and advertising. Apple has created truly inspirational products!
So when anyone asks, what is a product manager? You should be able to answer the question. He or she is a manager of the product, processes and profit. The main goal is to develop a minimal viable product, balancing between company investments and squeezing out as much as possible in terms of sales.
At the end the day it is really about managing a product that matches the market and customers’ needs. Without product managers we wouldn’t see the kinds of products like iPod and the role is fundamental to designing, developing and marketing new products today.