In 1878, the world was introduced to a technology that would have a lasting impact on society. That product was the telephone.
Despite all its promise, reaching the masses did not happen overnight. In fact, it took nearly 80 years for the telephone to reach 100 million users.
But the world has a lot changed since 1878. While it took the telephone nearly a century to reach 100 million users, it took the mobile phone less than 20 to hit the same mark.
It took Facebook only five years to hit 100 million users.
After launching in 2017, it took Fortnite just 9 months.
These aren’t just isolated instances. The pace of the market has accelerated dramatically.
While telephone companies had the better part of a century to secure their position as the leading telecom provider, today’s competitive climate means companies often have just a few years to dominate their industry categories. With the rise of cloud infrastructure and the support of B2B SaaS tools, new entrants can enter the market overnight and reach thousands of users and millions in revenue in months, not years or decades.
And it’s not just consumer products we’re talking about here. Consider the rise of Slack, Twilio, and ServiceNow – all hitting $100 million in revenue in 5 years or less. B2B is picking up pace as well.
Meanwhile, according to Harvard Business Review customers are less loyal than ever to brand alone, while the relationships forged between a company and its customers mean more. Reporting on parallel trends in retail, IBM Institute for Business Value indicates consumers demand a more personalized experience, which isn’t hard to believe in the age of Uber and Amazon. If competitors offer superior features, better user experience, or forge stronger relationships with its user community, your customers may well defect. HipChat seemed great until along came Slack.
In this climate of rapid change, heightened competition and customer expectations, the role of the product manager has to keep up with the times.
The issue is that in many cases, it hasn’t.
Product managers have been left hanging
As the pace of the market has accelerated and customer expectations have evolved, teams across the organization have adapted accordingly. Sales, customer success, marketing, engineering have all become more systematic, data-driven, and transparent. In large part we have the internet to thank for the spread of business best practices: LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Podcasts, Slideshare, the Amazon bookstore, and Meetup.com have all played a role. But it’s one thing to know what the best practice is and yet another to implement new processes across your organization.
That’s why the real game changer has been dedicated SaaS solutions for each vertical within the organization. They’ve helped systematize key processes, support data-driven decision-making, and help teammates collaborate effectively. From creating the layout of the user interface to sending notifications that help teams build the right habits and stay on track, these tools help organizations adopt the same processes used by the best in business.
These days, every department in the organization has a tool to help them succeed.
Sales has Salesforce.
Marketing has Marketo.
Support has Zendesk and Intercom.
Customer success has Gainsight.
HR has Workday.
Engineering has Jira.
But product management…?
Up until now, we’ve been left hanging.
Their most critical decisions have taken place in static spreadsheets, stale PowerPoints, disjointed feature request forums, and old school feature backlogs stored in project management tools… alongside dozens of systems used to capture user research and feedback (email, note-taking apps, CRMs, support platforms, survey tools, NPS tools, task management tools, Google docs… the list goes on).
Given the gravity of the product manager’s core responsibilities – to arrive at a deep understanding of user needs, prioritize what to build next, and rally everyone around their roadmap – it’s never been clearer that product managers deserve a solution of their own.
Don’t bring a spork to a knife fight
Still under the seductive trance of a spreadsheet? Questioning whether your project management tool really can’t do it all? There’s another trend to consider if you don’t want to be caught off guard. It’s the rise of modern business messaging solutions like Intercom, Drift, Zendesk Message, Facebook Messenger (and soon, Apple Business Chat). In just a few years, they’ve changed the way sales, marketing, support, and customer success interact with customers.
Stilted support cases have evolved into natural discussions where, in between gifs and emojis, customers divulge details around side needs and pain points they experience when using a product or service.
Chats threads with a B2B sales rep can seem more like consultations with a trusted advisor. They may span days, if not weeks, and can turn into friendships that extend beyond the sales cycle. (At productboard, our team has experienced this one firsthand, from both sides of the chat window.)
Within these discussions are valuable insights about user needs, that until now, remained out of reach – unbeknownst to anyone but the prospect or customer. It’s free user research, rolling in day-in-day-out, no Amazon gift cards required. But in many organizations, all these golden insights are lost.
Even if product teams have access to these systems, they’re not designed to surface insights for the product team to review. So all too often, these insights go unnoticed by any in a position to act on them. The same goes for many other sources of valuable user data, like CRMs, NPS/survey tools, appstore and review platforms like G2Crowd, Alternativeto, and Capterra.
Given the importance of their work, product managers are at the heart of every organization, but in many cases remain disconnected from the frontlines. It represents a missed opportunity to gather inputs that would help product teams get the right products to market faster. And on the flipside, it’s a missed opportunity to engage customers and colleagues with personalized information on how the product will be evolving to address their needs.
What’s next for product management?
No tool guarantees success, but failing to adopt the right toolset is a major disadvantage in this age of acceleration, where product excellence is no longer optional.
If you’re still stuck with the same old spreadsheets, you can bet competitors are finding ways to systematically capture user feedback from support, sales, and marketing, track which customers have which needs, and use these insights to ship features faster, requiring fewer iterations to get features right.
While your loudest colleagues and customers are pressuring you to build their pet feature ideas, competitors will have their gaze fixed on the horizon, prioritizing what to build based on what supports their long-term strategy.
While you’re struggling to win buy-in for your roadmap, competitors will have rallied their entire organizations around a common vision for where their products are headed.
And while you slowly iterate your way toward satisfying user needs, competitors will be sending notifications to the exact users who expressed a need for a feature – alerting them it’s just gone live.
We know there’s a better way to do product management because there are plenty of modern, agile companies like Zendesk and InVision who seem to release products and features that consistently knock it out of the park.
So what are they doing differently?
How today’s best product teams achieve excellence
At productboard, we make it our job to know what the best product management teams are doing differently. What we’ve discovered is they all share three areas of mastery:
- Deep user insight
- Clear product strategy
- Coherent roadmap
When companies master all three areas, they’re well on their way to building truly excellent products.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Deep User Insight
The entire product team has a deep understanding of what users really need.
The best product teams develop systems for funneling a steady stream of user feedback back to the product team. Whether generated from sales calls, support tickets, or formal user research, they store these insights in a central repository, accessible to all.
Product managers, designers, or dedicated researchers interview users about their needs before feature prioritization even takes place. Solution ideas are prototyped and tested along the way, to validate feature ideas while minimizing the risk of wasted effort. Feature usage is monitored after launch, and qualitative insights are collected to inform future enhancements.
In the top organizations, colleagues from across the organization are equipped with a better understanding of user needs, helping them excel in their work – whether that’s prioritizing, designing, developing, promoting, supporting, or selling.
Clear Product Strategy
The entire organization is aligned around key strategic objectives.
With so many competing priorities and different stakeholders to please, it’s easy to get stuck in a reactive mindset – putting out one fire and then the next, impulsively adopting the hottest tech trends, or going tit for tat with competitors.
That’s why the most effective product organizations prioritize around clear business objectives. Rather than haphazardly swinging from one feature to the next, they tend to work on initiatives that unify the entire team’s efforts around achieving some measurable objective, before moving on to another.
These objectives may relate to solving the needs of specific types of users or market segments. Or, they may relate to driving growth, competitive differentiation, regulatory compliance, security or any number of other goals that would help the business succeed in the mid-to-long-term.
Whether the goal is to drive user acquisition or improve platform reliability, everyone working on the product knows why their work is important, why it matters.
Everyone across the organization is invested in a common vision for the product.
True product leaders ensure that, in their companies, product management is not a black box. They know that everyone across the organization works to support the product, and they’re all invested in its success. They cherish the responsibility not just to share the plan, but rally everyone around a common vision for where the product is headed, and why.
For them, roadmaps are not static documents of what features will be delivered when. They’re dynamic visualizations that help communicate the outcomes the product team is working towards, and how they support the organization’s overarching goals.
If some roadmap decisions are hard for certain stakeholders to swallow (after all, their jobs may be on the line!) they understand the rationale behind tough trade-offs product managers had to make. The business context and user insights behind each decision are always on hand, so everyone can buy in on a decision, even if they don’t personally agree with it.
The path to product excellence
For each of the three pillars described above, where does your organization fall today?
The path to product excellence is long and hard. It represents a progression and always a work in progress, not a one-time achievement. It requires the adoption of concrete processes and organizational habits, but also new mindsets if product managers are to become product leaders. As companies grow and scale, the path can evolve. But with the right tools and systems in place, any organization can get the right products to market faster, exceed customer expectations, and make something truly excellent.
At productboard, we’ve found our calling. It’s to help guide teams like yours along the path to product excellence. Questions? Comments? We’d love to chat. Just send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. 💌 📬