How product management has fallen behind in the new era of product excellence

In 1878, the world was introduced to something that would forever change how people would communicate.

That product was the telephone.

Despite all its promise, reaching the masses took a lot of time. In fact, it took almost 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.

After its launch, it took Facebook only five years to do the same.

And when Candy Crush launched in 2012, it took them a mere 15 months to reach that benchmark of 100 million users.

What’s my point?

Today, 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.

Nowadays, new rivals can come out of nowhere, and if they offer superior features, UX, or succeed in building stronger customer relationships, your customers can (and will) defect to them. (HipChat vs. Slack, anyone?)

Undoubtedly, the speed at which we innovate is crucial and customers want nothing but the best from your products.

These days they accept nothing short of excellence, and why shouldn’t they?

In this climate of rapid change, heightened competition and customer expectations, the role of the product manager — your role — has to keep up with the times.

The issue here is that it hasn’t.

Product Management Is Stuck In The Past

Technology has changed a lot in the past few decades, and with it people have changed as well.

Take your colleagues in sales, marketing, and support. They’ve enjoyed a host of new tools that help them respond to this new fast-paced, customer-centric world.

But product managers? Well, we haven’t been so lucky.

Take a look at what I mean:

  • Marketing teams have Marketo
  • Sales teams have Salesforce
  • Support teams have Zendesk
  • Engineering teams have JIRA
  • And product managers have… spreadsheets

That’s right — essentially the same spreadsheets we had decades ago.

The truth is this:

Our outdated tools and processes are keeping us from excelling in this new fast-moving, customer-centric world.

But while you and I are stuck with our same ol’ spreadsheets, our competitors have found a way to systematically capture user feedback from support, sales, and marketing, and use it to make better prioritization decisions.

While the loudest voices in the company and customer base are pressuring us to build their favorite feature ideas, other teams are deciding what to build based on criteria that support a cohesive strategy.

And while we’re struggling to win buy-in for our roadmaps, other teams are rallying their entire organizations around a common vision for where their products are headed.

We’ve been left in the virtual dust thanks to the outdated, old-school methods we’ve been left with.


Perhaps, like us, you’ve said “there has to be a better way.” After all, there are are plenty of companies like Zendesk and Invision who seem to release updates and products that continue to knock it out of the park.

So what are they doing differently?

How The Best Teams Do Product Management In The Modern World

At productboard, we make it our job to know what the best teams in the product management space are doing. What we’ve discovered is they all share these three core things:

  1. Deep customer understanding
  2. Clear product strategy
  3. Buy-in for the roadmap

When companies and product teams have this framework at top of mind in everything they do, it paves the way to building truly excellent products.

Let’s take a closer look at each in turn.

Deep Customer Understanding

The entire product team has a deep understanding of what users really need.

We’ve all fallen into the trap of assuming we knew exactly what users needed before an earth-shattering revelation showed us just how little we really understood.

As organizations evolve, they develop better systems for collecting quality user feedback and validating their understanding of user needs.

They develop pipelines to route insights from sales calls and customer support tickets to the product team for review.

In a well-meaning attempt to understand customers, product managers, designers, or dedicated researchers interview users about their needs before feature prioritization even takes place. And early prototypes of a feature are shared with users to collect feedback sooner.

But, all too often, critical user insights collected from these activities remain siloed in individual teammates’ inboxes, Evernotes, Google docs, CRMs, or support systems.

The problem many teams have discovered is that unless this information is centralized, made available for all teams to collaborate around, and formatted in a way that makes it actionable, we miss the opportunity to put these insights to use.

The top product teams understand this, so they have relevant user research and feedback on hand for every prioritization decision. Product managers, designers, and developers all know what users really need (rather than just building whatever they happen to request).

That deep empathy for users lends a real sense of purpose to their work. It also gives them an edge in delivering features that solve user problems in a particularly delightful way.

Clear Product Strategy

The whole product team is aligned around key strategic objectives.

There will always be new things your product could do, or things your product could do better.

And there will always be some colleagues and customers who are especially passionate about what those things should be. (Sometimes that colleague is even your CEO…)

But as product managers, it’s our responsibility to gain the perspective necessary to see which of those fit into a coherent strategy for how to sustain the success of our product (and business) over the long-term.

Product strategy can seem abstract and intimidating. Really it’s all about deciding on areas of focus that will guide the feature prioritization process.

Before moving forward building various features, take a step back to consider your overall strategy. What’s most important for your business right now?

  • Growth: How can you ensure growth that will sustain your business? How will you compel new users to adopt your product? How will you help them gain ongoing value from it?
  • Competitive differentiation: Are you in an especially competitive industry? How can you differentiate yourself, or adapt your solution to create a new market category altogether?
  • Regulatory compliance: Do you have to contend with a strict regulatory environment? How will you keep your product in compliance? Will you work to support the more stringent requirements of enterprise customers or target SMBs instead?
  • Security/Reliability: What investments will you make to keep your solution secure and reliable?

Top-performing product teams have moved beyond one-off feature prioritization to focusing on clusters of complementary features, or initiatives, that all support some common business objective within your product strategy.

Meanwhile, the best product managers ensure everyone on the team understands these objectives and why they’ll drive the business forward. Whether the goal is to drive user adoption (as evidenced by higher trial conversion rates) or improve platform reliability (as evidenced by a 5% decrease in bug reports), everyone working on the product should know why their work is important.

Prioritization based on user inputs & product strategy in productboard

Buy-in For The Roadmap

Everyone across the organization is invested in a common vision for the product.

It’s not enough for the product team to know what you’re building and why. Everyone across the organization works directly or indirectly to support the product, and they’re all personally invested in its success.

Traditionally, we’ve shared our product plans and future areas of focus with the organization using a product roadmap.

It’s easy to share out a Google sheet, PowerPoint, or PDF indicating what’s getting built and when, but this has led to a number of problems.

For one, roadmaps have become synonymous with pipe dreams and broken promises, particularly when they commit to delivering particular features by certain dates that turn out to be unrealistic.

As teams have evolved toward more agile processes, many have begun to forgo dates on their roadmaps altogether, seeing them as relics of the waterfall era. And rather than committing to building particular features, teams may instead indicate what problems they’ll be working on solving, while acknowledging these areas of focus may evolve as their understanding of the problems improves.

Since the best product managers see themselves as leaders within the organization, they take it upon themselves to get colleagues energized around what’s planned.

They ensure an up-to-date roadmap is always accessible to colleagues and share a high-level version of it with their customers. Moreover, they help key stakeholders understand why the team is working on certain initiatives and not others, and they can share the strategic considerations and customer insights behind major product decisions.

When your entire organization is fully invested in the roadmap, it means day in and day out everyone’s rowing in the same direction.

Looking To The Future

There’s more pressure than ever to build excellent products, and we have an increasingly clear picture of how the best product teams operate. But many of these organizations have homegrown solutions or processes derived from years of iteration and costly programs executed by well-resourced ops and internal product teams.

What if we could take these best practices and make them available to every product team on the globe striving to build excellent products?

That’s the question we asked ourselves at productboard when we set out to build a dedicated product for product managers.

But we need your help.

As a product manager, you’re better equipped than anyone to tell us what your dream tool would look like. How could a dedicated product management solution help you understand your users’ needs, prioritize what to build next, and rally everyone around your roadmap?

We’d love to hear from you.

⭐ Interested in trying out the product management solution of choice at Invision, Zendesk, and Envoy? Get started for free at 👈