photo credit: Macduff Everton / Iconica / Getty Images

This is my second post in a five-part series on Product Management.

In my previous post I talked about the structure of product management and its different roles. I will now dive into what I call the great divide and how we have been trying to bridge it over the years.

Now we are familiar with the various product management activities (product strategy, product development, and product marketing). As these activities become specialized and different people (or even distinct teams) take on each function, they align around the same goal of delivering a viable product customers will use and love. Everyone is on the same page when it comes to understanding who exactly the target customer is, what her key goals and pains are, and what solution alternatives are available to her. Nothing can stop them from building a product that will be a runaway success.

Well, not so fast.

It turns out that there is often a striking divide and lack of alignment in terms of understanding users, their goals and pains, and available solution alternatives (alternatives in the sense of competitive products or non-consumption).

The Great Divide

I find it very unsettling how common it is to meet people in charge of product development constantly struggling with understanding what exactly the product strategy team had in mind and why they decided to target a certain customer segment. Designers are frustrated by what it is that the product manager had in mind when he wrote the technical specification and why a certain feature request is so important. Equally unsettling is how easy it is to meet a product marketer who is supposed to market a feature that just got built, without having any why it is valuable to the customers. This is what I call the great divide — a fundamental lack of alignment between teams who collaborate throughout the product delivery lifecycle.

When making product decisions, don’t lose the context of a customer, her goals, and alternatives.

All this is double-surprising given the long history of product management methodologies — which have sought to align everyone behind common understandings of customers, their goals and associated pains, and available solution alternatives.

Strategists take a crack at it

All the way back in 1972, Mitsubishi’s Kobe shipyard came up with Quality Function Deployment (QFD) methodology that addresses customer needs, design attributes, competitive analysis, and even feasibility assessment. Toyota was quick to adopt this methodology already in the late 70’s (smart guys).

In 1993, Abby Griffin and John R. Hauser published one of the most important marketing works in their Voice of Customer article advocating the same kind of philosophy, putting the customer and her goals/needs in the spotlight.

In 2002, Clayton Christensen popularized in his book Innovator’s Solution the jobs-to-be-done framework that advocates the same kind of thinking, but rebrands goals/needs as “jobs”. (It is not clear who actually “invented” the jobs-to-be-done methodology. Christensen credits Richard Pedi and Tony Ulwick with introducing him to this perspective. But it was Bob Moesta who actually suggested the jobs-to-be-done approach for the famous milkshake problem. So I guess it was a team effort).

The designers’ way

In parallel to this marketing-strategy-driven thinking, designers made big strides. Alan Cooper, a brilliant user experience designer, adopted customer archetypes from the marketing sphere and applied it to design in the form of user personas. His 1999 book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, pioneers the concept and helps market the whole field of goal-directed design. And Alan Cooper wasn’t alone. David Kelly of IDEO and Stanford University popularized Design Thinking, Indi Young of Adaptive Path introduced her Mental Models. All sought the same holy grail — an understanding of users and their goals, and a common vocabulary for expressing those needs during the product conception, design, and development process. In time, a whole new set of tools were developed to support the effort — user journey, experience map, touchpoint map, service blueprint and many more.

The lean startup movement

Then, just a few years back in 2005, Steve Blank resurfaced all these concepts in his book Four Steps to the Epiphany, by popularizing his Customer Development process that applies frameworks for understanding customers and their jobs/goals/needs/pains and applies them not just to building sound products but superior companies.

More recently, Eric Ries tapped into the inventions of the marvelous Japanese process architects (at Toyota, once again) such as lean manufacturing, and beautifully combined them with Steve Blank’s Customer Development process to create the Lean Startup movement around learning from customers as fast as humanly possible.

Even consumer psychologists…

As if that wasn’t enough, a whole new field of consumer behavior and psychology began to focus on understanding the motivations and behaviors of consumers on a deeper level. Great work has been done by the preeminent Robert Cialdini (in his seminal book Influence), nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast And Slow), and more recently by the Heath brothers (Decisive), Nir Eyal (Hooked) and many others.

Strategists, designers, lean startup entrepreneurs all want to know the user. They just have different approaches.

Despite the effort of all these fields to bridge the divide, many teams remain misaligned, disconnected from their users. We’ll continue to bridge the divide in the next post!

Have you seen signs of the divide at your own company? What developments have you found most impactful to the field of product management? I’d love to hear from you. 😀

–Hubert