Why is product management hard?

Why is product management hard?

We’ve got some Marty Cagan fans over here at productboard. Cagan is a product management expert and frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He also rarely misses an opportunity to stress how hard product management is.

Now, the skeptical among us could be tempted to think Cagan just knows his audience well. PMs have a fuzzier job description than our colleagues in design, engineering, marketing. The very fact that we have fewer deliverables than most leave some questioning what it is we actually do all day. Meanwhile, the difficulty of measuring a PM’s success (independent from the success of the team they support) makes it tricky to definitively distinguish superb PMs from mediocre ones. Hearing that our role is hard is validating.

But I also think Cagan is onto something. I’ve been listening to his talks, reading his posts, and recently picked up the new second edition of his book, a must-read for all product managers (read our review!). The multi-faceted nature of the product manager’s role requires considerable expertise in a number of areas and managing these in parallel.

When I sat down with productboard founder & CEO Hubert Palan recently, he echoed these ideas in the form of three pillars product managers must master in order to confidently decide what to build next:

  • Solve a real problem for people
  • Attract customers to your product
  • Build a viable business around your product

As Hubert points out, each area requires being able to answer a number of questions, which in turn demands significant expertise in a number fields. Let’s take a closer look at each area discussed above.

1. Solve a real problem for real people

Product managers must ensure their products solve a significant need for a sufficiently large group of people in a way that’s better (or less costly) than existing alternatives.

  • Is the problem painful enough?

👉 get out of the building, lean startup, user research

  • Is the market big enough?

👉 business strategy & market sizing, competitive analysis

  • Is the solution good enough?

👉 more user research, data analysis, UX design

2. Attract customers to your product

Product managers must ensure their product solves a problem that users are aware they have, that it’s intuitive to begin using, that it’s designed to offer users increasing value the more they use it, and that inviting new users offers more value to existing users (i.e. it has built-in virality).

  • How do we acquire new customers?

👉 product marketing, demand generation, competitive research, virality

  • How do we activate/onboard new customers?

👉 onboarding, product marketing

  • How do we boost adoption/engagement, increase usage, etc.?

👉 habits and design for habit formation, UX design, seductive interaction design, designing user interfaces with the mind in mind

3. Build a viable business around your product

At the end of the day you’re on the hook for designing a product that delivers a lot of value (see Solve a real problem for real people) but also captures some of that value back so you can sustain your business. The whole organization is counting on you for their paychecks!

  • How do we monetize the product? What should our plans & pricing structure be? How do we facilitate payments, billing, etc.?

👉 business modeling, unit economics, finance & accounting

  • What can we do to help the product scale? Scale the infrastructure? Support larger customers with more complex requirements?

👉 sales, understanding of your product’s underlying technologies

  • How do we assure viability within a regulatory context? Security certifications, etc.

👉 market trends (blogs, podcasts, analyst reports), expertise within your domain

All this and more…

All the above are key considerations as product managers prioritize what to build next, a key responsibility of the role. But that’s not even the full extent of what we do! Remember, PMs are on the hook for facilitating every step of the product development process from feature ideation through delivery, and beyond:

  • Collect inputs & feedback from colleagues, customers, prospects, and other stakeholders
  • Prioritize what to build next (see above)
  • Plan when it will be built (and often by whom)
  • Earn buy-in for the roadmap from colleagues & customers
  • Align their team around a common vision for the product and the user needs being solved
  • Monitor each feature’s progress from design through delivery
  • Facilitate product launches
  • Analyze the success of launched features

Product management is hard to do well, and that requires specialization if one is to excel at it. So the next time someone snarkily asks whether PMs are really necessary, ask them whether having engineers master the above areas of expertise is really the best way to ship excellent products. Then show them what happened when Google decided to get rid of all its product managers‡ in 2001. Needless to say, they were hired back in a hurry.

‡ At the time, known as “project” managers, but with the responsibilities of today’s product managers.

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