The future of product management

The future of product management

Lauren Maffeo was a contributing writer to TNW from 2012-2014. She oversees content strategy at Aha! – the world’s #1 product roadmap software.

Nokia acquired Alcatel-Lucent a few weeks ago — but not for the reasons you may be thinking. The two giants behind this $16 billion deal are not citing “synergy from cost reduction” or similar phrases that often accompany large corporate mergers. In this case, improving the speed at which they innovate was cited as the catalyst.

Neither brand is really known for innovation these days. That fact has been a major problem for both as they try to excite their customers and grow market share. Quite simply, they have failed to produce products that customers love. This is true for both their consumers and enterprises.

“Nokia’s acquisition of smaller rival Alcatel-Lucent may avoid the pitfalls that befell earlier telecom network equipment marriages, thanks to a revolution over the past decade in how products are launched and developed,” Reuters declared in its report on the merger.


The rationale behind Nokia’s acquisition invites a broader question: how will both brands increase their speed of innovation? And who will be responsible for this acceleration?

Most likely, that will fall on the shoulders of product development teams. Those teams will be led by product managers – who will, in turn, be tasked with prioritizing features, gathering new ideas from customers, and driving innovation through cross-functional releases.

Over the past decade, technology companies – and product managers – have become more mainstream. Tech leaders like Marissa Mayer have made it to the c-suite through product management roles. Steve Jobs became beloved for his deep, holistic product approach when he said, “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Leaders like Jobs and Mayer have helped usher in a new era of product management. But there is still much work to be done.

Product managers make the most crucial decisions in any tech company today. Yet despite all the advances in software innovation, the product management discipline is still immature. Without the right tools, education, and guidance, product managers are flying blind.

Outdated Methodology

In the 1990s, a series of new methods meant to combat ‘heavyweight’ and ‘gate-to-gate’ software development emerged. These methods ranged from SCRUM methodology to feature-driven development. At a meeting in Utah in 2001, a group of developers coined the term “Agile” to represent these methods. Their manifesto proclaimed, “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.”

But Agile was defined and often adopted with a specific point of view. It was developed to accelerate how quickly engineers could get their work done and be happy doing it.


To research his book, Look Beyond the Product, Steve Johnson of Under10 Consulting interviewed more than 100 product managers. He is convinced that, in many cases, following strict methodologies like Agile has, “broken product management.”

“For too many teams, product managers and product owners are now providing development and operational support rather than gathering and sharing market insights. Contrary to what the Agile movement envisioned, the product manager or product owner is no longer able to provide up-to-date market information and strategic vision because they’re immersed in development activities.”

Rich Mironov, author of The Art of Product Management, agrees that rigid frameworks have alienated product managers from their end users. “In 2008, Agile was just beginning to hit mass adoption, and the current generation of Lean Startup/LeanUX hadn’t happened yet,” Mironov reflects. “Now, both are mainstream, but from opposite sides.

“Ever larger Agile and Scrum development organizations are pulling product managers into heads-down product owner roles, crowding out our time to understand complex markets and determine what our customer segments really want. As product managers, we have to avoid orthodoxy and choose the right mix of tools and methodologies for our unique situations.”

So while product management was taking off, methodologies emerged to streamline product development. Unfortunately, product teams remained in need of a better way to work.

The Software Revolution

We have entered an era where large-scale change is improving how teams build products – software, in particular. These changes are having a deep impact on tech companies like Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent, which depend on software innovation. At Aha! we believe that the years between 1980 — 2050 will be recognized as the Software Revolution era.

This era will be defined by the augmentation of intelligence and experience by computers. Similar to the Industrial Revolution, a period of major industrialization is taking place right now. Although the Software Revolution began in the United States, it is spreading throughout the world and will continue to do so.

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This time period has seen the computerization of business and personal life, which has had a massive effect on economic, social, and cultural conditions. If you work in technology, you likely agree that this time period is unique and being driven by several powerful factors. These include the democratization of software development; widespread broadband access; and the emergence of mobile devices.

Software has been commercialized at a dizzying pace. And yet, paradoxically, efficient idea development and execution remains in its infancy — just like product management. It’s why new approaches to product management have emerged during the Software Revolution.

Product management is evolving from an art to a science. The best products of the next several years will be driven by data based on direct user feedback — but it is taking time and the right tools to drive this meaningful change.

To bring the world’s best future products to life, mature product teams use the following techniques. Over the next several years, you can expect these to become the norm.

Goal-First Planning

The most successful products share the same initial attribute: a goal-first product vision that is informed by customer conversations. Too many products are born without a goal in mind; without knowing where you want to go, you cannot expect to get there.


Goal-first planning starts with product vision. This vision captures the essence of what the product aims to achieve, opportunities available, and potential threats. Over the next several years, product managers’ visions will become more business focused. They will tie these visions back to business objectives – and clearly communicate how users and business alike will benefit.

Daniel Elizalde, an enterprise software product manager who blogs at Tech Product Management, says his four pillars of product management start with soft skills for a reason. Like Johnson and Mironov, Elizalde worries that today’s product managers are too disconnected from their products’ end users. He argues that product leaders must understand their customers and share their product’s vision with its stakeholders.

“Product managers spend most of their days communicating ideas, product direction, roadmaps, delays, etc.,” explains Elizalde. “Having the ability to communicate efficiently and with empathy is a must for the role. No amount of technical, business, or domain knowledge can make up for poor communication skills.”

The popularity of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup is an indication that product teams want more strategic leadership,” adds Johnson. “In addition to customer discovery, teams want to know more about the market, the product buyers and users, and the competitive landscape. These are the business aspects of product management that have gotten lost in recent years.

Crowdsourced Ideas

Great product managers know the value of shipping features that delight users. It’s one of several reasons why Slack is riding its unicorn over the proverbial rainbow.

Better ideas lead to innovation, and innovation leads to market leadership. But the first step in successful ideation is to understand how innovative your product truly is. Shardul Mehta, VP of Products at Diamond Mind, says most of today’s product management practices are designed to optimize strategy for a proven product. But when it comes to innovation, these practices fall woefully short.


“…As such, most product management practices today are designed to optimize the execution of an existing product strategy. However, when it comes to new product innovation, be it in a startup or an existing company, it involves a search for a repeatable and scalable product strategy and business model. There are many unknowns – both with products built by startups and established corporations.”

As product management becomes a more tightly defined role within organizations, more solutions will allow product managers to collect product ideas from colleagues and customers alike. Innovation is about iteration.

Data Driven Feature Prioritization

Prioritizing roadmaps based on feature requests is far from easy – but it is possible if you keep empathetic focus on your users. Prabhakar Gopalan – also known as the Craftsman PM – champions this idea through his Whole Product approach. Whole Product envisions customers and corresponding product features as you move along a product timeline.

The first step in this process is qualitative: it involves writing your product’s story.


“I think product managers should take a step back from the requirements process and look at the system as a whole – all the way through from the customer pain you are trying to solve, to asking which brand positioning your company has or is developing, and which story you would like your customers to say. Then, work backwards to build that kind of product.”

To make data-driven decisions about feature prioritization, you must know what is meant by “data” in the first place. To begin, evaluate where your product is in its lifecycle. This will help you determine whether data refers to customer interviews, internal feedback requests, surveys, etc.

Once you’ve confirmed your product’s lifecycle stage and which data you need, there are several ways to prioritize features. Let’s review some of them:

  • Value – In more flexible systems, product managers should rank features against their key business drivers. Each product should have a unique scorecard comprised of metrics that reflect strategy and also make sense at a feature level. Product managers can customize the metrics, scale, weighting, and complexity used to quantify these features.
  • Opportunity – Since Sales and Support teams work with product users every day, they should not be excluded from product management. Feature prioritization based on revenue potential offers holistic views of users by using data from software systems such as Salesforce. Sales data empowers product teams to invest in the ideas that matter most to users by connecting product features to sales opportunities.
  • Feedback – Once you’ve begun to practice ideation, you need a strong way to manage the ideas that you collect from colleagues and customers. The most advanced systems allow product managers to see a high level of all submitted ideas. They also capture key information about an idea, including its submitter, title, and description.

Cloud-Based Tools

Cloud-based tools – and their mass adoption – matter deeply to product managers. These tools allow teams to build better products, delight their users, and grow their business for less time and money than was used in the past.

If you are working with a dynamic team, it’s important that you have one place to manage and view all things related to your product. This enables cross-functional teams to collaborate in real time. It also allows product nuances to be shared beyond the product team – which empowers anyone at an organization to consistently describe a particular product.

Building great product is a collaborative process that works best if everyone is on the same page. This has led to the emergence of software built specifically for product teams, including Aha! (for product roadmaps), JIRA (for engineering), and Zapier (for task automation). These tools help streamline cross-functional workflows.


All of these factors will drive new innovation – and more lovable products. The availability of product management software makes it easier than ever to build products that users will love via shorter release cycles, crowdsourced ideas, and data driven feature prioritization.

The Way Forward

How should Nokia innovate more quickly? That answer is obvious. Product managers will help Nokia – and tech companies at large – speed up everything they do. They will accelerate the pace of innovation and delight customers at the same time. In contrast to the past, they will not get caught up in the development methodology of the day. Instead, they will lead product teams with a flexible approach.

“I think avoiding frameworks and thinking of the product as a whole is the kind of work one needs to stand out,” says Gopalan. “It’s not easy, but it can be rewarding. The most delightful products we see tend to be built that way!”

It is not easy to build lovable products. But with a goal-first approach, deep customer connections, and a rigorous way to tie features to business value, it can be achieved. This approach will help product managers accelerate innovation — and define the future of product management.

Read Next: A day in a life of a product manager

Image credit: Unsplash, Creative Commons

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