What is exactly is product management?

Developing new products is one of the most exciting undertakings at any company. It involves creative and strategic thinking, clear communication, and quick execution. You might lead (or be part of) the team behind a product that improves customers’ lives or changes your company’s trajectory. 

As an activity, product management brings together many experts and stakeholders across a product life cycle. It requires extreme attention to detail, cross-team coordination, and intense organization. The best product managers are technical enough to talk shop with engineers, and have the management skills to lead large cross-functional projects.

But even though product management impacts many groups within an org, it’s one of the least understood job functions. What do product managers actually do?

In this guide to product management, we'll cover the following essential definitions and concepts: 

  • What is product management?

  • The history of product management

  • The roles and responsibilities of product managers

  • The product management lifecycle

  • Common product management tools

Product management is the organizational process that drives all activity related to creating, launching, and continuously supporting a product. 

Product management can look different at every company. It’s usually owned by a product manager, but a team’s configuration can vary depending on industry, product, departments, and seniority of team members. 

The ultimate goal of a product management team, no matter the size, is to identify, plan, develop, launch, and support a viable product that solves a specific customer need.

To that end, product management is also very much about relationship management. In one study, 30% of product managers cited internal politics as their biggest challenge. Another confirmed that “competing objectives in the organization” were the top challenge among 56.4% of product managers. 

History of product management

Product management is a relatively new organizational function. Many activities that now fall under product management would have, in the past, been handled by other departments such as executive leadership, marketing, UX, design, or development. 

Neil H. McElroy, a Procter & Gamble executive (who later became a Defense Secretary), is credited with the first description of the function, which he included in a 1931 memo. In it, he wrote about what he called "Brand Men" at P&G—today, they sound like a blend of modern-day marketers and product managers. McElroy said these professionals were the brand owners and "voice of the customer,” doing testing, research and everything related to a product, including advertising and sales.

Product management has, of course, come a long way since. Marketing and product are usually now functionally split in the following ways:

  • marketing teams own brand and customer acquisition, usually with specific product marketing activities

  • product teams own the value proposition and development of a product, often using an Agile product management method

But you can still see plenty of ties to the role’s history at P&G. Intuit's founder Scott Cook, for example, a former “brand man” at Procter & Gamble, brought brand management principles to Intuit in the 1980s. Quicken is now one of the most successful modern business case studies, rolling out at-home finance products for non-financial users and becoming one of the largest mortgage lenders in America. Cook attributes this success to keeping his product and product teams closely aligned with customer needs. 

Product manager: the role and responsibilities 

The modern product manager’s role is central to an organization, connective the voice of the customer with the executives pondering the "why" behind the product. This means product managers are attuned to customers' needs in any market—and they know how the company’s product can address them.

What makes a product manager's impact unique is that they influence every aspect of the product path, from setting goals to defining success, gaining internal alignment, rallying team members, and owning eventual outcomes. Product managers are often seen as leaders inside an organization: 43.3% of employees say product managers are seen as leaders and key differentiators.

A product manager's priorities may vary by company, but these are the main responsibilities: 

  • Research: This is often focused on target market, user personas, competitors, and market conditions.

  • Strategy: A high-level product plan frequently includes goals and objectives, product requirements, design briefs, and a rough timeline.

  • Communication: Product managers always communicate with others about their plans and product roadmap, and they must present it to stakeholders. Stakeholders include executive leadership, investors, development teams, designers, and others. They also manage communication flow across groups.

  • Product development coordination: Once initial product plans and the product roadmap are approved, product managers work in lockstep with development and design teams to ensure that product development moves forward as planned.

  • Data analysis: After developing, testing, and launching the product, product managers gather user feedback, product performance metrics and market reception as data for analysis. They use these data-based findings to help steer future iterations of a product.

Roles closely related to a product manager:

  • Company executives

  • Product owners

  • Project managers

  • UX designers 

  • UX researchers

  • Product marketers

Product managers act as the bridge between an organization's technology, UX and business needs, balancing all three. 

Key skills of effective product managers 

At most organizations—from early-stage start-ups to established enterprises—effective product managers have these key skills: 

  • Communication in speech and writing

  • Strategic thinking

  • Relationship management

  • Data analysis

  • Technical aptitude

Some product managers may be stronger in one or more areas, but the best have at least some proficiency in all.

Key responsibilities of effective product managers

Let's take a closer look at a product manager's responsibilities from a few more angles—starting with inbound product management activities vs. outbound product management activities.

Inbound product management

Inbound product management is all about ensuring a solution solves an identified problem.  Basically, a product manager must make a clear case that a problem exists, and that a product (or tweak to a product) will solve it. They also must make sure all stakeholders are fully aligned around the plan of action. Inbound activities usually involve user experience, design, and the development process. 

Outbound product management

Outbound product management is more about keeping a pulse on the market and understanding how your product compares to the competition, or how customers are responding to your product. Outbound activities involve keeping an open feedback loop with customers throughout the product life cycle, especially post-launch. Product managers in this area work closely with product marketers or other members of marketing and sales teams. 

Key responsibilities of product managers

Here's an overview of day-to-day tasks and responsibilities from both an inbound and outbound perspective:

  • Monitoring the market

  • Running competitive analysis

  • Conducting customer interviews and user testing

  • Defining the product vision, prioritizing features, and roadmap planning

  • Aligning stakeholders around their product vision

  • Defining and translating technical requirements

  • Creating processes and documentation for clear communication 

  • Allocating resources across teams and product development

  • Pricing and revenue modeling

  • Defining goals and tracking success metrics

Product managers: B2B vs. B2C

A product manager's approach can depend on whether their product is B2B (business to business) or B2C (business to consumer). B2B products are sold to businesses—generally software, services, or raw materials—while B2C products are sold to individual consumers.

Here are the main differentiators between a B2B product manager and a B2C product manager:

  • Sales and customer acquisition: Because businesses are the buyer for B2B products, B2B product managers must be familiar with the long sales cycles and the product-related collateral marketing and sales teams will need. B2C product managers, on the other hand, may look to drive shorter sales cycles and faster-converting collateral.

  • Post-sale customer support: Because B2B products often require hands-on onboarding and post-sales support, B2B product managers will have a deep understanding of after-sale customer interaction and relationship-building. Meanwhile, B2C product managers' experience with customer support is more transactional, so they're likely to focus on quickly routing and solving immediate customer needs.

  • Product roadmap: Both B2B and B2C product managers will need to balance customer retention and new customer acquisition when they think about new features. Because the impact of losing a customer for a B2B product is much higher than for a B2C product, the product manager must account for this in their product roadmap

Product management tools

If they’re lucky, product managers deal with a huge volume of information, and are constantly synthesizing input and data points from various departments. This becomes a challenge in organizations where information is siloed or critical data isn’t readily surfaced—which is also where good product management tools come in handy.

In each stage of the life cycle, a good product management tool can help you stay organized and see insights into: 

The right product management tools allow for easy cross-team collaboration, make your whole team more productive, and can even serve as your project and task management system. 

Agile product management

Agile project management is an iterative approach to product planning and managing software development projects. It focuses on continuous releases over shorter time intervals (e.g., releasing product updates every one to three weeks vs. every quarter) and using customer feedback to help prioritize each release. 

As the name suggests, Agile management lets teams quickly change direction as business and/or customer needs require. 

Agile product management became popular in the 1950s with Toyota's lean manufacturing concept, based on the idea of continual, iterative improvement. Prior to that, the standard methodology focused on large product development plans drawn out over long periods, leading to "big bang" launches.

Find the best product management tool for your team. 

Product management is a critical focus area for any company, especially one that uses software to drive growth.

But even the best product managers can be hamstrung by inefficient, badly connected tools. Because the process involves many teams and stakeholders, large numbers of documents and cross-team communication, the right product management tool makes all the difference between a rocky product launch and a successful one. 

Here are some key things to look for in a product management tool: 

  • Ability to transition from strategy to launch. Moving toward launch is exciting, but it can be a stressful mess if you don't have the right tool to guide you and your development team through your goals and requirements. Your tool should monitor your entire project management plan and timeline at a high level.

  • A real-time, single source of truth for all stakeholders. The product plan you start with is never what you end up with. Details, requirements, feedback, and designs are constantly changing, so your tool should keep everyone up-to-date with new developments, and record the history of any changes.

  • Capable of housing all necessary data in one place, without redundancies or siloes. The wrong, outdated, or missing data creates costly mistakes. If you're lucky, it might mean a fixable development error. In the worst case, it could mean you build the wrong product.

If you’re using Airtable to manage your products, you’ll benefit from features like:

  • A database structure that means no data redundancy

  • Unique views to let you see the data exactly you need, when you need 

  • The flexibility to help you organize any stage in your product management lifecycle—from research, strategy, launch, support, and beyond

Airtable also has handy product management templates and a full suite of product management solutions to help you manage your next product launch.

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