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Unlock the value of your organization’s people and products through product management

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Do you know what the former president and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of Yahoo, the co-founder of Instagram and the founder and former CEO of Amazon have in common? Before they became the creative forces who designed and operated some of the biggest tech companies in the world, they were product managers.

In the current modern and changing marketplace, product managers are emerging as central and influential to the short and long-term success of both start-up and enterprise organizations. Yet, the role is still widely unappreciated and underutilized. As the creative, impactful, entrepreneurial center around which customer needs and product-specific business objectives revolve, product managers are the champions of change linking the business, the customer and the product or service.

Yet, if the role of the product manager is so pivotal, why don’t we know more about it? In this article, we are going to seek answers to some key questions about product management from some of Calgary’s most influential and talented product management leaders: Christa Hill, product & Executive Coach, Co-Founder Tacit Edge and Vice President of product YYC; Renee Matsalla, product & Executive Coach, Co-Founder Tacit Edge, and Director, Education of product YYC; and Marcie Jones, Director of Product Delivery at TC Energy, former Amazonian and Member of the Board of Advisor at Xerris Inc.

So, let’s get started.

What is product management?

Christa Hill: Product management is the intersection of business, users, and technology. Typically, in an organization, a product Manager is the person who identifies the customer need as well as the larger business objectives that need to be fulfilled. They ask questions like: do we need to build a potential new product? Is there an existing product which we can adapt and evolve? Or perhaps, is there a new feature on one of our current products that we can build to fulfill that objective?

Product managers often collaborate to find and discover what success looks like for a product and act as that product’s champions across the business and across teams. Which is another way of saying, product managers are the force that rallies teams towards making a vision for product a reality. We do this by working with teams to apply new and emerging technology to problems in the business that are old and new.

Essentially, product managers are the entrepreneurs in an organization trying to figure out how to deliver value and move the goals of the business forward. Everyone has goals. Every business that wants to succeed needs that kind of framework to ensure they can measure to see if they are reaching those goals. Whether or not you are working on a product that is a physical thing, a piece of software, a workflow or a service, if you have a business goal, you can use product management tactics to help you get there.

What is the difference between project management and product management?

Renee Matsalla: Project management and product management are two vastly different, yet two particularly important roles, which differ but support each other.

A project manager’s focus is to get things done on time and on budget, delivering according to a plan — so they are, importantly and valuably — delivery focused. On the other hand, a product manager is big-picture focused: managing the whole product or solution and ensuring it brings value to our customers, while also working for the best interest of the business. product managers work to inspire people to achieve an outcome without necessarily following an exact plan and understanding that a plan can, and likely will, change.

Product managers iterate as we learn, we could even throw plans out entirely if we find they are not working to solve problems for our users anymore. product management works amazingly well in Agile environments that allow for small iterations and experiments towards solving a problem instead of building a whole giant solution that we are not sure even works. As product managers, we love the small iterations where we can constantly learn.

Marcie Jones: I just want to add to what Renee is saying. In business, you are either a starter or a finisher and let us be clear we need finishers. Project managers are typically strong finishers, they are driven by completion and measure their success and the success of a project by the final green checkmark on a Gant chart.

Alternately, a product manager is a starter: the entrepreneur and starter is the one that has the ideas and gets things moving. A product manager’s success criteria is not completion, it is about the outcome, it is about the continuous improvement and ongoing results. I think of everything in the trifecta of people, process, and technology. The ability to find the union of all three with a customer sitting in the middle is the success criteria for product management.

What is considered a product? Does it need to be a thing?

Christa Hill: No, it does not have to be a thing — it can be a concept or a service, even a small, manual service. A product can be anything, but it is really driven by an overall business objective you are trying to achieve. Then we work that backward with either technology, people or process to achieve that goal.

For example, over the past two years, at Tacit Edge we have been working with a ton of HR folks to help them transform their organizations by using product management tactics to help them move the needle forward on major initiatives. In these COVID times, it has been folks working 100% remote from home. So, there was a lot of transformation in HR that needed to happen quickly, and using product management tactics allowed some of those organizations to move at speed to accommodate the needs of the business.

Whether or not you are working on a product that is a physical thing, a piece of software, a workflow or a service, if you have a business goal, you can use product management tactics to help you get there.

Are product management and product ownership the same thing?

Renee Matsalla: The roles of product owners and product managers require them to be more delivery-focused, meaning their focus is on the delivery teams internally and delivering solutions versus creating a vision towards solving a problem.

The product manager’s role is more entrepreneurial — closer to the users, their needs, the business strategy, the market.

As I said previously, product management works amazingly in agile environments and according to agile, capital-A Agile, product owners bring value, but they are typically so busy with the team they can get caught up with delivery and managing the project that they lose sight of the business and the customer.

We can bring in delivery managers or project managers to help the team with that, but product managers keep focused on the market and empowering and leading with context, not with deadlines.

Marcie Jones: In an enterprise environment, you need the lines to be a little bit more black and white to drive some of the behavioural changes. For us at TC Energy, project management is a vehicle that has a start and a finish, it is defined.

You might use project managers to deliver on a component of your project with a start date and an end date and clear scope. Whereas in product management the end date is a single component that is one piece of a larger strategy that project managers deliver on. It actually is the starting line of the true customer experience and the product manager begins to listen, and drive interaction.

For us that the role of the product manager never ends. They are forever evolving and growing, whereas a project manager has a clearly defined goal line.

What kinds of organizations can or should embrace product management?

Christa Hill: In truth, product management is at work in every industry and every organizational size. When you look at the definition of product management that we talked about earlier, what product managers do can apply to any industry or any modality within an organization.

Regardless of business or industry, product management is all about trying to figure out how to deliver value and move the goals of the business forward. Everyone has goals. Every business that wants to succeed needs this kind of framework to ensure that businesses can measure if they are reaching their goals.

Product management specifically targets five key areas as competencies: the usability, feasibility, viability, value, and the morality of the solutions that we are proposing to the business. That is the lens we are always looking at things through.

So, if you have got that mindset you can collaborate across any industry or organization with any partner with an eye on those five factors. This is how Project managers continually drive value in the business.

How do you know the time is right to introduce product management in an organization?

Renee Matsalla: There are a lot of indicators that we see for which you might need a product management mindset. Absolutely number one is if your products are not solving problems for your customers.

We see this all the time: products, solutions, processes are being released and they are not actually doing what they are intended, or what was intended is not that important and they fall flat.

Or you might not know if your products are solving problems or not. This is where product folks will come in and make sure those products are working, or if they are not, acknowledge that it is okay, let go of what is not working and focus on more important things.

We also hear a lot of complaints about slow deliveries or uncertain delivery: you do not know when things are going to be done, you do not know exactly what is going to be done, and this slow delivery is often born out of unclear focus and unclear measurements of success.

So, product management again comes in, brings focus to the most important problems to solve, for who, and how we can measure that we are getting there, because if we do not see measurements of success we default to, “well, is the project being delivered on time at least?

But the truth is, if it does not work, it does not matter if the project is delivered on time!

Do product managers need to be subject matter experts?

Marcie Jones: This is such an important question.

We've all grown up in a business where the leader or the most senior person in the room is the greatest subject matter expert because that is how we have rewarded and recognized leadership in the past: you are the most senior engineer, you know this subject the most, you will lead the project and the team.

The shift in product management is that you have the skills and abilities to manage people and products, you know how to make decisions and focus on the customer, the outcome and the experience rather than subject matter expertise.

Product management is not an SME role whatsoever, you are not going to be an SME by taking a test and becoming a product manager. An experienced product manager can take over any customer group, in any industry and become successful because they are a craftsman, and a craftsman can build anything.

As our experts have shown, product managers are starters. They put the customer and the business at the front of every project by shepherding and guiding the creation, production, and release of any product, virtual or tangible, to successful completion. They lead, inspire, and challenge teams to question what they’re creating and are ready to pivot or start fresh if things aren’t serving the customer or the business.

If you are a starter or if you are ready to move your career to the next level, visit SAIT’s Applied product management Bootcamp or the Corporate Training Hub.

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