What Is Product Management? A Complete Introductory Guide

Product management is the function in an organization responsible for the overall success of a product. It plays an extremely important role in business—and it’s undoubtedly one of the most rewarding career paths in tech today. 

If you’re new to product management and want to understand exactly what it is, you’ve come to the right place. In this ultimate introductory guide, you’ll learn:

  1. What is product management? A definition
  2. A brief history of product management
  3. The five stages of the product life cycle
  4. What is the product management process?
  5. An introduction to product management tools
  6. What does a product manager do? Tasks & responsibilities
  7. What are the most important product management skills?
  8. Product management salaries
  9. How to get started in product management

Ready to dive into the fascinating world of product management? Let’s start defining what it exactly is. 

1. What is product management? A definition

Product management is the department or function in an organization responsible for the overall success of a product. It encompasses the discovery, planning, development, launch, and management of the product—guiding and overseeing every step in the product life cycle. 

Product management is primarily a strategic endeavor. It’s important to note that product managers are not heavily involved in the day-to-day tasks that go into the development of a product. Instead, they operate on a strategic level, developing an overarching vision for the product as well as a plan for how that vision will be realized. Product management is all about making sure that everyone is aligned and working towards a common goal. 

The main goal of product management is to drive innovation and business growth, while also serving the needs of the customer. As such, product management sits right at the intersection of business, user experience (UX), and technology. It’s a balancing act between delivering value for the business and the customer/end user while staying within the realms of what’s technically feasible. 

Throughout this post, we’ll build upon this initial definition of product management, painting a clear picture of what it entails and why it’s so important.

Next up: Where did product management come from?

2. A brief history of product management

The origins of product management can be traced back to The Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1931, Neil McElroy, a marketing manager at the major consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble, wrote extensively about the need for dedicated brand people—people who manage and take ownership of a specific product. 

Later on, in his advisory role at Stanford University, McElroy brought the concept of brand and product management to Bill Hewlett and David Packard. They went on to adopt this philosophy in their own company, the famous Hewlett-Packard (HP), and were able to achieve 20% year-on-year growth for a record fifty years in a row as a result. 

More and more brands continued to recognize the value of having a dedicated product management function, and went on to integrate product management principles into their own structures and processes. 

In more recent years, the rise of agile software development has further cemented product management as a discipline in its own right. One of the core principles laid out in The Agile Manifesto, published in 2001, states that “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” Product managers are crucial in facilitating that cross-functional collaboration, and are now one of the most sought-after hires in business. 

We’ll explore the role of the product manager in more detail later on. For now, let’s familiarize ourselves with the product life cycle, which underpins the product management process.

3. The five main stages of the product life cycle 

As already mentioned, product management guides and oversees every step of the product life cycle. The product life cycle (PLC) is, quite simply, the stages a product goes through over the course of its existence. 

The role that product management plays can vary depending on what stage the product is in. So what are the five stages of the product life cycle? Let’s take a look. 

Stage 1: Discovery and development

The discovery and development stage covers everything that happens before the product exists. This includes research, ideation, and discovery of new products; the prototyping, testing, and validation of ideas; and then, eventually, the design and development of the product.

During the discovery phase, the product manager gathers and draws connections between ideas coming from different sources. They then decide which ideas are worth keeping and pursuing. 

They will also be involved in market and competitor research, validating ideas, and developing the product strategy. The product strategy outlines the overall vision for the product, what needs to be built, and milestones for delivery. 

From there, the product manager oversees the development of the product, making decisions about features and functionality, signing off designs, and helping developers to prioritize the delivery of different aspects of the product. 

Stage 2: Introduction

This stage covers the launch of the product—in other words, its introduction to the market. The focus here is on building awareness of the product, communicating the benefits to the target audience, and generating demand for it. 

This requires close collaboration between product management and the sales and marketing teams. The product manager acts as the in-house product expert, making sure everybody within the organization understands what the product is, how it works, and the unique value it offers. They will also liaise with the marketing team to ensure the necessary marketing materials are in place for the product’s launch, and be involved in decisions regarding the pricing of the product. 

With the product live and on the market, product management will be evaluating who’s using the product, what aspects of the product are performing well, and which areas need changing or improving. Based on initial data, they may update the product roadmap. 

At this stage, the product manager is looking to make sure that the product does indeed have a proven market and a future worth investing in. 

Stage 3: Growth

If the introduction phase is successful, the product will enter into the growth phase. At this stage, demand for the product is growing—as are profits. Companies will usually ramp up their marketing spend at this point. 

From the perspective of product management, the growth phase is all about reacting to the influx of competitors into the market, making sure the product pricing remains competitive and that the product continues to perform and meet the end users’ needs. The product manager will oversee the continued iteration, improvement, and scaling-up of the product as it grows. 

The product manager will also be looking to identify additional revenue streams, considering which other target groups might be interested in the product, and what adaptations or additions would be necessary to appeal to these new groups.

Stage 4: Maturity

As growth slows down, the product enters the maturity phase. At this stage, product managers focus on customer retention, differentiating the product from others in the market, and optimizing operations to reduce costs and increase efficiency. They consider which features to invest in for a high return, and seek to gain an even deeper understanding of user behavior—all with the goal of retaining existing users and keeping the product profitable. 

Stage 5: Decline

The product life cycle ends with the decline phase. Perhaps the entire market is in decline and general demand for the product is decreasing, or perhaps the product can no longer compete with others on the market. At this stage, product managers seek to understand what’s causing the decline. 

Ultimately, the product management team weighs up whether to keep the product on the market without investing heavily in updating it, to ‘sunset’ the product (i.e. withdraw it from the market entirely), or to reboot the product so it’s better-equipped to compete and be profitable. 

These five stages of the product life cycle underpin the product management process, determining what the product manager focuses on and how they work. With that in mind, let’s explore the product management process now.

4. What is the product management process?

It’s important to bear in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all product management process. It varies from company to company; each organization will have its own unique way of doing things. That said, the product management process will typically encompass some, if not all, of the following: 

Gathering & managing ideas

If you’ve ever worked in any kind of organization, you’ve probably seen firsthand how ideas, suggestions, and requests spring up almost constantly from different sources. A key part of the product management process is to capture and organize those ideas in one central location (usually referred to as the ideas or product backlog) and to decide which ones are worth pursuing. 

Determining product specifications (specs)

The next step in the product management process is to consider certain ideas and requests in more detail. Here, product managers create product specifications. 

A product specification (or set of product specs) is essentially a document that lays out the product requirements, outlining exactly what’s going to be built and why, what the new product (or feature) should achieve, and how its success will be measured. This helps product managers to understand the scope of the project and to estimate how much time and effort will be involved. 

Of course, the product manager doesn’t do this alone. They get input from different stakeholders, making sure that everyone’s aligned and on the same page before the project moves forward.

Creating a product roadmap

A product roadmap is essentially the strategic plan of action for the product. The purpose of the product roadmap is to map out both the short and long-term goals for the product or project, and to lay out the (high-level) steps that will be taken to achieve these goals. The product roadmap is a critical tool: it’s the one source of truth within the organization, keeping everybody aligned on the status of the project, where the product is heading, and how it’ll get there. 

Bear in mind that the product roadmap doesn’t necessarily prescribe which specific features and elements will be worked on when. Rather, it sets out the overarching milestones, leaving some flexibility for the development team to prioritize and manage their own tasks. 

Prioritization

It’s impossible to build everything, so product managers have to ensure that time and resources are being invested in the right places, at the right moment. So, this stage of the product management process is all about setting priorities. 

While the product roadmap sets out the strategic, overarching vision for the product, prioritization involves taking a closer look at the ideas backlog and deciding exactly what should be built and when. 

To help with prioritization, product managers will often use prioritization frameworks. A prioritization framework is based on a consistent set of criteria, allowing product managers to evaluate certain ideas against these criteria to see how they measure up. You’ll find an introduction to some of the most popular prioritization frameworks in this article.

Developing & delivering the product 

With the roadmap in place and priorities set, the process of actually building the product can begin. Product management isn’t involved in the hands-on development of the product—that’s down to the designers and engineers—but they work closely with those teams to ensure that everything is delivered in line with the requirements set out. 

Running analytics 

Once the product has been launched (remember the “Introduction” stage of the product life cycle?), the product management process turns to analytics to see how the product (or product improvement/new feature) is performing against the success metrics defined earlier on in the process. 

Product managers will also take this opportunity to learn more about how end users are engaging with the product, as well as what traits are common among these users. From there, they may refine user personas and make decisions about where to invest, both in terms of the product itself and with regards to marketing.

Based on everything they learn from early data, product managers will adapt the product roadmap and identify ways to improve and optimize the user experience. 

Capturing & organizing customer feedback

A crucial part of the product management process is capturing customer feedback. Whether it’s complaints, suggestions, or requests, these insights from real customers give product managers a clear understanding of how effectively (or not) the product is solving the intended user problem. 

Product managers can gather user feedback both passively (for example, asking users to rate their experience while using the product) and actively (for example, sending out customer surveys). And, when they get this feedback, they need to organize it, analyze it, and use it to inform the future of the product. 

5. An introduction to product management tools

For each step in the product management process, product managers rely on various tools. Typically, the product management toolkit includes:

This is by no means an exhaustive list. You can learn more about the tools that product managers use (and how they use them) in our guide.

6. What does a product manager do? Tasks & responsibilities

So far, we’ve looked at what product management is and what the product management process entails. Now let’s consider how this translates into the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of a product manager.

The role of the product manager is to connect strategy to implementation. They are the bridge between the business goals, the product vision, and the teams who help to realize both: the designers, developers, marketers, salespeople, and so on. 

So what does a product manager actually do? What tasks and responsibilities might you find in the product manager job description? Based on our research into real product manager job ads, here are the main components of the role:

  • Prioritize the right problems to solve based on wider company OKRs and the product team’s key metrics
  • Work with engineers and designers to define product requirements, write user stories, and translate them into tickets
  • Collaborate closely with customers, stakeholders, design and engineering teams to build prototypes, give and receive feedback, and refine requirements and user stories
  • Communicate effectively with leadership at all levels to secure approval for product initiatives
  • Create and own the product roadmap to prioritize features based on business impact and available resources, and contribute to technical conversations around deadlines and engineering solutions
  • Cultivate cross-functional relationships to advocate for your team’s roadmap, to keep partners informed, gather input from other teams, and influence thinking
  • Partner with cross-functional teams to design and run experiments and to commission customer insights and user research to inform product decisions
  • Partner with product marketing and customer enablement teams to drive adoption by new customers and customers already using the product
  • Assess opportunities, create product strategy briefs and specs, establish success metrics, and measure and communicate the impact of shipped products and features
  • Be the point person, expert, and #1 advocate for your product—respond enthusiastically to Slack and email questions, reach out proactively to partners and stakeholders, and do whatever it takes to make your product and team successful
  • Advocate for a culture of innovation, collaboration, and customer-facing experimentation

As you can see, cross-team collaboration, relationship-building, and stakeholder management are at the very core of the product manager role. In fact, the last two points on our list really sum up what product management is all about.

If you’d like to learn even more about this area, we’ve created an in-depth guide to what a product manager does.

7. What are the most important product management skills?

To forge a successful career in product management, you’ll need to demonstrate the following:

  • An affinity for data, strong analytical skills, and a deep understanding of key performance metrics
  • Empathy and a user-first mindset
  • An understanding of user experience (UX) principles and the design process
  • Business savvy as well as an understanding of how technical teams work
  • Exceptional communication, collaboration, and presentation skills
  • The ability to negotiate 
  • The ability to problem-solve and prioritize 
  • A methodical, highly organized approach to your work
  • Excellent time- and project management skills
  • The ability to think strategically and holistically, factoring in different perspectives and considerations 
  • Curiosity and an aptitude for research
  • A knack for storytelling

The most successful product management professionals draw on a mixture of interpersonal skills and technical and business know-how. This enables them to build great relationships with stakeholders and drive the product—and the organization—to success.

If you’d like to take a closer look at which are required as well as some job ads, then check out our guide to the top skills a product manager needs.

8. Product management salaries

If you’re considering a career in product management, you’re probably wondering: Is it a lucrative career path? And just how much could you eventually earn?

The short answer is yes—a career in product management comes with high earning potential. Not only that: We’re now in what many are describing as “the golden age of product management,” which means the demand for skilled product professionals is at an all-time high. 

We’ve developed a full article on product manager salaries, but to give you an idea of how much you could earn, here are the average salaries for some popular product management job titles in the United States. These figures are based on data from the Indeed salary portal:

  • Junior product manager salary: $68,156 per year
  • Associate product manager salary: $72,656 per year
  • Product manager salary: $91,276 per year
  • Senior product manager salary: $126,374 per year
  • Director of product management salary: $162,788
  • Principal product manager salary: $172,880 per year
  • VP of product management salary: $191,021

If you’d like to find product management salaries near you, just enter the job title you’re interested in and your chosen location into the Indeed salary portal.

9. How to get started in product management

Product management is a fast-paced, varied career path where you’ll have the opportunity to develop a variety of valuable skills and make a tangible impact on the organization. If you’re keen to work in product management, there are several things you can do to get started.

First, learn as much as you can about the field in your own time—for example, by reading blog posts like this one, reading a product management book or two (start with Product Management for Dummies), and listening to product management podcasts

From there, formalize your learning with a product management course or certification. As product management is such a varied, multidisciplinary field, it can be difficult to know which skills to focus on learning (and how to learn them). A professional course will offer a structured learning path, taking you through everything you need to know in the most logical order. And, most importantly, you’ll graduate with a product management certification and the hands-on skills you’ll need to actually work in the field.

If you’d like to learn more about the world of product management, take a look at these articles:

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