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A Short History of Product Management

Today’s product management practices are central to the success of any company, in a fast-paced competitive landscape.
Bastien Allibert

Bastien Allibert

6 min read

People participating in a meeting
People participating in a meeting

Although one could argue that product management is as old as the first tool crafted by a human hand, its modern definition stems from a famous internal memo at Procter&Gamble.

Written by Neil H. McElroy (who went onto becoming secretary of defense and helped found NASA), it described a transversal function owning all parts of a brand: from tracking sales to leading promotion, with a focus on field testing and consumer interaction. Now, does that sound familiar?

This was a defining moment for what became brand management, and then product management at P&G. As we can see, this founding moment happened within a marketing practice so we must ask: how did this unique approach make its way into the technology industry?

From Marketing to Tech

This method transfer happened as McElroy, then teacher at Stanford University, advised two ambitious young men: Bill Hewlett & David Packard. Quick to recognize the value of putting customer needs at the center of decision making, they adapted their product management philosophy to represent the voice of the customer internally, with the incredible success story we know today. (20% growth year-on-year for 50 years straight!)

However, the founding story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the huge impact Toyota’s manufacturing philosophy had with just-in-time manufacturing, Kaizen (incremental improvement through innovation), Genchi Genbutsu (go back to the source of facts to support decision making), and Kanban. Those 3 principles disrupted not only manufacturing in Japan but many other industries on a global scale.

It slowly made its way across the pacific, where HP was among the first western companies to recognize the value of this philosophy. After isolated experiments in the mid 80s, just-in-time would quickly spread to all hardware and software departments in the company. This legacy would then impact the whole silicon valley, as HP’s alumni were taking on roles in other major tech companies.

Product Management in the 21st Century: Agile

Another turning point for the field was the publication of the Agile Manifesto. Although product management had successfully bridged the gaps between departments in a company, it still led to a long and slow product development process. Invariably, a long requirements document would be drafted over the course of weeks or months. The engineering team would then be faced with a monolithic task of delivering a piece of software, without much collaboration. In a typical waterfall moment, this would often lead to a vastly different product development experience than originally intended, only to repeat the same process again.

Agile principles, based on lessons from other methodologies (Scrum, DSDM & XP) and industry practice, were to turn this situation upside down. It shifted product management to a much more collaborative and multilateral process, involving the engineering team during scoping and solution defining.

It also moved the user experience closer to the genesis of any product, instead of being patched on top of what the engineering team had previously built. With the user needs as the sole driver, the product management process would also become a lot more responsive to change, as the industry evolved faster and faster over time. (Lean methodology anyone?)

Current State of Product Management

With this context in mind, it seems nowadays, that product management has left its infancy years behind, being embraced for the strategic function it represents. Today’s product management practices are central to the success of any company, in a fast-paced competitive landscape. It has grown in influence as well, often earning a seat at the board for the product manager, and no longer reports to a single vertical (like Engineering).

It has transitioned from a misunderstood field to a crucial component of the company’s growth.

Its current definition differs widely from company to company, but a common framework remains:

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  • Discover and understand customer needs
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  • Decide on what to build to answer those needs (product vision)
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  • Define how to build it (product roadmap)
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  • Help that process with cross-functional support, between developers, sales and customers.

Crucially, the product team has gained the independence to make product related decisions (instead of C-level executives in the past), prioritize features and gain alignment from all internal and external stakeholders.

Future of Product Management

It’s hard to say what the future holds, but the pace is certainly picking up for the practice. As the role becomes more recognized, we can see a few things ahead of us:

More institutionalized training

For the better part of the practice’s lifetime, there were simply no universities offering PM related courses to train students to become product managers. One would first start working at another job before going into product management. This will probably stay as is. However; more and more people will be trained for the role from scratch to do this, as universities start to offer courses for it.

More Product Management literature

The field is constantly changing with an abundance of blogs and books being published every other minute. We can expect an even faster flow in combination with literature that challenge the status-quo.

More Product Management specific tools

Although it took a little while, there are now more pm-specific tools available than ever. Aha!, TinyPM, ProductPlan, ProdPad are all good examples of specific PM pain-points being addressed by Saas vendors.

Faster & more data than ever

Product managers now have constant feedback loops and analytics tools at their fingertips to get product insights almost in-real time. The pace at which this happens is only getting faster, pushing product management towards a data-driven standard. As the amount of data grows, there is also a need to process and filter the noise out of real data, and that too at a faster pace to keep up with the development team and your target market.

Automation and AI to run the show

As AI is weaving its way through all industries, there is a case to make about how it will impact product management as a whole. Some are even saying that product managers will be completely replaced in the end. For now, it’s quite certain that AI will assist product managers by speeding up software development, assist the insight-finding and decision-making processes.

On that last bit, we pride ourselves to be at the tip of the spear. Our home-brewed platform is already assisting our elites, product managers and engagement managers to assemble the right team for our clients’ projects faster.