New Product Development Strategy & Management Advice

Saeed Khan defines product management and new product development strategy, how it should be staffed, and what growing companies should do to get the most out of their product management teams.

A lot of startup and expansion-stage technology companies say they believe and invest in product management. So, they hire a couple of product managers to handle the tasks they believe fall into the product management bucket and have those new team members report to either the head of marketing or engineering.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly why a chasm exists between what most companies think product management is and what it should actually be, says Saeed Khan, a long time technology product manager and co-founder of the blog, On Product Management.

A true product management function isn’t simply an extension of marketing or engineering, Khan explains. Rather, it’s a separate strategic function that should be responsible for driving new product development strategy focus, alignment, and market clarity.

“I think the name ‘product management’ is one of the barriers that prevents people from really understanding what it is and isn’t,” says Khan. “Product management is about so much more than the ‘product’ piece of it.”

Khan sat down with OpenView for a brief Q&A to discuss his definition of product management and new product development strategy, how it should be staffed, and what growing companies should do to get the most out of their product management teams:

It seems that, even among experts, there are myriad definitions of product management. What’s your definition and is there really more than one way to describe it?

There’s a big difference between different definitions and different understandings. Different definitions of product management are OK. Different understandings are not.

Fundamentally, product management is a business optimization function that oversees technology and product all the way from development through to go-to-market. Areas such as channel development, marketing strategy and positioning, and customer management, are all part of overall product management.

If you look at consumer products, product managers aren’t responsible for the chemistry of the business’s products. They aren’t in the lab mixing ingredients and trying to tweak the recipe. Why should it be any different for technology companies?

Sure, there’s a much closer relationship between bits, bytes and product management in software companies, but that doesn’t mean a product manager’s responsibilities should be any different. In the end, they have to focus on the success of the product. It’s just about requirements and what you should build? Other key questions include:

  1. How will that product compete?
  2. What can you do to take it to market?
  3. How should the product be priced and licensed?
  4. How will customers use your product?

Those are all components of the holistic definition of product management and new product development strategy. If you’re not including them into product management, then all you’re doing is turning it into an adjunct of product engineering.

For companies looking to implement product management, what role should they hire first?

I think the biggest mistake most growing companies make is hiring one or two junior product managers and thinking they’re getting more value by doing that. In reality, for the first hire, the best thing to do is hire a seasoned product management executive that can lead a new team and feel comfortable sitting at the table with the CEO and management team.

Ultimately, the head of product management is a leadership role, and new product development strategy is a primary focus. You need someone that not only understands how product management relates to overall business strategy, but also someone that can build and lead a team as the business scales.

So, if you do hire an individual product manager first make sure you hire someone with the kind of seasoned experience that will allow them to own the function and bring credibility to it.

If, instead, you hire two junior product managers and they’re overwhelmed by the job or aren’t able to meet expectations, then everyone else in your organization will lose faith in them and product management as a whole. That creates a vicious cycle that makes it pretty difficult to legitimize product management.

After finding that perfect product management leader, who should be brought on next?

As the breadth of functionality increases, companies need to be sure they specialize within product management. If you think about the way growing sales and marketing teams are built, you don’t hire a bunch of generalists that are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. For example, you hire lead qualifiers, lead generators, sales reps, and sales managers — specialized roles that can focus on specific tasks. With product management, it’s no different.

So, after you’ve hired a head of product management and one or two quality product managers, the next hire should be a product marketing person that can work closely with the product managers. After that, you might hire a technical product manager — someone who can work more closely with engineering.

Another hire could include a solutions specialist, who would be responsible for analyzing new use cases or scenarios that can be applied to the product road map. The idea is to create and fill roles that are all spokes in a very well rounded wheel.

Once that team is in place, how do you re-delegate responsibilities that used to be owned by sales, marketing, or engineering to product management, without rocking the boat?

Honestly, it depends on your corporate culture. Change is a process, not an event. So don’t expect to be able to take responsibility away from other departments overnight and experience a smooth transition.

If you’ve got big picture people on your team who are able to put change into context, you might be able move quicker and the adjustment won’t be as dramatic. If you’ve got people who are more emotionally married to the product and your old product strategy, it might take some finesse.

When you begin to formalize product management, it’s critical to set clear expectations and responsibilities. A product manager’s job is to unemotionally align the product strategy and the business strategy, and you need to put them in a position to do that. But don’t be surprised if a founding software developer, for instance, resists change.

Here’s an example: I worked for a startup in the dotcom days that was looking to dramatically shift its product strategy. The CEO wanted to move away from a desktop product to a server-based product. From my point of view, it was a no-brainer.

But there were people within the company who were really upset because they were emotionally invested in the desktop product. They were looking at years of work and thinking it’s going up in flames.

The lesson is that product management and new product development strategy implementation isn’t always cut and dried. You have to factor in your company culture and size, and the personalities of the people that might be affected by it.

Ultimately, you’re doing what’s best for the company, but you don’t want it to be such a disruptive change that rifts are created between Product Management and every other department.

Saeed Khan, The New Product Development Strategy Expert

Saeed Khan is a self-proclaimed career product manager, having spent 15 years doing it formally and a number of years before that doing it informally. He’s worked with startups and public companies in Toronto and Silicon Valley, in roles ranging from individual contributor to Vice President of Product Management. He writes for On Product Management and Pragmatic Marketing, and in 2008 was a contributor to a book called “Software Product Management, Issues and Perspectives.” You can follow him on Twitter here.

photos by: Cea. & zion fiction

Share Your Thoughts

  • Fredulrich

    Hi, I agree with you. Currently looking for such a function, I have noticed that many firms today believe that engineers can deal with product management (and even that HR can deal with “marketing stuff”)… After more than 11 years dealing with ranges of products in different companies in different sectors, I really believe they are mistaking. “Product management” is much more than what it sounds like. Thank you for raising the point.

    • http://about.me/mikerowan Mike Rowan

      While I agree with your thoughts here, I find it hard to believe most people see pm differently than you describe here. In all companies I’ve been involved with and the hundreds I’ve interacted with, they all see pm this way as well. So, I’m not quite sure the market has the conflict you describe.

      • Saeed Khan

        Hi Mike Unfortunately, I’ve seen a very broad set of definitions of product management. Some companies view PMs as “project managers” while others put is in engineering with a very technical focus. In other companies, Product Management is primarily a marketing role. I’ve verified this view with a number of other people who’ve experienced or seen similar diverse scenarios for product management in companies.

  • http://www.mindgum.co/ Nicholas Kontopoulos

    Thanks for this really insightful post.

  • Shawn Fichter

    I have seen this example played out in a number of corporations from enterprise class to the startup. the smartest techy with some business background or some number of years in the business starts to develop product based on what they think the customer needs. A smart way is to develop from the outside in – let the customer tell you what is ailing them – develop the course of treatment to that pain – it’s quite simple to get around internal conflict when you take this approach. Just ask that problem is being solved. And don’t forget to continue validating that problem!