What is a product? How does a product manager improve software teams and lead to stronger return on investments? How does a product manager reduce risk by focus on learning and validating assumptions?

Over the last decade, schools like Harvard Business School, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management all rolled out new courses and programs aimed at teaching Product Management.

And yet, despite the rapidly growing industry of product management, many businesses still don’t fully understand how to leverage product managers to support the bottom line.

“There are probably more misconceptions about product management than there are correct answers,” said Brett Buchanan, Chief Product Officer at Test Double and founder of Pathfinder Product.

Product managers are strategic leaders who steer the product from ideation to launch and beyond, ensuring its success. They are the ones who identify the customer need and the larger business objective, serve as a cross-functional liaison, and ensure the product hits its intended success metrics.

A good product manager brings clarity and strategic focus that will streamline product delivery, help companies generate sustainable revenue from products or reduce costs for the business.

“Most companies are investing material amounts of money into technology,” Buchanan said. “However, they are not seeing the impact that they hoped for. A good product manager is going to help maximize your investments."

Last November, Test Double acquired Pathfinder Product to create comprehensive end-to-end solutions in modern software creation and product management. Pathfinder Product has led product consulting at an impressive lineup of companies, including Kroger, Lowe’s, Levi’s, Procter & Gamble, Intuit Mailchimp, OhioHealth, and Highlights.

With a team of seasoned product managers now integrated into Test Double for comprehensive software and product consulting, let’s review the fundamentals of product management – including what is a product, what a product manager is not, and the role of a (good) product manager.

What is a product?

Perhaps the biggest misconception to clarify first: A product is not just a set of features or a list of functionalities. A product is something that meets a specific need or fulfills a particular purpose for its users, with KPIs to own and optimize.

That can range from an item you hold in your hands to something more intangible, such as:

Physical items – iPhone, Kindle, Coca-Cola An app, platform, software or service – Etsy, Instagram, Google’s search engine, Gusto Internal workflow products – SalesForce CRM, inventory management systems

Buchanan cautions against getting too caught up on defining what is a product.

The more helpful questions to ask, he said, include: Does this have specific KPIs that need to be achieved? How will those KPI’s lead to commercial or strategic success of the business? Those are the conditions where product managers thrive.

Product manager vs. project manager vs. product owner

Product managers are often mistaken for project managers or product owners. While there might be collaboration or even overlap, these are distinct roles.

Product managers are the strategic thinkers who set the vision, goals and trajectory of the product. They develop the business case and roadmap for the product, making sure it aligns with both business goals and user needs. They are responsible for the measurable outcomes of the product.

Project managers plan for successful execution and delivery. They’re more of the do’er, leading the who, what and when tasks that achieve an outcome. If a product manager is the architect sketching the blueprint, the project manager is the foreman overseeing construction.

Product ownership is the role you play on a scrum team. The role typically includes activities like: defining the product backlog, prioritizing that work, and creating actionable user stories for developers to make sure the work fulfills the criteria.

Finally, one more misconception: While product managers do own the strategic goals and problems, they do not determine the solution. The cross-functional team determines the solution through a collaborative discovery process.

They also don’t have the authority of a CEO or business owner and cannot hire and fire (although leaders like a senior director, head of product or VP of product might have that authority).

The role of a good product manager

Think of the product manager like the conductor of the tech orchestra.

They harmonize the efforts of developers, designers, and stakeholders to create a symphony of features that not only meet user needs but also hit the right business notes.

Good product managers know how to prioritize work against clear, outcome-oriented goals, to define and discover real customer and business value, and to determine what processes are needed to reduce the uncertainty about the product’s success.

The exact responsibilities vary a bit from company to company depending on things like B2B vs B2C, post- vs pre-product market fit and end user – but could include:

  • Seek innovative ways to grow existing products or launch brand new products
  • Assessing assumptions and working to validate them to build, adapt or reinforce business cases
  • Understanding end-consumer needs and relaying them to the team
  • Communicating with cross-functional teams and key stakeholders
  • Prioritizing features that align with overall business strategy
  • Responsible for product performance and KPIs
  • Monitor competitors
  • Guide informed decisions with data, consumer feedback and market research
  • Improve speed to market on time and on budget

Ultimately, product managers’ success is measured by their ability to move the needle on measurable outcomes (KPIs). Product managers need to figure out how the product can produce commercial results for the company. A good product manager works to understand the bullet points above and how the product fits into it.

Schedule a free product management consultation

We provide flexible product management consulting options – including burst capacity for strategic initiatives or product coaching for leaders navigating in the midst or organizational churn.

We also offer 30-minute turbocharged sessions with one of seasoned product leaders, tailored just for you. No cost, no strings attached – just pure, unadulterated brainstorm power. Request a consultation now.

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