Product Managers are Really Super Heroes in Disguise!

By Nilofer Merchant
June 20, 2007

There are two really hard jobs inside a company. One is being a CEO, and the other is being a product manager.


There are two really hard jobs inside a company. One is being a CEO, and the other is being a product manager. Both the CEO and product managers are expected to be the most flexible, acrobatic kind of leaders—adjusting to people’s styles, making sure to communicate with clarity the requirements of what is needed, translating vision into specifics and constantly at the beck-and-call of many constituents. It’s a wonder someone would take either job.

As the point of contact between customer needs and engineering realities, a product manager is the linchpin who can make a product into a market success, or doom it to irrelevance. This determines whether a company lives or dies. Yet, many people don’t really get product management. Companies often fail to give product managers the support, training, and empowerment they need to succeed.

This article is my attempt to put the super hero cape onto product managers and to share what I think they need to be successful. Note to all product managers: share this with your boss.

Gone are the days when product managers created things. Some of the existing concepts in the industry today are based on old-school thinking of what constitutes a product. In the 1980’s, Porter’s model focused on the competitive edge of a company being managed by a silo function: design manufacture build market sell deliver. Product managers had to be the first to see the product definition vision of the silo function, or the market would have moved from underneath the company. It was a 2-year cycle, and it was largely about defining a product and shepherding that product to life.

That’s not the case anymore. Products are not the thing, solutions are. But I’ll get back to that later. I’ve been thinking about what constitutes market power in today’s era. I have a notion that replaces Porter’s model, at least in technology and the Web 2.0 era.

Why does product management matter?

In a word, globalization. More than ever before, efficient and low-cost companies in other parts of the world, some of them government-subsidized, have access to markets in the First World. Many of these companies specialize in the rapid, low-cost production of generic copies of successful products. A company based in the developed world can’t win just by making a good product at a reasonable price. To survive, Western companies must innovate—and they must make sure their innovations are compelling enough that customers will value them, even if they cost more. I would also argue that what we need today is “solutions” not “products.” That requires an inherently broader aperture to clearly understand the situation.

One of the most successful products in today’s market is the iPod™. When Apple® introduced it, the market for MP3 music players was commoditized, and dominated by no-name Asian manufacturers. The company was playing a hardware game, and the customer was expected to do a lot of work to assemble the real solution. Apple created the iPod (the hardware) but what made it “it”, was the accompanying iTunes™ music service. Apple’s approach made e-music purchase and playback much easier than it had ever been before, and the market rewarded Apple with an estimated 70%+ share in the US market for mobile music players.

The solution is also tied to who is using/deploying the solution. When selling dental implants and crowns, the initial customer isn’t the person getting the implant, it’s the dentist who sells and installs the implant. For the patient, a major drawback has been the number of visits required to create and install a finished implant. Recently new systems, such as Cerec® from Sirona Dental Systems, Inc., compressed the multiple office visit process to a single visit. The patient’s implant is measured in the office, fit is tested on a computer, and the finished ceramic implant is milled by an automated machine in the doctor’s office—all while the patient waits. This increases satisfaction for the patient, and saves time and expense for the dentist. Sirona’s insight was realizing that the dentist needed an implant production system, not just a medical CAD software program.

On the consumer side of dentistry, Procter & Gamble® realized that there was increasing interest in tooth whitening as the baby boomer generation aged. But conventional tooth whitening meant either a trip to the dentist or the use of uncomfortable home-use trays. P&G™ combined its expertise in fabric bleach, toothpaste, and thin film technology to create Crest Whitestrips®, a product that lets people whiten their teeth by applying a thin bleach-saturated plastic strip to the teeth. Creating this sort of cross-discipline connection is one of the key tasks of product management. The result in P&G’s case was a renaissance in the stale and commoditized tooth-care business. Suddenly tooth whitening was easy and convenient, sales took off, and some reports show P&G’s Crest® brand displacing Colgate® as the market leader.

The markets for things as simple as tooth cleaning, music, and dental implants are vastly different, but the common thread between these solutions was that the manufacturer had an important insight into the customer’s unmet needs and how they could be answered through solutions. Generating that sort of insight is the essence of good product management.

Why does product management fail today?

Theoretically, a product manager’s involvement in the development of a product should be concentrated at the beginning and the end of the process. At the beginning, the product manager is responsible for defining the product—who it’s for, what problems it will solve, and how big the opportunity. At the end of the process, the product manager is responsible for feeding that information to Marketing, in a form that they can easily transform into messages and deliverables.

The reality at many companies is that the product manager often gets pulled into the middle of the development process as a problem-solver. When there’s a risk of a schedule slip, a conflict over resources, or a change in the market, the product manager often attends meetings and researches options, which eats into the time available for their core tasks. Product managers are so overburdened that they can no longer truly lead their products. They can’t do the up-front work necessary to define a winning product strategy, or the back-end work to make sure it’s marketed properly. The result is inevitably mediocre products that don’t hit their sales goals, and product lines that aren’t well differentiated from their competitors.

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About the Authors

  • Nilofer Merchant is an advisor, writer, conference speaker and the CEO and founder of Rubicon Consulting, a strategy and marketing consultancy designed specifically for the needs of tech companies. She and her team have launched nearly 100 products, created five development platforms, designed 18 channel vendor programs, run numerous user influencer marketing initiatives and defined more than 30 new markets. To contact Nilofer, visit her blog, or e-mail her at

Categories:  Leadership

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