Human perception is biased: it is easier to think about tangible outcomes ("products") than about the organizations and processes needed to deliver those.
When looking at products, we can immediately experience two trends.
First, we are more and more overwhelmed with services, products, and competitive solutions. The overall number of products on the market heavily increased.
Second, products with digital elements are even changing over time. Every update can result in a new product compared to what you bought originally.
Products and how they reach customers have already transformed significantly during the last few decades. How and what we buy is completely different compared to the 90s or even the 2000s.
But what happened to the supporting organizations? Or, to be more specific: what are the factors changing the role of product managers during that period? What sort of transformation could have led, for example, Airbnb to kill the (traditional) product manager roles?
Yes, product management has undergone a remarkable transformation, fueled by innovation and new perspectives about what is called excellence. In this article, we explore the recent history of how product management has evolved into a strategic discipline.
The Early 2010s:
Establishing Foundations Apart from some early birds (such as TelCos or a few innovative service companies), we would put it into the early 2010s, when product management began solidifying its role as a vital component of successful companies. Namely: organizations started to realize that building exceptional products required not only technical expertise but also a deep understanding of user needs and market dynamics. This recognition led to a surge in demand for skilled product managers, also inspiring the development of a supporting ecosystem, such as specialized programs and certifications.
The Rise of Agile: Empowering Collaboration
During this period, agile methodologies gained significant traction, transforming product development practices far beyond hardcore software developers. Agile's iterative approach and cross-functional collaboration allowed teams to adapt quicker to changing requirements and also to deliver value already in shorter cycles. Often product managers became champions of agile, fostering transparency, communication, and collaboration among engineers, designers, and stakeholders. Oh, and the responsible keeper of lovely roadmaps and backlogs.
User-Centricity Takes Center Stage
As the decade progressed, despite the increased delivery collaboration, user-centricity still remained a key challenge. Though, in principle, several or all the tools were already available to research users, they remained either in silos or supportive of product managers only, somehow the overall quality of how organizations are able to empathize with users diverged from genuinely addressing their needs. In order to advance awareness about the users' behavior and needs, making it visible to internal decision-makers, product managers embraced methodologies like design thinking, usability testing, and customer journey mapping.
Data-Driven Decision Making: Insights Unleashed
The explosive growth of big data and analytics revolutionized product management from about the mid-2010s. For several products, it became possible to actually harness data to gain actionable insights, enabling evidence-based decision-making even throughout the product lifecycle. Tools like A/B testing, cohort analysis, and user behavior tracking became indispensable, everyday practice, allowing us to optimize features, prioritize enhancements, and identify new market opportunities. Probably the very first job adverts for "marketing engineers". :)
The Advent of Lean Startup: Iterating Towards Success
Also around the mid-2010s, the Lean Startup movement gained further ground - taking agility much deeper into the organization. Product managers started to embrace concepts such as (customer-facing) Minimum Viable Products (MVP), executing Build-Measure-Learn feedback loops continuously. This methodology fostered innovation with a new message: product managers can embrace uncertainty by iterating their way to success - a shift in the positioning of the role again.
Product Management in the Age of AI and Automation
Already started, part 1: we are certain that a trend has just started with the automation capabilities of Artificial intelligence (AI) tools. Basically, every step of the product development process is up to a challenge and has to be rethought. We believe that further strengthens the strategic nature of “product management”: tools supporting product development, market discovery, sales and new business models… well, sounds like are all pointing towards the same central role connecting those.
The Convergence of Product and Design Thinking
Already started, part 2: In recent years, the integration of product management and design thinking has gained significant traction. Product managers began working closely with designers from the early stages of product development - or, as the latest Airbnb news displayed, maybe the reality is that designers can already take the role of “product management”.
Product management has come an incredibly long way in the past decade, evolving from a sort of support function into a highly strategic discipline that drives innovation and business growth. Agile methodologies, user-centricity, data-driven decision-making, lean startup approaches and the integration of AI have transformed product management into a more dynamic and forward-thinking profession, more deeply embedded in the organization. The role and its skill requirements transformed just as much as the products… and the story goes on in the next decade, so be prepared. :)