By Luke Gallimore, Head of Product Management, Monstarlab EMEA
There are two fundamental tasks that every product manager is responsible for, whichever stage of life their product is at:
If you do these well, you will create higher ROI in digital products and reduce risk and wastage in delivery.
However, these tasks can vary wildly depending on the product’s life cycle stage.
In this article, I’ll provide an overview of how the product manager role shifts throughout the life cycle with specific reference to the product strategy and roadmap. At each stage, I will also describe common pitfalls and opportunities at each stage to be mindful of.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you have additional thoughts, please leave a comment — I’d love to hear about your experiences!
It’s useful to think of the product life cycle like the life of an ocean-going ship. You design it, launch it, hope it doesn’t sink or hit something hard and cold, then it’s full steam ahead until you reach the destination (or decide to head back out for more adventures).
As the crew of that ship, it’s your job to know how to anticipate and react to changing conditions. You need to keep your end-destination in mind and adjust your course as required.
Here is how the product manager role changes through the five life cycle stages.
Stage 1: Define
Before you launch your ship, there is work to be done in making sure the voyage ahead is without unnecessary risk. The ship has to be built for its purpose.
Your job at this stage: set the direction for the product and prepare people for what comes next.
During the define stage, the product manager must create a product strategy which is flexible enough to adapt post-introduction, yet provides the right amount of detail to guide the product definition. As there is no ‘physical’ point of reference for any stakeholders or the team, the product manager must channel their inner Churchill and rally the team around an ambitious, abstract future which seems fraught with uncertainty and risk.
- Under-communicating the product strategy and vision and leaving team members behind or under-motivated.
- Creating a goal-based, objective-heavy strategy which leaves no room for innovation.
- Leaving the strategy too woolly and vague, meaning that the delivery team have nothing to guide action.
- Co-create your product strategy with your delivery team to gain buy-in from day one.
- Keep internal stakeholders up to date with the product strategy and seek feedback.
- Revisit the product strategy regularly and ask difficult questions about if it clear without being complex.
Commonly referred to as defining the ‘MVP’, your main task at this stage in the product life cycle is to define a successful marriage between the market (your users), the business and the technology you are going to build. An MVP is a compromise and will always have an element of risk built into it, but the trick here is to choose which areas are worth taking a risk on, and which need rigour and solid validation prior to introduction.
- Overload the product with too much functionality because you’re worried about upsetting stakeholders.
- Spend too much time obsessed with one particular feature when it isn’t the one which needs the most focus.
- Defining features within the bubble of the team, not from user and market insight and feedback.
- Involve users in your ideation as early and often as possible so they can constructively critique and ensure you are building something valuable.
- Prioritise features and functionality with a cross-discipline team so that you get a full picture of what is risky and what is not.
- Understand what the business drivers of success are and make sure that you are selecting features which will deliver early ROI to prove the concept.
Stage 2: Introduction
The ship has rumbled down the slipway and left the safe walls of the harbour. it’s time to see if it is waterproof.
Your job at this stage: prove the concept whilst sifting through the mountain of varied feedback.
Typically, this stage is the most changeable and therefore requires the most flexibility. For a product strategy, this is a great test. Every day you will learn new things about the way the product is perceived and used, how it performs and if it is generating the right commercial outcomes. The product strategy must evolve with the incoming knowledge, without becoming diluted.
- Overreacting to every small change or minor insecurity as the product settles into its life ‘in the wild’.
- Putting the product strategy in a (virtual) drawer so that the delivery team has no north star to guide their iterations and fixes.
- Remaining too firm in your conviction so as not to allow new insight to reshape and evolve the strategy and proposition.
- Be objective and structured in the way you process your learnings; start with hypotheses and observe repetition before a change is made to the strategy.
- Communicate constantly to the whole team about the importance of the product strategy so that it becomes a core tool for all.
- Be open to change — a strategy should not be fixed and immovable and should move with the external forces acting upon it.
The temptation during the introduction phase is to focus almost exclusively on the immediate short-term in a reactive way. ‘Hyper care’ is important for stabilising the product, however, product managers need to counter-intuitively step back at this point and leave the hyper care to the delivery team. This is a fertile time for ideas, inspiration and innovation as the volume of feedback, excitement and hype is at its highest.
- Failing to keep head above water and being dragged into delivery conversations (a good product strategy should guide these low-level development decisions sufficiently).
- Not being structured around how you gather feedback and ideas at this point will inevitably lead to gems slipping down the cracks.
- Not having your roadmap set up ready will cause chaos and leave your stakeholders frustrated and demanding (rightfully so) clarity.
- Get your roadmap set up before introduction stage if you can; this might mean choosing a feature-laden third party software or just creating a simple but organised ‘scratchpad’.
- Prepare structured feedback with users, the business and the development team so that you can collate and gather the initial reactions to the introduction.
- Keep your mind fixed on the mid-to-long-term and ensure that others are also focussed on the creation of value, not just code for the sake of code.
Stage 3: Growth
You have passed the test of the initial storm. The sun is shining, spirits are high and the possibilities for adventure seem endless.
Your job at this stage: navigate the product towards its maximum potential for ROI.
By this stage, you have established the product in the market but you are a still a relatively unestablished upstart. The core of your product strategy must be sound for you to have made it this far, but now its time to look warily, left and right, in front and behind at your competition as the race to the top intensifies. Your product strategy needs depth and rigour to guide the team through the narrow path to successful growth. When you are moving at speed, taking a wrong turn leads you way off track.
- Not tracking progress towards the long term vision can lead you to stray off course.
- Using only the broad and long-term vision for the product will keep the team pointing in the right direction but may lack operational detail to guide decisions.
- Ignoring how the competition is moving will inevitably lead to you being the one who is disrupted next.
- Bolster your product strategy with specific rules and principles for UX, business and technology to ensure that new ideas do not dilute the initial vision.
- Ensure that you have a focus metric framework in place to track and monitor the progress of the product towards the long term vision.
- Practise ongoing competitor research and get your hands on their products to understand how the market is moving and how your product strategy can react.
During the growth phase, optimism is high, so it is wise to retain a firm grip on reality with evidence-based discovery and validation for new ideas. Once a product is established, it is natural for others to want to share in the success, but a product defined by unfiltered ideas will deliver far less value even though it may feel — at the time — like you can please all the people, all the time. To achieve growth, a laser focus on commercial results is critical.
- Growth-stage-optimism following the foundation of an established product can often lead to rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to new ideas.
- Success in the past is not an indicator of success in the future, because context and environments change.
- Forgetting that the purpose of the product is ultimately to deliver ROI, and allowing this to lead to vanity projects.
- Lead an open but rigorous process of ongoing discovery, which embraces — and tests — new ideas for growth.
- Develop your relationship with the business to understand in depth the changing commercial drivers of success and how your product can contribute.
- Ensure that ideas for new features and functionality are positioned in their competitive context and that you are building in advantage, not just parity.
Stage 4: Maturity
The heady days are behind us as we rock gently through the calmer waters we have earned our way to. The sailing is smooth but who knows what is just over the horizon.
Your job at this stage: innovate in a controlled way to maintain strengths and open up opportunities.
Once a product has reached maturity, it becomes a target. The hardest target to hit is one that keeps moving, so it’s important that the product strategy adapts within the confines of the heritage in which it has been built. The devil is in the detail at this stage and although the course-corrections required are typically minor, they can have big effects due to the scale and influence of the product.
- With success comes complacency, do not leave the product strategy untouched in the hope that it is still futureproofed.
- Changing the strategy of a successful product through external distraction (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).
- Introducing additional or satellite products to the portfolio which do not share the same strategic principles.
- Continually review the product strategy with key team members to ensure it is fit for purpose and aligned with the times.
- Stay abreast of competitor movements as they chase you, but make sure you also track the impact of these for them and for your so that you keep an objective perspective.
- Use the foundation of a mature product to test the waters with new ideas, but ensure that there is coherence across product strategies.
With a mature product, your roadmap will be very big and very busy. You have had the time to think about strategic, high-cost ideas as well as having built up a parking lot of problems and ideas from the huge volume of usage and feedback. It’s often difficult to know where to focus and where to start. Often its easier to just go with your gut. The key is to maintain the ‘MVP mindset’ from when you had less budget, less time and less knowledge than you do today.
- Getting complacent about your users is common with an established product and often, product teams think they now know best.
- Making wholesale changes through boredom or ‘hunches’, which are not rooted in evidence or a bigger picture.
- Thinking that just because you have more budget to spend or resource to support you, that you really need that to affect positive change.
- Make small changes to the product and see their impact before going ‘all-in’ — observe and learn from these small changes.
- Stay close to your users and, if you can, build a loyal group of ‘super-users’ who can give you regular feedback so you can track the progression of sentiment over time.
- Take an objective look at the team and infrastructure that has grown around the product and make decisions to include only the necessary parts to achieve a given objective.
Stage 5: Decline
As our destination creeps over the horizon its decision time. Are we ready to step back onto dry land, or do we head back out for the next adventure?
Your job at this stage: make difficult decisions about what comes next and leave ego at the door.
Once a product has peaked during maturity there are two paths the strategy can carve. The first is to retire the product from market and transition or off-board users in a constructive way; either onto a new product or a different channel. The second option is to pivot. Most successful products are not one-trick wonders and have a wealth of value still in them, but they need to be trimmed and sharpened before they can return to their former glory.
- Fail to choose either path and start wasting money on maintaining a product that is no longer effective.
- Retire a product prematurely when there is still value to be squeezed from it with an available pivot.
- Try to keep a product alive when there is no longer a user need for it, or the business strategy and commercial goals have changed dramatically, or the technology is no longer fit for purpose.
- There is a clear and simple opportunity here to be bold. You have to make a decision once you have accepted the product is in decline.
- Think carefully about whether a product which seems to be a bit of a dead-weight and money-sucker could be repurposed or reused for something else.
- Stay close to the commercial strategy and identify that, if business goals have shifted and the product is no longer delivering ROI, then it’s time to build something new.
Compared with the roadmap tasks in the early stages of the product life cycle, here in stage 5, the workload looks uncertain and maybe a bit like there’s nothing to do. That’s not true. Unless your business is about to reject digital and revert to analogue, there is always some value to be taken from the roadmap of a declining product, and the equity which it retains from its life before now. This is the case whether you are retiring or pivoting the product.
- Assuming that there is nothing of value to the business left on a roadmap of a product in decline.
- Throwing away a lifetime of insight gained from a successful and long-lived product.
- Retiring a product without exploring all avenues for pivots through discovery.
- Revisit the roadmap with fresh eyes to identify where the initiatives for mid-to-long-term you were planning could be repurposed.
- Collate and compile key learnings which are still relevant from the historic roadmap of the product to inform future product initiatives.
- Keep running discovery until a decision is made to retire or pivot because you never know what you might learn.
- The role of the product manager evolves over time, alongside the product
- No matter what stage the product is at, the product manager must always be managing the product strategy and the roadmap
- The process of managing a product throughout its life cycle is a team sport — a product manager can not — and should not — do it all alone