HRD's pocket guide to... product management

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The HRD’s pocket guide series offers an explanation of areas outside day-to-day HR that business-savvy HRDs need to have a handle on

Why do I need to know about it?

For any business that produces goods, product management is vital to profitability. Consumers expect companies to quickly create new products or release improved versions of existing products that take their feedback into account.

If they deem a release to be taking too long, or no better than a previous model, they’re likely to turn to a competitor (think the constant deluge of new and improved Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy handsets).

So companies without strong product management can fail fast. Common pitfalls include being too sales-driven (where sales teams promise upgrades and new features to consumers without consulting developers), or designers/engineers assuming they know what consumers want and running with that, rather than focusing on market insight.

What do I need to know?

Product management involves knowing what customers want and delivering it by designing, manufacturing and releasing a product in an appropriate time frame. It also means deciding which products or product features to reject. Product management is a strategic role in that it involves working with lots of different parts of a business – for example R&D, marketing, production, sales, etc.

“The domain of a product manager can be a single product or a product line, and can include initiatives across multiple products that help the company to grow and expand internationally,” explains Jan-Michael Ross, assistant professor in the department of management (strategy and OB) at Imperial College Business School. “In start-ups it’s often one of the founders that fulfils the task. In a large firm you can have a team or department. Or in very centralised structures it can be the CEO who makes product-related decisions, such as Steve Jobs at Apple.”

Where can HR add value?

Recruiting the right people for product manager roles is key.

“HR can be of most help by recognising that product management is a strategic role. Therefore recruiting needs to
focus first on previous product management experience rather than market/subject expertise,” says Rich Mironov, CEO and VP of product management at Mironov Consulting and author of The Art of Product Management.

Ross agrees that recruitment can be a challenge. “[Product managers] need general skills but they also need to be able to talk to the experts on specific topics. Product management needs experimentation skills, seeking out uncertainty, and knowing how to achieve product-market fit throughout the entire product lifecycle,” he adds.

Once such talent has been recruited, incentives and reward must be carefully considered. Mironov advises avoiding activity-based promotion and review metrics. “I see so many organisations where product managers are rewarded for activity rather than business-relevant outcomes. When we measure, pay and promote product managers based on activity we encourage them to ‘go through the motions’, and show up for work but not drive key product outcomes,” he states.

Training for product managers also requires careful thought. Mironov believes that “very short training and certification programmes are not at all effective in training new product managers or improving existing skills”. Instead he recommends coaching and mentoring as most effective for new product managers.

Anything else?

The HR function can adopt a product management mindset for its own activities, according to HR director at High Speed Two Neil Hayward. “Rather than pushing HR products to internal staff assuming they want it, working the other way round implies focusing only on things that employees need and designing your solutions to meet that need,” he explains.

“I think I was the first HR leader in the UK to take as my title ‘group head of people strategy and product management’ when leading a global transformation programme at Standard Chartered Bank. I followed the way the bank would work
when it was launching a new product. I’ve carried on doing the same ever since.”

This piece appeared in the November 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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