Product management: how a new field was born

Nowadays, product management is a common field to find in most companies. Product managers look after a company’s products across their many updates, upgrades and evolutions. And they do so by collaborating with every team involved in the process.

But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, product management is young compared to more traditional roles. (Such as manufacture/development, marketing, or sales.)

So, where did the field come from? Here, we explore the history of product management, and how the now popular field was born.

Product management v.1: “brand men”

It’s possible to argue that product management has existed for as long as there have been products to manage. However, it was never a defined role — not until, that is, the 1930s.

In 1931, Proctor & Gamble employee Neil H. McElroy wanted to hire more team members. To that end, he wrote an 800-word memo that described a new role, which he called ‘Brand Men’.

‘Brand Men’, as the memo outlined, would hold responsibility for a brand. They’d oversee the management of the product, its marketing, and its sales. Specifically, ‘Brand Men’ would advocate for the brand of their product. If the product’s branding was weak, it was the duty of Brand Men to research why and devise a strategy for improvement.

In other words, McElroy created a brand vertical organisational structure. This way, every branded product from a company could have a dedicated budget and team behind it, and so a fair shot at market success.

McElroy got his two new hires, creating the first instance of the product management role.

Product management v.2

Following his memo and its success, McElroy went on to do many great things. One of which was to meet and inspire Bill Hewlett and David Packard. It was these two entrepreneurs that would go on to further the evolution of the product management field.

Hewlett and Packard interpreted the idea of ‘brand men’ as putting decision-making power as close to the hands of the customer as possible. This customer-centric approach became known as ‘The Hewlett-Packard way’.

This saw brand men (product managers) act as the vessel for the voice of the customer. They would inform the development of the product and its marketing materials, based on the customer’s needs and desires.

A trip to Japan

Meanwhile, companies in Japan were suffering from post-war cash flow issues. These issues pushed different companies to develop ‘just in time’ production and manufacturing. Most notable of these companies was Toyota. Toyota picked up this lean manufacturing ethos and turned it into the Toyota Production System.

The Toyota Production System combined the drive to reduce waste in production processes with two other values. These are ‘kaizen’ and ‘genchi genbutsu’.

  • Kaizen is the Japanese word for ‘improvement’. In the context of product management, it denotes a drive to continuously improve the business and drive innovation and growth.
  • Genchi genbutsu, meanwhile, loosely translates to ‘go and see’. It is the practice of going to a source — where people complete the work — to find out facts and best understand a situation or problem.

Both kaizen and genchi genbutsu would become major components of product management.

Back in the west, Hewlett Packard heard of these Japanese lean manufacturing practices. These were then incorporated into their product management system.

V.3 The entry into tech

Until this, product management remained predominantly a marketing capacity. The focus was on a brand vertical structure (giving each product a fair and valuable market share,) and a customer-centric approach. With lean manufacturing, product management spread past marketing and into development.

The rise of technology businesses furthered this expansion of the product management field. Indeed, within technology and software, a separation between development and marketing efforts proved problematic. You couldn’t dress up a software product the same way you could a physical one.

So, product management expanded to fill the gap. It combined the understanding of the market, brand and customer with the development of the product. As a result, product managers could ensure that the values of a product aligned with the values of the customer.

The state of today

Ultimately, it was this uptake of product management as a role in the tech industry that made the field what it is today. That is, a field that involves governing a product from its inception until the end of its life.

Today’s product managers follow the values of kaizen and genchi gentsuba. Their goal is to optimise a product to achieve business goals. They must understand the voice of the customer, as much as the restrictions and abilities of their developers.

In other words, the product manager is the one that looks after the product from start to finish. They understand that developers need time to code. They make decisions about what features should and shouldn’t make it into the product — from a place of understanding the customer needs. And they collaborate with marketing, sales and customer service, and shape the overall user experience of that one product.  

A look to the future

As a field, product management is yet to have broken into every company. But as we are fully in the age of the customer, brands cannot afford to underestimate the value of the modern ‘Brand Men’.

Companies are looking to data more and more to better understand their customers. The next evolution of product management looks to continue this trend, and use this data to drive innovation.

Useful links

The tech market and why the winner takes it all

Tech innovation: is our obsession unhealthy?

Software project estimation: handling the dreaded ‘how long will it take?’