University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

The Surprising Realities of Product Management

product management
March 07, 2022  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Note: This is part one of a series of Walton Insight articles on product management. To learn more about the qualifications and path to a career in product management, read part two in the series. Part three looks at how product management fits within the work of the McMillion Innovation Studio.

The concept of product management seems rather simple on the surface. A company has a product. Someone (or a team of someones) needs to manage it. The work they do is product management, right?

Well, sort of. But not really.

Thankfully, there’s more to it. Much more.

Turns out that product management is a far more dynamic (and interesting) field than the name might lead you to believe. Product managers (or product leaders, as they are sometimes called) are in high demand and can command salaries between $108,000 and $140,000 a year (in the US) because they play a key role in making and shaping decisions that determine an organization's success.

Surprising? If so, perhaps it’s because this particular line of work has a bit of a branding problem. Product management is not what it once was, nor is it really what you might expect when you see those two words together. Jon Johnson, a professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, notes that “product” and “management” aren’t very exciting words on their own, “and when you put them together, they make each other even less exciting.” But when you look at what product management actually is – and what product managers actually do – it becomes far more interesting.

Product management dates to at least the 1930s when Proctor & Gamble executives created the position of “brand manager” in an effort to revive the sales of its Camay line of soap. Brand managers and category managers still play roles throughout the retail industry, but what they do differs from modern product management.

As it’s practiced today, product management is a holistic approach to shepherding innovations into a successful, sustainable existence. Product managers, in other words, make sure new products go from ideas to reality. And what qualifies as a new product? Lots of things – a traditional physical product, a software program, a technology tool, or even an iterative improvement of something that’s already on the market.

In some ways, product managers are like an orchestra conductor working with a jazz ensemble. They don’t play an instrument in the performance, but they know a lot about all the instruments and how to make the music better. Unlike a traditional orchestra, however, the score is always changing based on the reactions of the audience.

A great jazz band thrives on the creative intuition of its members, but product teams spread across an organization need someone to coordinate their melody. Product managers know the roles of engineers, marketing, sales, finance, and every other group involved in the product’s journey, plus they have a deep understanding of what customers (internal and external) want and need from the product. Because they know what’s going on with the product and why, they can take steps to ensure it is handled in ways that give it the best opportunity for success.

Justin Urso, director of the McMillon Innovation Studio at the University of Arkansas, likes to think of product managers as the “CEO of a product” because their focus is on the product’s vision, meeting the company’s goals and objectives, and understanding the market’s needs. In many organizations, he said, product managers and product owners might be the same person. But a “product owner” puts things into action inside the organization and works cross-functionally between teams to execute the product plan. In larger organizations, product managers and product owners are typically different people.

Rather than managing people on teams, Urso said, product managers manage relationships between teams.

“They are the connection, the glue, between roles like finance, marketing, research and development, software development,” said Urso. “If you looked at a hub-and-spoke model, product managers are at the center and their connecting points are all the spokes inside of an organization. They are the liaison, and they take ownership of whatever it might be.”

Sarah Goforth, executive director of the U of A’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said it’s a role that’s grown in significance because the speed of change has gone into hyperdrive in the last few decades.

“It is driven by the digitization of everything,” she said. “Even physical products have a digital life now because they’re being purchased digitally and marketed digitally. And the digitization of everything has made it so that nothing is ever done. The product is never finished. It’s constantly receiving new features. It’s constantly being adapted. And it’s that iterative, fast-moving cycle that is what product management was born from.”

Many organizations, including some of the biggest companies in the world, only recently began adopting product management best practices, but Goforth has been a part of the field’s evolution because she previously worked with several early adopters. Thus, she’s very good at describing what product management actually looks like, especially as compared to other approaches.

There was a time, for instance, when movies were made by mapping out the project plan and storyboarding the content of the film five years in advance of the movie’s release. Then everyone in the organization simply followed the plan in a waterfall approach with each week’s work building on the previous week’s work. The same was true for physical products and most other new initiatives. Plan the work and work the plan.

“When everything went digital,” Goforth said, “that became impossible as a way of getting things done because by the time you got to the end, everything was out of date. Technologies had changed, the market had changed, there were new social media programs, etc. People had to start releasing features over time and testing them over time rather than executing everything all at once and then you’re done.”

The need for nimbleness drove the need for someone to take ownership of the product’s journey in much the same way that a CEO leads a company.

When Goforth worked with the Discovery Channel, she saw product management in action when designers, content creators, and technology experts suddenly found themselves in the same meetings looking for the best ways to make changes at a high speed while creating their products. This led to some great ideas, but not every good idea was worth pursuing.

“The product manager was the person saying, ‘OK, it’s possible, but let’s think about how much it costs. Let’s think about the roles of the members of the team. Let’s think about the value to the business. And then let’s decide if it makes sense to do that,’” Goforth said. “The product manager was the only person who was able to lead that conversation because they uniquely understood the cost of the technology, the business outcomes, how the creative people thought, what the customer really wanted.”

Product managers need to understand the goals, culture, and operations of the various business units involved with a product, but they also need to have communication and relationship skills to work with all these different groups and personalities. All of that can make product management challenging, but it seldom makes for boring work.

“The product manager is the most boring sounding title for what is one of the coolest, most exciting, most important jobs out there,” Goforth said. “You can make a six-figure salary right out of college. You’re working in tech. You’re like an entrepreneur inside a company. You have a lot of freedom. You don’t have a lot of administrative duties. Your job is to be a leader. And it is a great role for a curious person. You are always having to learn, push the limits of what the company knows and understands, and push the limits of what you know and understand. It is an amazing role.”

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Matt WallerStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.