Product Management tools: today and tomorrow

Posted by Simon Leyland
Simon Leyland
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product-management-tools-1Product Management plays a key role inside companies driven by their products; it’s instrumental for organizational growth and strategic market advantages. 

The expectation for this function is to propel innovation inside the company and market. 

Despite the complex and mission-critical nature of the role of Product Management, Product Managers must make due with makeshift toolsets to accomplish their work.  Let’s take a deeper look at the fundamental functions of a Product Manager and why the time has come to innovate their tools and techniques. 

Jump to current hardware product planning toolkit.

Breaking down a Product Manager’s day-to-day 

Although there’s overlap across product management functions and processes, for the purposes of this piece, we’re going to focus on physical goods manufacturing (vs. software) that have multiple possible product variants. They tend to have more complex cycles and configurations than software and are more vulnerable to costly delays as every feature must arrive to the production line on time or the product can’t ship as intended.   

Granted there are different shades of a Product Manager, they are, at the core, responsible for what gets introduced into the market. Be it launching innovative new products into the current vertical the company operates in; expanding into new markets; or simply introducing a product modification/upgrade into the current market. Let’s take a look at the elements needed to accomplish this sometimes monumental proposition. 

So what’s involved?

  1. Idea management and data collection
    Conceiving new products involves capturing, recording, and organizing ideas and feedback from multiple channels: directly from customers; Sales; internal team members; surveys; social media; market research; third-party experts. It’s important to ascertain where the market is moving, and generally evaluate whether a whole new product is needed or simply new features. The generated information must be captured and recorded.

    See The Five Steps of Product Management section, Step 1 here for more details. 

  2. Roadmapping
    Essentially, strategic planning on a timeline. A roadmap is a high-level overview that puts forth the vision for what will be built, outlines milestones, and includes forces—whether internal or external—that affect the plan. It puts into context and gives a directional overview to cross-functional teams inside an organization. Changes to the roadmap mean changes to the related plans and may even require revisiting the strategy which the roadmap is based on.

    It’s important to note that product line roadmapping will naturally be more intricate than planning for a single product as entire groups, or “lines,” of product are involved. Complexities are even more pronounced for product portfolio roadmapping, which includes all the company’s product lines. Moreover, for certain manufactured products, e.g., automobiles, the roadmap can cover plans into the distant future, such as 10 or even 20 years. 
  3. Forecasting
    Forecasting supports the product roadmap for what will be produced and offered in the market. According to Wikipedia, “Product forecasting is the science of predicting the degree of success a new product will enjoy in the marketplace. To do this, the forecasting model must take into account such things as product awareness, distribution, price, fulfilling unmet needs and competitive alternatives.” For new products, this means judgemental forecasting (Delphi, forecasting by analogy and scenario forecasting), due to lack of historical demand data. The Bass Model can also be used. For product modifications, or in other scenarios where historical data can be used, there are time series and econometric models. Needless to say, forecasting can be a complex science requiring tools that can accommodate and allow for a single change to be reflected in multiple places.   

  4. Competitive analysis
    Competitive product analysis looks at other companies’ products to find their strengths, weaknesses and assess their market position (against your own). Really knowing what the customer wants and performing a deep competitive analysis can help you improve your product, differentiate, and deliver on the gaps in the market where the competition falls short. Or even present an opportunity to lead the market in innovation.

    You’d typically ask questions to help you get to answers around the competitive product characteristics, use, context and user experience, among other factors. The process includes benchmarking against your own planned products and gathering feedback from customers and the market. This involves data capture, analysis, and setting up a regular competitive review process.  

  5. Documentation
    So much of a Product Manager’s job is to create materials for different purposes and stages of the product development process. Documentation plays a significant role in executing many of the other pieces on our list here. For example, key documents include roadmap and projections, competitive analysis, and vision (the “why”). In addition, there are product specifications, success metrics and prototyping, as well as public-facing documents that will serve end users (e.g., FAQs, product manuals, packaging content, internet guides). Product documentation not only records the strategic and tactical pieces necessary for product planning, but also articulates critical components necessary for other functional teams to do their jobs.

  6. Presentations
    The product team is responsible for communicating the plans and justifications for their strategy with teams across the company, all of whom play a role in product management, production and go-to-market. The common presentation elements will cover the vision, market needs, audience segments, and of course the product roadmap.  
  7. Collaboration
    Conferring with team members on product decisions or simply communicating updates is a huge part of the work.

    This can mean consulting with Manufacturing to ensure product design meets the needs of the production team; partnering with Finance on pricing and unit economics; co-creating messaging and market positioning with Marketing; passing on any updates to the product definition; and so much other daily interaction.  

  8. Project Management
    On top of the above “natural” responsibilities, Product Managers are often left in charge of project management as well, the reasons for which become clear if looking at the often-misunderstood distinctions between the two disciplines. Project management means securing additional resources that may be needed, coordinating schedules, ensuring that milestone timelines are met, and, crucially, data entry. Why is data entry a crucial mention? It has been well documented that Product Managers spend up to 73% of their time on non-strategic tasks, which squarely include entering data into spreadsheets, and making changes to that data once any project requirements change.

A Product Manager’s typical toolbox/stack

Given that proprietary systems are used for requirements definition, program management, PLM, S&OP, research/analytics, and other activities, we will focus on the eight common activity buckets outlined above. 

Idea management and data collection
Survey software; social media channels; CRM systems; internal inputs (see Collaboration tools)
Excel, PowerPoint, Aha, Product Plan, Product Board, Airfocus 
Excel, Google Sheets, historical sales data
Competitive analysis
Excel, Google Sheets, PowerPoint
Word, Google Docs, Excel, Google Sheets, intranets
PowerPoint, Google Slides
Slack, email, Teams, SharePoint, etc.
Project management
Excel, PMA, Asana, Smartsheet, Monday, Trello, MS Project, and many others, or a proprietary solution


So many tools, why sub-optimal results?

Taking a critical look at the typical tools list above makes it pretty clear that for the most part, physical-goods product leaders end up stitching together a solution from disjointed ad-hoc tools. And still, even with all those tools in place, many aspects of what the product team is responsible for delivering is done manually. 

Here are some of the problems:

  1. Most roadmapping solutions on the market today are focused on software development, unequipped to handle the demands of planning for physical goods. Physical goods manufacturers try to use these tools with varying degrees of success. Many such tools get abandoned as they fail to deliver on the needs. 

  2. Disparate tools means there is no “single source of truth.” Information is siloed across tools and teams, making it tough to keep on top of as changes are made. The bigger the organization, the bigger the problem. Documentation lacks control and falls out of alignment with downstream documents. Departments are misaligned and end up in varying stages of updated information. Chaos reigns.

  3. Any manufacturer looking to work in a more agile manner will fail. Using more traditional/flat, splintered tools concepted for the waterfall environment cannot work for forward-thinking product companies ramping up the move to agile/SAFe. You cannot pivot direction on the fly, no matter how good the new opportunity. Making updates, big and small, is challenging. Collaboration is tough. Expenses mount. Timelines are stretched out. And in today’s fast-moving culture, timing delays could spell doom.  

  4. With a remaining heavy reliance on flat tools such as Excel, there’s a high level of human touch required to stay on top of all the changing information. Manual changes take hours out of a Product Manager’s day, and result in opportunity costs where the product professionals are spending vast amounts of time updating spreadsheets instead of revenue-generating strategic work they should be focused on.

  5. Tool fragmentation in and of itself presents problems. A multitude of tools eats into the budget. They must be managed (multiple license renewals; user management and support; etc.). They present integration issues, technology-wise, in that they may not play well together.

Product Management tools ripe for innovation

Product teams for manufactured goods must look beyond the Excel spreadsheet to a more comprehensive solution engineered for their unique needs. And supports agile/SAFe frameworks. The right platform will be flexible and able to scale with the size of your operation. It will also give product teams the specific capabilities that address their day-to-day. It will streamline the tactical tasks typical Product Managers are steeped in while enabling and facilitating more of the strategic activities. 

Here’s what physical goods manufacturers should expect from their product planning tool:

  1. It should align your team with a single source of truth.
    Having the right tool will remove some of the complexity from product planning by organizing the entire company around a single data set.

  2. It would support your move to agile/SAFe
    You’d gain the ability to track roadmaps across all your product lines in real time. Not just a single product or product line; all your product lines. With this, you would get a holistic view of every buildable combination.

  3. It will help you make objective decisions
    Weighted scoring that uses an algorithm to guide the feature combinations that best meet your product strategy and goals would remove bias from product definition.

  4. Competitive analysis would be built-in
    This tool would allow you to analyze your planned product details against the companies you’re watching in a central, flexible environment.

  5. Collaboration would be easy
    You should be able to work across your entire organization with no friction, and track their contributions in that same environment.

  6. Integration would be easy
    You would be able to connect your existing systems into this central tool or import data from legacy spreadsheets in an automated way, without high-touch human involvement.

Customer expectations, new technologies, and culture are all putting pressure on hardware manufacturers to step up and operate with more speed and efficiency—as well as come up with disruptive innovation. All this could only be accomplished with the right tools.

Topics: Manufacturing, Product Management, Digital Transformation, Product Development

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