Lessons and Trends for Product Management in 2018

Kevin Smith | April 17, 2018

Technology’s rapid speed of advancement makes it difficult to accurately forecast.

That’s why separating truth from hype in trends from the past year can be helpful, which was one topic of discussion during a recent panel discussion of product management professionals held at the headquarters of Pivotal in San Francisco.

The event, “How to Be the Best Product Manager: Navigating Evolving Tools and Trends,” was organized by The Product Stack — a small group of like-minded companies, including Jama Software, which coordinates meetups around the country and hosts a Slack channel for product managers.

Following the first installment of this excerpted conversation, What Skills Do You Need To Be A Successful Product Manager?, we’re looking at what worked and what didn’t for our panelists in 2017 around things like the development process and market fit, as well as some thoughts on what to watch for in the year ahead.

As a quick reference for this excerpted discussion below, here’s the lineup of those who participated:

Poornima Vijayashanker: What did you see in 2017 that you thought was going to be really promising but then just fell flat?

Jim: In the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of talk around “Lean Startup,” and bringing some of those best practices — like the business model canvas and other techniques — into larger organizations.

In my interactions with product managers, and especially those at larger companies, I really thought that some of these best practices would come into play more often by now. Especially since so many of us are familiar with Lean Startup and with Steve Blank and his customer discovery process and so on.

It’s really interesting to me that more product managers haven’t adopted those techniques for new innovations, new products within organizations as well as new features that they’re rolling out to their customers. That continues to be a surprise to me.

Poornima: Robin, what about you? What did you see in 2017 that you were surprised didn’t work out?

Robin: I saw something similar around process. There’s new ways to do Agile that can really scale. But we weren’t taking into account the human behavior aspects of taking a process and scaling it really catch up to the research about how humans think.

When you read The New York Times, you read about how humans can’t make decisions if there’s more than six choices. People can’t multitask. People don’t remember things well. And not a whole lot of that was necessarily applied when you’re rolling out new processes.

At Jama Software, we see a lot of companies try new, large-scale processes at the same time they adopt new software. Often, they try to do it all at once and I think maybe that speed or trying to roll out new process, new tools, not thinking about the human angle, was something I was surprised happened and is still happening.

Poornima: What about on the customer front? There seems to be a lot of competition, especially in SaaS, a lot of people starting businesses, a lot of people going out of business. What did you guys see? Jim, if you want to share anything that you saw since you do a lot of work on product and market fit?

Jim: You mentioned product and market fit and it continues to surprise me that companies haven’t done the validation that they need to do when they’re innovating new products or even new features that they’re rolling out to customers.

We continually see that metrics aren’t being discussed or feature usage isn’t being measured or success metrics aren’t talked about. That’s something that we talk about and promote quite a bit — this metrics-driven product management — but continually we see companies that deploy new products or even new features that really fall flat. That’s something that product managers find to be really challenging. I think that’s going to be the way that it is for a while.

Rose: There’s a lot of trends in spending money and being fancy in front of a lot of people and that’s not necessarily what actually builds products. We make something that people want. Keep that in mind. It’s not always about the money and the marketing, it’s about really having a product that people want.

Poornima: Jeana, question for you. You saw a lot of this multiplatform, multichannel, more of a holistic approach, not only the bridge between hardware and software but also designing for multiple screens. Maybe you could share what you saw in 2017 that didn’t work when it came to multiplatform?

Jeana: I think everything is multichannel and multiplatform now. The way we have to think about products is end-to-end. The example that I usually use is the Amazon drone service.

We tend to tilt that from a software perspective, and say the product is the UI. But actually, what we have behind there is a call center and warehouses and people who are providing concierge service, Android, iOS, desktop and on and on. This is all actually part of the product.

We need to make sure that the sum of the whole is greater than the pieces. I think going along the lines of some of these validations bits, I’ve seen a lot of what I would refer to as like “Dot-Com One” behavior.

We’ve seemed to re-caught the bug that being first to market is going to get us that big bang. But, actually, what we’re seeing is that a full market is indicating that this is a good place to be and that you really have to differentiate. I know platforms are the newest hotness but thinking about your platform as a product, what differentiates it from the other bits out there?

Poornima: Now Amy since you’ve got a global perspective, if you can tell us what you’re seeing outside of Silicon Valley or you saw in 2017 that didn’t work.

Amy: Tech has really provided the opportunity for just about anybody to build and ship products. Piggying-back on what Jeana said, being able to differentiate your product is going to be so much more important in the coming years because your competitor is not just going to be in Silicon Valley. It’s going to be in Israel, it’s going to be in Paris, building up the same products. The global landscape is just getting bigger and more competitors are entering into the marketplace. And so being able to differentiate is key.

I would say when thinking about building a product, especially when I’m evaluating startups to work with, I look at the rate at which they work, the speed and when they launch products. And also the talent — if they’re passionate about what they’re working on.

Poornima: What do you guys see coming out in 2018? What are some one to two trends that you see coming up that folks out there should be looking out for?

Jeana: Actually, we had a bunch of college students come through and I had some come to me and they said, “We want to be product managers.” I was like, “You know what a product manager is?!” You know what I mean? We weren’t even on the map five years ago.

If you said you were a product manager, people were like, “I don’t know what that means.” That’s really interesting to me. And I think it is a symptom of the level of customer experience that the market is asking us to deliver. Standing up a thing does not get you the outcome. We’re having to think about a lot more of those pieces.

Poornima: Anything else you guys see as trends coming up this for this year we need to keep an eye on?

Rose: I’m seeing a lot of people start to listen and speak out about human rights. Especially with augmented and virtual reality, we think a lot about ethics and how that will influence day-to-day interactions with people.

I think I’m seeing humanitarianism, especially with the Millennial generation coming up. People really starting to take pride in building community and relationships with people in general.

There’s been a lot of oppression and a lack of desire for transparency and truth. We’re starting to see that coming through and I think it’s definitely trending with the transparency. Consider compassion in whatever products you’re building. It’s not uncool anymore.

Stay tuned for more highlights from the Product Stack panel in San Francisco, as well as announcements about upcoming events. In the meantime, check out our white paper, “Top Three Frustrations of Product Managers and Tips to Avoid Them.”