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The Role of a Digital Product Manager

Sometimes called a product’s “mini-CEO”, a digital product manager oversees every stage of an innovation’s lifecycle. Read on to learn more about this emerging discipline, and hear from product expert and bestselling author, Dan Olsen.

The Role of a Digital Product Manager

An ever-changing set of responsibilities

Despite its growing importance in corporate innovation, digital product management remains a poorly understood phenomenon in many organizations. In a sense, this is to be expected. The discipline is not only complex, far-reaching, and relatively new, it’s also changing fast—a perfect recipe for widespread misunderstanding.

In essence, a digital product manager (DPM) presides over a product’s entire lifecycle, from the earliest idea-building stages to market testing, launch, and iteration. The role demands an expansive skill set and encompasses a sweeping range of responsibilities. For example, DPMs can expect to dip their toes into strategic planning, marketing, design, customer success management, and analytics.

Since the exact combination of resource requirements varies with each product, a successful DPM needs to master a broad array of skills while cultivating an attitude of constant curiosity. A DPM’s responsibilities are so wide-ranging that consulting firm McKinsey described the role as no less than a product’s “mini-CEO.”1 As we’ll see, this description is far from universally accepted, but it neatly encapsulates the role’s scope, complexity, and strategic importance.

An emerging discipline in many ways, digital product management is constantly evolving to meet market demands that are forever in flux. In recent years, the product-building process has become increasingly technical and data-driven. According to the above McKinsey report, future product managers working on digital products will need to be able to “quickly spin up a Hadoop cluster on Amazon Web Services, pull usage data, analyze them, and draw insights. They will be adept at applying machine-learning concepts and tools that are specifically designed to augment the product manager’s decision making.”2

While the role’s nature will continue to develop in accordance with consumer demand and the changing technological landscape, some aspects are likely to remain fixed. These include:

  • The ability to make data-informed decisions;
  • The creativity to conceive of new products and accurately predict product outcomes;
  • The confidence to foster contributions and product conceptions from team-members;
  • Strong collaborative leadership qualities that translate across different teams and even departments;
  • Exceptional marketplace knowledge;
  • Financial savvy, including the ability to project revenues and develop pricing models.3

To get a better sense of how these diverse qualities overlap, we spoke to Dan Olsen, world-renowned product expert, consultant, speaker, and author of the bestselling book, The Lean Product Playbook.

Getting to the core of digital product management

As we’ve seen, product managers in the digital era need to display a prodigious range of competencies and interests. But can we sum up the role in a single word?

According to Dan Olsen, yes we can. And that word is define.

“Our job is to define who our customers are, and what their needs are,” Olsen told U+ in a recent interview.

To do this effectively, Olsen said, you need to ask your team a lot of questions like: “Are we clear? Are we steeped in customer understanding? Do we really understand the problem we’re trying to solve?”

In order to define the customer’s needs in a clear and actionable way, a DPM should be wary of any unsupported assumptions that may sneak into the process. Opinions are only as useful as the empirical data behind them: “Because if it's just opinions, then people are going to go with their own opinions, not some other person's opinion, right? So that's why being evidence-based and steeped in real customer data is really important,” Olsen argues.

Asking questions, conducting research, and establishing workable definitions are hallmarks of what Olsen calls “problem space”, where the focus is purely on investigating user needs. By contrast, “solution space” is where you zero in on the product itself, coming up with all the cool things you want it to have and do.

“One of the top things that product managers can do is make sure the team starts out with a customer problem before they jump to a solution,” Olsen says.

Olsen brings up Instagram to illustrate this point. Based on extensive research, the platform concluded that a large segment of social media users wanted the photos they shared online to look more beautiful. This is an example of a problem. Instagram’s filter feature, which can give the most ordinary-looking shots a professional gloss, is an example of a solution, and a particularly clever one at that.

Separating problem space from solution space can be hard, especially if you’re working with an action-oriented team that’s eager to get building right away. After all, solutions are generally easier, and more fun, to think about than problems. But if you don’t understand the problem you’re trying to solve, your solution isn’t going to generate real value, no matter how impressive its technology or design.

Instagram filters became such a hit not because the technology behind them was so brilliant, but because they addressed a customer need that no one else had managed to figure out before. Achieving product-market fit with this level of success is the telltale sign of a truly great DPM.


Adding Context

DPMs don’t just define their product, they also help contextualize it, ensuring all decisions are aligned with their organization’s highest strategic objectives and supported by data at every stage. One way of introducing context is to establish a decision-making framework or paradigm, such as Olsen’s highly influential product-market fit pyramid4.

Without a coherent management framework to serve as a guide, the short-term, day-to-day stresses of product-building can easily take on a logic all of their own, in some cases producing outcomes that are completely divorced from the project’s original goals. Concepts like bikeshedding and yak-shaving nicely capture the absurd results that can arise in a disorganized, badly managed, or insufficiently contextualized project.

Influencing without authority

So does it make sense to think of digital product managers as “mini-CEOs” or not? Olsen was ambivalent about the term:

“As far as the breadth of responsibilities go, [the mini-CEO label] does apply, you know, because it's a very interesting situation where you are put in this central orchestration position.”

But there’s a key difference. Since CEOs are seen as clear-cut leaders within their organization, they are free to pursue their objectives by decree; in other words, what they say goes. In contrast, product managers have little formal authority, relying instead on the tools of persuasion to get things done. Olsen calls this “influencing without authority.”

Ultimately, Olsen argues, a digital product manager’s real authority comes from being an “expert on the customer.” He brings up a joke he’s fond of telling. If Spider-Man’s motto is “with great power comes great responsibility”, then a product manager’s motto goes something like: “With great responsibility comes no power.”

If you’d like to learn more about Dan Olsen’s work, check out his personal site, his Lean Product Meetup page, or subscribe to his YouTube channel for more great product management advice.

At U+, we help companies bridge the digital product management skills gap. The U+ Method can efficiently and effectively lead the development, implementation, and improvement of innovations in any sector. To date, we have used this method to bring 90+ products to market, creating over $1 billion in value for Fortune 1000 companies. Check out U+ success stories here.


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