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Lessons from 2020: Product Managers Need New Tools

By Aapo Markkanen | November 27, 2020 | 0 Comments

Tech and Service ProvidersProduct Leadership

One of the most noticeable changes that we have seen among our product manager clients in 2020 is the growing interest in new software tools.

As with various other trends that have started taking shape during the pandemic, also this one has been about accelerating a shift that was already happening pre-COVID, but in a more latent form. Tools that are designed to help product managers do their work more effectively and efficiently have been around for a few years, and they had also gradually seen adoption across product organizations of all sizes. In essence, their emergence and adoption have reflected the increasing maturation of product management both as a business function and a professional discipline.

As my colleague Cliff Gilley has argued earlier, product managers of today must stop pigeonholing themselves as Jills and Jacks of all trades and aspire to be “Masters of Product” — focusing fully on knowing the customer and on discovering new customer problems for their teams to solve. Naturally, it is not a one-sided transition to make. To make it possible, the same product managers also need to be in organizations that trust and empower them. Some product managers and product companies are farther along on that journey. They also tend to be the ones that have first recognized the importance of tooling as a source of both method and productivity.

And then 2020 happened. Teams became distributed and communications became virtual, usually with little to no advance planning and preparation. What many previously office-based product teams soon discovered was that physically co-located work is the ultimate safety net for workflows and decision making.

All those serendipitious gatherings by the water cooler, confused looks in the meeting room, and reassuring illustrations on the whiteboard backstop numerous organizations in a way that can be exceedingly difficult to reconstruct, let alone sustain, in a virtual environment.

It is a change that has truly elevated the role of tools and tooling. The existence of that safety net (or was it a comfort blanket?) of in-person collaboration meant that many companies cocooned by it never had any pressing need to keep their processes and tools up-to-date. You can get away with a ragtag mix of spreadsheets, presentation decks, email and videoconferencing longer if it’s possible to regularly double-check, clarify and chase in the flesh on whatever is causing friction or uncertainty.

That dynamic makes physically co-located work much more forgiving from the tooling perspective. It also explains why in the course of 2020 more and more product management departments have started viewing tools in a more strategic light than they did previously. Prior to 2020, there was something nice-to-have-ish and if-there-is-budget-left-ish about such resources, but that has clearly changed.

What kind of tools should product managers be aware of, then? Here is a snapshot of the ones that we at Gartner regard as the core product management tools:

  • Strategic Product Planning is about creating, maintaining and communicating the organization’s product vision and product strategy. Features include templates and visualizations for areas such as positioning, business model, SWOT analysis, and scenario planning. Product management often gets to decide how these activities are done in practice, even if it tends to be within certain organizational boundaries.
  • Product Prioritization spans a variety of product management activities related to prioritizing possible product ideas and investments against each other. Maturing product management processes call for more rigorous, data-driven (as well as -informed and -inspired) and methodical decision making. This trend is attracting more extensively specialized tools to facilitate such validation and prioritization work.
  • Product Roadmapping covers what is still seen as the most essential part of product managers’ remit: translating prioritization decisions into scheduled roadmap items, managing their execution, and presenting on their scope and status to a variety of audiences. Roadmapping remains the foundation of the tools market, although many of the vendors specializing in it have also been adding capabilities for other areas.
  • Product Analytics enables analysis of digital products, particularly in terms of usage and behavioral data. In the product management tools market, it is the newest and the most emergent of all five segments — and arguably the most impactful one, too. Tools found in this category can add a whole new level of depth and granularity to the product organization’s understanding of customers and business outcomes.
  • Digital Experience Analytics provides insights into customer activity in the form of application visits and sessions. In comparison to product analytics, these types of tools are more technical and diagnostic, with product managers normally using them in close collaboration with developers or designers. They can be extremely valuable when it comes to optimizing aspects such as product design and UI/UX.

Of course, these are not the only tools that matter to product managers. There are scores of enterprise-wide tools (think of BI or CRM) and cross-functional product tools (think of software development or customer onboarding) that warrant attention, but they play a rather different part from the ones we classify as core tools.

Enterprisewide tools product managers may use very actively, but simply as one type of user among many others. Meanwhile, cross-functional product tools refer to the kind of software that is often instrumental for product managers to collaborate with contributors and stakeholders from other business functions. Their relevance is highly contextual: they can be critical for some product managers while being relatively unimportant for some others — depending, for example, on how much influence they have over the respective function, or how actively they try to improve its contribution. The core tools, by contrast, focus on product managers’ typical core responsibilities.

We will be keeping an increasingly close eye on the core tools, and on the most topical cross-functional ones, in 2021. In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more, here is a research document analyzing the related competitive landscape, while this one discusses how we expect the role of product data and insight, and thereby product analytics, evolve through 2025. (Subscription required for both.)

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