Is IT Product Management Really Product Management?
February 4, 2021

Is IT Product Management Really Product Management?

by Brian de Haaff

"Strange question." That is what I thought. But I tried to be more careful with what I said. Someone had asked me if I thought IT product management was really product management. It was not meant to be a harsh question, but I doubt that anyone currently working to build internal tools would have taken kindly to it. The kernel of truth under the question was one of fear — the belief that doing this kind of work might stall out your potential career as a product manager.

This is obviously untrue. Of course product planning work done for internal users is product management.

And yet there must be some reason people are doubting the validity of the IT product manager. Maybe some people doubt this due to the fact that internal product management grew out of traditional IT planning.

These newfound product managers were tasked with paying closer attention to what internal users actually needed. This was a change from when they built technology that people had no choice but to use. And there was a perception that they merely gathered requirements for program and internal development teams to implement.

But these days, we are undergoing a real shift in how we consider internal infrastructure and systems. Every company is a software company and every company needs to support its team so they can do their best work. Internal operations and systems have to be outstanding because we all rely on technology to do our work.

We have moved away from a focus on how to implement technologies to a focus on the experiences that users are having when they are engaged with those technologies.

So, yes. Of course IT product management is really product management. How can you do it well? And what do you need to do differently than your counterparts who are building external-facing products? There is overlap, with a few places you will want to focus:

Strategy matters

You must know the business strategy — why you are building in the first place. This requires an emphasis and discipline around capturing that strategy and aligning it to the actual work that gets done. Building and managing internal systems takes significant time and resources too. You may need to justify the commitment and the value it will bring if you meet resistance or misunderstanding from other teams.

Firm strategic alignment will help you with prioritization decisions around timing, investment, and tradeoffs. Remember that making the business case for new technology is just as important as one for an external product. Regardless of what you are managing, you need clear objectives in order to develop a realistic plan.

Define user personas

Your "customer" may be more clear and easier to define when you are working on internal systems. You know who your colleagues are and where to find them. They likely hold resolute opinions about what should be fixed or improved internally. But that does not mean you should make assumptions about how to serve them or their willingness to try a new way forward.

Interview internal stakeholders just as you would external customers. Learn their challenges. Find out how they really work. You might even create personas to map enhancements to the people who will benefit most. It is much easier to build exactly what people say they want but you need to be sure you can empathize with the true need.

Capture ideas

As described, many larger organizations have the historically "IT back office" mindset. That is changing. Your coworkers have plenty of ideas. And they are highly motivated to tell you what they want because it impacts their job. You want to bring users into the process. But how do you engage people and manage all the input that comes your way?

As part of the transformations I mentioned earlier, many organizations are embracing idea management across business units. A streamlined process with something like a private ideas portal helps you make sense of the requests by team and type. Then you can make more informed decisions and continue to deliver what is needed most.

Coordinate launch activities

Every touchpoint someone has while using your product has a big impact. It is true that there are more possible interactions for products that customers buy — think about marketing, sales, support, back-end systems, billing, and legal. And internal products have fewer but you still want to strive for a Complete Product Experience. How will people learn about system improvements? How will they know how to use new functionality? What other tools or processes will this impact?

In all likelihood you will not have formal go-to-market activities when you launch something new. But do not let that be a reason to diminish the importance of how you message what you have delivered. You might have internal resources to help with this type of communication, or it might fall to you to coordinate it all. Thinking through all the touchpoints is what separates a good solution from a great one.

Make it great

It can be tempting to maintain internal systems at levels that are just good enough. Once you have solved the initial problem, why invest in ongoing improvements? You may run up against this mindset, especially when the team is evaluating where to invest next. It is tempting to move to the next problem on the list.

But you have a real opportunity to shift the organization's focus from implementing internal solutions to re-imagining how users experience those technologies. Pay attention to the areas in which you can continue to create real value for the organization. Whenever possible, relate success to core business metrics — such as employee engagement and happiness. Keep working against your strategy and capture the output, so that you have proof points for conversations about where to invest next.

All product managers are tasked with solving a need for a meaningful group of people. It does not matter if those are internal users or external customers.

Contrary to the misperceptions about the role, IT product management is ripe for boldness and innovation. You have the opportunity to change how people in the organization work and how much they enjoy their job. The value you provide has a multiplying factor — because your internal users serve your external customers too.

How do you think IT product management has changed?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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