Product management vs. product development
April 18, 2022

Product management vs. product development

by Brian de Haaff

The phrase “cult favorite” is tossed around with abandon these days. Everything from fitness classes to fad diets get this label once they gain a certain level of ubiquity. But one reference I saw recently made me do a double take — the cult of the product manager. The essence being that product managers are the guiding light behind product development, with cross-functional teams following their every signal to a utopian promise.

Product managers are often hailed by people — including me at times — as the magnetic force around which all-things-product orbit.

It is true that product management is now a business-critical discipline. But it is also a relatively new discipline. I was fortunate to be part of it from the early days — recently I wrote about my experience during the transformation that occurred in the late 1990s. This was a time when technology advanced rapidly, agile practices took hold, and the brand manager role of the 1980s evolved to assume the mantle of responsibility for “managing the product.” It seems like ancient history now, but twenty or so years is not that long.

Over that time we created specialized certifications and graduate degrees, wrote entire books about the discipline, and circulated diagrams and charts that put product management at the center of everything. (Yes, you can find several such graphics in the archives of the Aha! blog.) Fast-forward to today and you will find product managers at every technology company and most other companies that depend on creating digital experiences.

Learn more about product management:

Consider that it is the underlying concept of product development which actually is ancient history. Solving real problems and creating a solution that people would be willing to exchange something of value for is integral to the human experience. It is the fundamental basis of every business that has ever existed. We were building products of value long before we had product managers.

This tension is where the idea of product management versus a more inclusive concept emerges. The good news is that the answer has always been right in front of us.

The end-to-end process of conceiving, building, delivering, and maintaining products — from idea to market release and beyond — is the result of a collective effort that starts with company leadership, not individual product managers. It is an organizational commitment to a holistic product development process that enables companies to create breakthrough innovations. After all, your product’s success is impacted by decisions and work by groups whom you collaborate closely with but do not control. (Think: design, engineering, QA, ops, and marketing.)

There is something liberating about seeing product managers as an essential ingredient in product development, alongside design, engineering, and other teammates. You are part of a broader community and effort.

Learn more about product development:

We have defined a product development model at Aha! that is based on a collective organized around value. In it you can see that product management is really just a part of the overall process. The model that we call "value-based product development" hinges on scoring concepts at every stage of the process, including measuring the actual worth to customers of what was built and released. This integrated approach is why we continue to add to our software suite with offerings that address each stage of the process, beyond roadmaps and feature backlogs.

It is true that product managers are often at the intersection of it all. But maybe not as the big circle in the middle of the wheel — around which all other functional groups orbit. The reality is that product management does not stand against product development. It is an integral part of it. So you should be the ones championing a more full-context approach to building products that celebrates each group's contributions.

The future of product development is happening right now. It is time to build what matters — try Aha! now.

Additional resources

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

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

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