Managing digital products in digital transformation

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In the digital age, it can be hard to remember that most products throughout human history have not been digital.

Industrialized economies have been cranking out material products for centuries. From clothing to Twinkies to toys, our jobs and economies have produced goods that, once created and sold, haven’t changed much over time. It’s one of the drawbacks of “physical” products, and one that contradicts much of what makes digital products so remarkable.

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The popularity of mobile devices and computers – and their ever-evolving place in modern life – has driven the need for a constant stream of digital products. These products are created in the form of software applications, firmware devices, and websites, to name a few. With each passing year it seems technology has revolutionized, and the needs and preferences of users change just as fast. Unlike their physical counterparts, however, digital products grow in an agile manner that makes them easily adaptable and “updatable”, which allows them to rapidly support emerging user needs. But who is responsible for determining what users need? Who is responsible for understanding how digital products should work to meet those emerging needs? Enter: Product Manager.

role of product managers

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Product managers act as a bridge between business stakeholders (executives, marketers, users, legal) and technical contributors (engineers and developers). They serve as brokers between these groups to determine what gets built, why it gets built, and the best way to support developers in building it. They specialize in translating technical insights to one camp, and business requirements to the other, in a way that each understands and can see the value.

Think of product managers as digital development sherpas, who guide and define how the capabilities of a product or service should evolve over time. As more digital products enter the market, product managers play an increasingly important role.

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Meanwhile, the industry itself is increasingly taking on the role software plays in the everyday lives of businesses and consumers. Many businesses in sectors including retail, restaurants, consumer goods, financial services, healthcare, hospitality and more craft their market strategies and hone their value propositions before taking advantage of today’s always-on, mobile-first consumer technologies. They must, and will, adapt too.
Essentially there is a need for digital products and the expertise of product managers.

This presents, on the surface, like a match made in heaven: digital products are in huge demand in the industry at the same time that digital product management is exploding as a career path. But, there’s one small problem: The infrastructure that supports product managers in their careers is largely designed to train and hire product managers in what were originally digital “product” companies (think: Spotify ). In these businesses, there is the product business: it’s the major revenue channel, the platform consumers use, and the business started with a digital product. This is not true in the digital transformation settings. In these settings, product managers are often playing a very different ballgame.

Internal and External Product Manager

The vast majority of product management literature (think: product school or the like) currently assumes the reader is – or aspires to be – a product manager at a company that has its own product, such as Spotify, Google, Salesforce, Uber, Amazon. , Meta, or Microsoft. Using this notion, the product is the business, and the business naturally aligns with the product manager’s objectives. These companies typically build their own “in-house” product management practices, with the sole purpose of refining and perfecting the functionality and utility of their core products.

However, not all businesses have digital products as part of their core DNA. Take, for example, a quick-service restaurant chain. Their flagship “physical” product may be cheeseburgers — but there’s also a product management team building digital products like mobile apps, websites, and in-store kiosk ordering. This makes it easier to access “physical” products, and therefore support the core business. The same goes for companies selling physical goods and services of any kind—a clothing retailer, a gas station chain, a pharmacy. Brands with “physical” products that are trying to create digital experiences to increase access to their goods are just one example of an organization undergoing digital transformation.

In some cases, brands undergoing transformation may not have the resources to hire their own product managers. Often, these brands rely on the expertise of external partners like Bountys because of the breadth of knowledge and experience they gain from working with the world’s best and biggest brands. (After all, a brand can be great at making delicious hamburgers, but not at designing and developing the smoothest mobile ordering experience for those hamburgers.) Over time, digital products become the dominant sales channel (for example, In the third fiscal quarter 2022, bountiful client Wingstop conducts more than 62% of its business online), these brands may begin to hire their own digital talent, but they often begin to “rent” at least that expertise. Gives what they need.

What Skills Do Product Managers Need?

Product management professionals who help brands through the process of digital transformation often need to hone skills in certain specific areas. How can product managers achieve success when the businesses they support are not digital in origin?

change management

A key duty of a product professional working in digital transformation is to be the harbinger of change. Product managers are key to not only defining the product vision but also capturing how this change will happen. Product professionals in this area must be confident in engaging stakeholders and explaining the value of the product within the change agenda. They must also be comfortable finding and synthesizing data to support why change and initiatives are valuable. Product professionals must have an above-normal level of interpersonal finesse to influence audiences toward changes that may feel uncomfortable at first, but will benefit their business.

Agile Coaching

Product professionals in the digital transformation space may work with clients who have never built a digital product, or have not mastered the process of doing so. Agile product development practices (such as Scrum) are often the key to success. Product professionals in the digital transformation space should be vocal carriers for the importance of the agile process, which may naturally frustrate some stakeholders who are more accustomed to traditional, long-term planning cycles.

competency development and expansion

Professionals in the digital transformation space can also play a large role in the formation and shaping of an organization’s internal product team. Building an organization of high-functioning product management professionals is no easy task, but as brands evolve and their digital products become more central, it often makes sense to dedicate staff to this domain. Professionals who have been through such changes can help brand-side partners look around corners, see potential pitfalls, best practices gleaned from experience with other industries and technologies, and ensure overall can ensure that internal product teams are using their team members to their full potential.

Multi-Industry, Multi-Technology Experience

Another attribute that often makes product managers successful in working in the digital transformation space is the relevant knowledge they carry. In organizations like Bountius and others, product managers have ample opportunity to work within multiple industries, with widely diverse technologies, among teams organized in different ways, to solve different problems. This exposure helps these product professionals better understand implementation strategies, common product management best practices, and a plethora of market contexts. This contextual knowledge is an incredibly valuable boost to the Product Manager’s ability to “make sure the right thing is built the right way”.

Brands in digital transformation contexts can generally be ill-equipped to follow the same digital product development playbook that works for software companies. Becoming a successful product management professional in these contexts requires a different mix of skills.

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