What’s the difference between product management and product development?

Product management is a discipline. It is responsible for the entire lifecycle of a product.

Product development is the process of creating a new product. It is one part of the product lifecycle.

Product managers might be responsible for developing a new product but most manage existing products where the goals are to introduce and grow the product as quickly as possible and then maintain the product in the maturity phase for as long as possible.

Diagram of the product development process leading into the product lifecycle

Developing new products and managing existing products require very different approaches.

New product development

For new product development, validating the riskiest assumptions first is the surest way to create a product that is valuable, usable, feasible and viable.

The riskiest assumptions are about things you know will be important for the success of the product, but which you know little about if/how that thing is going to work in practice. Michael Birchall talks about mapping these things on a two-by-two grid by importance and uncertainty. This is a useful approach as it helps to prioritise the assumptions that should be validated first.

For example, getting the target audience to find out about and try the product is a riskiest assumption that needs validating early because there is no point doing any more development work on a product unless people will use it. This assumption is often validated with an experiment involving a simple landing page with a waiting list and promotional activities to drive people to the page. If no one signs up, the conclusion could be that the value proposition didn’t communicate the product’s value, in which case it can be changed and the experiment run again. But if multiple experiments fail to get people interested, then the assumption is proved wrong and no time has been wasted building a product that would fail.

Existing product improvement

For existing product improvement, removing biggest barriers first will have the greatest effect on the success of the product.

This approach comes from the theory of constraints which says that “Every system has a limiting factor or constraint. Focusing improvement efforts to better utilize this constraint is normally the fastest and most effective way to improve profitability.” There are probably lots of constraints, or barriers, getting in the way of the product being success but only one of them is the biggest. Removing that will have the most positive impact. Then the second biggest barrier becomes the biggest so that’s next to be removed. Eventually, removing barriers provides only marginal gains and this is pretty good signal to stop investing in improvements.

For example, if lots of people are dropping off at the sign-up and onboarding stage, that that is the biggest barrier to users getting value from the product. Fixing that problem will make the product more successful than adding new features for the users that do make it through onboarding (assuming of course that increasing the number of users is the goal).