Join me as I explore the rich 300+ year history of product development, design & management towards which product management became the leading profession of generations to come from the 1700s to 2021.
Purpose of this paper
In most articles on the web about the history of product management they start with 'P&G' and HP in 1900s and brand men. That to me is not true.
This led me to doing some research and looking into the last 3 generations to show what really influenced product development and how we have modern day product management practices.
This paper highlights many key "knowledge areas" that any aspiring product person should investigate to learn more about.
Product has been influenced by politics, ideology, economics, society, culture, science, technology, and medicine, however due to hyper growth in the last decade, the practices of good product and bad product management have spread globally. This has led to a business function for product management & design in majority of the organizations which is still evolving to date.
In this paper, I look at the key influences, innovations & takeaways of the last 3 centuries and provide how product was being led by the following groups
1- architects & politicians in 1600s,
2- inventors in 1700s,
3- scientists in 1800s,
4- visionaries in 1900s,
5- missionaries in 2000s to
6- evangelists 20 years later in 2021
We explore the inventions, methodologies and key influences of product development over the last 300 years and connect the dots to explain why product management has become the fastest evolving profession of the 21st century.
Updates to article
2nd Update 8/AUG/2022
Length - 4220 words
- Added Sections - Purpose of the Paper and Summary
- Minor formatting changes (ongoing)
The Inventors - 1700s - 1799
The 18th century is often referred to "century of reason" 🤔 and it is when monarchical and aristocratic power structures started to be challenged by the fabric of society.
🤫 It also happens to be the century when the industrial revolution was kicked off, which in my opinion is truly where product development evolved.
Some major changes to the "ways of working" and inventions led to the birth of science as a profession in 1800s.
This influenced the standardization of the processes to build products for the years to come.
🤯 Some of these products from 300 years ago have been embedded into the fabric of our lives to date. For instance - the piano, fire extinguisher & thermometer!
Takeaway Points of the 18th century
- Inventors & engineers led product as compared to 1600s when architects, mathematicians & politicians had the most influence on inventions, this led to a significant change in method & way of product design, development & management in that era.
- The start of industrialization from scientific revolution of the 18th century, led to significant change in reasoning & experimentation and production process which can be considered the birthplace of product experimentation, design and development which is further seen evolving in 19th century.
In modern day product lifecycle, Experimentation & Design are considered to be part of Discovery while Development is considered to be part of Delivery.
- The product people of the 18th century shifted their focus on improving design and efficiency which can be seen when production methods that evolved from hand to machines.
They also made changes in energy used, to steam power and water power which allowed them to develop machine tools and that gave rise to mechanized factories.
18th century key influences to product development
There were 2 main influences to product development
- Scientific controls (experiments)
This is an 'experiment' and it became the foundation for the scientific method in the 19th century and is one of the most important activities in product management which no product person can live without be it a designer, analyst or manager.
As per Wikipedia "Controls eliminate alternate explanations of experimental results, especially experimental errors and experimenter bias."
- Mechanized factories
"Mechanization is the process of changing from working largely or exclusively by hand or with animals to doing that work with machinery." - Wiki
Key Innovations of the 18th Century
- preserved jar of food!
- vaccination for smallpox
- steam engine
- fire extinguisher
- circular saw
- seed drill
- hot air balloon
- safety lock
- gas lighting
1800 - 1899 - The Scientists
The 19th Century was the birth of science as a profession.
The second industrial revolution and massive social change lead to change of empires which controlled the world.
It was also arguably when the first electronics appeared and started to become mainstream.
These inventions are some of the best products that have been invented and exist in our homes from the battery to light bulb and definitely still products that are evolving to date.
Takeaway Points of the 19th century
- Birth of science as a profession and "scientists" led product where they focused on different types of experimentation to build products.
- Scientific method was created, which is the foundation for good product validation process - question/observe , research, hypothesis, experiment, collect data , analyze, conclusion. It became the norm for innovation.
- Massive urbanization lead to much higher levels of productivity, profit and prosperity further leading to some major influential theories which shaped the 20th Century where the birth of product management as a profession began.
19th century key influences to product development
There were 3 main influences to product development
- thought experiments
As per wiki - "A thought experiment is a hypothetical situation in which a hypothesis, theory, or principle is laid out for the purpose of thinking through its consequences.
- randomized experiments
As per wiki - "In science, randomized experiments are the experiments that allow the greatest reliability and validity of statistical estimates of treatment effects. Randomization-based inference is especially important in experimental design and in survey sampling."
- scientific method
The method of following the steps to question/observe , research, hypothesis, experiment, collect data , analyze and form a conclusion.
Key Innovations of the 19th century
- electric light bulbs
- branch of sciences - germ, electromagnetism & thermodynamics,
- public railway
- public telegraph
- electric motor
- mass produced steel
- oil refinery
- phonautograph (recording sound!)
- gatling gun
- safety pin
- blue jeans
- commercial automobile
- cardboard boxes
- solar cells
- analog computers
1900 - 1999 - The Visionaries
The 20th century marked a shift in global politics, ideology, economics, society, culture, science, technology, and medicine. It led to the birth of many global organizations.
This resulted in a massive transformation of methods in product design, development and management with an incremental increase on efficiency of the production process.
Eventually product management had been identified as a profession and function in organizations.
There was a clear development in business functions such as marketing, management, design & delivery during this era which are eventually reflected in product management. To go into the detail of the changes here I would require another 4000+ word article! But I have summed it up below for now.
Takeaway Points of the 20th century
- Entrepreneurs & visionaries led product such as Ford (RIP), Gates, Jobs (RIP), Musk, Bezos to eventually giving birth to product managers leading product in 90s such as Marissa Mayer, Marty Cagan & Dan Olsen.
They choose to do the impossible and go for the moonshots which led to significant technological innovations from Web, AI to internet of things.
- 🤯 This is the era where methods of product development & ways of working had a significant amount of evolution and change, to name a few
- continuous flow method in early 1910s with Ford (the start of lean!)
- brand men a departmental function concept by Neil McElroy at P&G in 1930s - product management being recognized in 1940s at P&G as a role at HP & then a function
- Toyota production system - Kanban 1940s to 1970s influencing delivery
- modern project management in 1950s influencing planning & delivery
- OKRs in 1950s influencing strategy and planning
- design thinking in 1960s influencing design
- waterfall in 1970s influencing planning & delivery
- theory of constraints in 1980s influencing delivery
- SSADM - structured systems analysis and design method 1980s
- new new product development game (To be -> Scrum) 1980s
- PRINCE2 1990s
- lean manufacturing being coined in late 1990s
- Organizations started to focus on strategy over tactical and use business models instead of business plans which led to improved outcomes.
- Product development lifecycle eventually started involving the use of behavioral economics research to drive growth and focus really shifted on solving the problem of the customer.
- Towards the end of the era there was a standardized way of improving the output of production processes.
20th century key influences to product development
Due to the significant changes in industry and start of globalization, there were many new influences to product development.
- randomized design
- behavioral economics
- demand led growth
- business model - eg : razor and blades
- product management (P&G -> HP)
- design thinking
- modern project management
- AI - artificial intelligence & ML - machine learning
- waterfall project management
- lean manufacturing
- theory of constraints - as described in the book - "The goal"
- Toyota production system - Kanban
- SSADM - structured systems analysis and design method
- new new product development game (To be -> Scrum)
- OKRs - objectives & key results
- object oriented programing
- XP - extreme programming
- six sigma
- SOA - service oriented architecture
Key Innovations of the 20th century
- quantum computing
- digital computers
- commercial planes
- p2p networks
- internet of things
- FIFA world cup
- film & TV
- digital telephone
- internet - WWW
- search engines - google , yahoo etc
- video games
- space exploration
- vaccination for polio
- medical insulin
- vitamin supplements
- lithium ion battery
- solar satellites
- solar aircrafts
- solar cars
- solar roofing
- e-commerce (amazon, ebay etc)
- online payments (cybercrash, paypal etc)
- fiber optics
- air conditioning
- electric refrigerators
- atomic & nuclear tech
- CD, DVD, MP3 players
- smart phone
- LCD TVs
- Virtual Reality & 3D
- home automation
- operating systems - Linux, Windows , MacOS
- online gaming - warcraft/starcraft, counterstrike & age of empires era
2000 - 2010 - The Missionaries
Y2K was here, there was a need for change in ways of working and then by the end of the Dot Com bubble, a lot of money was spent and lost in big tech with the hype of the internet age.
1st came AGILE
Out of nowhere, a revolution called "Agile" took place.
This literally shaped the next 5-10 years of product development!
Agile bought about a revolution which impacted changes to ways of working to reduce work in progress and improve delivery, however it had created one challenge, it created feature factories.
Not by fault of its own, but rather in the thing it was trying to revolutionize - project management.
Feature factories are when products are built in a project lifecycle instead of product lifecycles leading to what what Melissa Perri calls the "the build trap" .
The build trap is when organizations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes. It's when they focus more on shipping and developing features rather than on actual value those things produce. When companies stop producing real value for users they begin to lose market share, allowing them to be disrupted. Companies can get out of the build trap by setting themselves up to develop intentional and robust product management practices. At that point, product managers can find the opportunities to maximize business and customer value.
- MELISSA PERRI in her book Escaping the Build Trap
Product people who have gone through this understand that this is where the designers, analysts & engineers who did all the work are treated as output machines and have unrealistic expectations set on them, and are in a rush to deliver solutions, instead of investigating the problem and validating it.
🤦♂️ Typically, they were given timelines and scope set from senior management with roadmaps that were predefined and eventually led to massive delays.
Usually with a project manager who was told "do or die" and regularly would have to ask the team to put in hours after work and over weekends and constantly update their GANTT charts to manage expectations.
Why did feature factories happen?
During the massive globalization, many organizations tried these so called "Agile / Digital Transformations".
These transformations did not fix the core problems, instead they just masked it. Agile was about software development, but left out other key areas of the business - such as business design, service design etc.
This led to many organizations with poor management structures and toxic political natures trying to scale functions to increase their ability to produce more "software product" or use IT services to improve their business revenue.
Most of these organizations treat IT as a cost center and due to this, decision making power is intentionally left behind.
This leads to management at the top "throwing stuff over the fence" and then the folks in IT have to come up with solutions.
Most folk think that scrum and agile methodologies fix these issues but they only address the delivery issues in tech, not the inherent problems of the organizations caused by its culture, strategy, organization structure, people, process and tech.
Then came The Lean Startup
Organizations that remained oblivious and reactive just tried to push features to stay competitive, which basically brought either no revenue or added any value, however, Eric Reyes in 2008 proposed to startups about adapting lean management and customer development principles.
This led to a few folk starting a new movement resembling the issues of the old days in manufacturing and the lean movement.
These folk, identified that the product teams were treated as output agents instead of inputs along the way which is far different from the earlier generation of product visionaries & scientists, where innovation strives.
They identified these key metrics of success and led the charge for change.
They also realized that focus should be on outcomes not output.
Then came the FAANG
The organizations that did product right and aimed at excellent customer experience, ate the cake and grew in hyper scale!
classic examples : Google, Youtube, Netflix & Amazon etc
With the core focus on output over outcomes by organizations, in the late 1900s there was a massive improvement in how we delivered product tactically until 2000, but now was the time for change and the focus shifted on strategy as competition grew rapidly.
Everyone wanted to be the next Google!
The need for product teams grew and team topology was an important consideration for organizations. Team topology looks at how teams are organized and shaped.
Types of teams - The mercenaries vs the missionaries
Marty Cagan quotes John Doerr - the famous Silicon Valley VC in his book Inspired where he talks about product teams as missionaries -
" We need teams of missionaries not teams of mercenaries".
Project teams are mercenaries while Product teams are missionaries.
" Mercenaries build whatever they are told to build.
Missionaries are true believers in the vision and are committed to solving problems for their customers.
In a dedicated product team, the team acts and feels a lot like a startup within the larger company, and that's very much the intention."
- MARTY CAGAN in his book Inspired
Marty has a very interesting article on how to organize product teams.
Team size matters
In 1975, Fred Brook made an about the observation on software project management, according to which "adding manpower to a late software project makes it later".
This he stated was due to ramp up time, communication overhead & limited divisibility of software development work.
I have experienced this very problem, 40+ years later in a project where a very senior engineer I worked with, called the phenomena of having too many engineers "Merge Hell".
This was on a team with 10 software engineers & 5 QA engineers on a single codebase on a product which was on a "project lifecycle" and 2 years behind its schedule not to mention a few million over budget!
It had DevOps CICD practices, microservices architecture, automated testing and all the buzz you can think off from a technical standpoint - but the one thing it didn't have was good product management!
In my opinion and experience, to avoid delays and large amounts of technical debt, the perfect size and type of product teams per product stream should be from 7-8 individuals including analysts, designers, product managers & engineers (Dev & QA).
The ideal size for product teams is a maximum of 5 engineers on a single codebase with 1 product manager, 1 product designer and a technical lead.
These teams do not need a project manager or program manager or product owner (overpaid backlog admin), they need a product manager who is empowered. They may need a delivery manager who is skilled in delivery if the product manager isn't skilled at it.
Takeaway Points of the 21st century - 1st decade
- The Agile manifesto was born to help address the heavy process & output focus in product delivery in 1900s.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
- With the Agile revolution and product management functions evolving, a new age of "product missionaries" were born. They led product across small and large enterprises and started a whole new revolution - product led growth
- The key technological changes and speed of delivery of "Experiences" resulted in customer buying behavior shifted naturally demanding convenience.
- Service Design, Customer Experience & User Experience became paramount focus for organizations.
This gave rise to customer & product led growth.
- Organizations that paid attention and pivoted, were rewarded with hyper growth and large increment in revenue.
It became a real phenomenon for the startup scene and this led further growth into product management functions as VCs got involved and those product led organizations started to raise huge amounts of capital and have large valuations.
Eventually, all of this led to the birth of digital product management as a profession.
Thankyou VCs and startups!
21st century key influences to product development - 1st Decade
- Agile manifesto
- web 2.0
- gig economy
- AARRR - startup metrics for pirates for business growth models - acquisition, activation, retention, referral & revenue.
- microservices architecture
- business modelling canvas
- SaaS - software as a service
- the Toyota way
- Scrum + JIRA
- robot scientist (Adam)
- constructor theory
- inspired (book)
- escaping the build trap (book)
- the lean product playbook (book)
- digital product management
- serverless architecture
- big data
- online piracy
- growth hacking
Key Innovations of the 21st century
- Netflix streaming service
- blu ray discs
- the Apple iPhone
- Android phones
- 3G & 4G
- Google maps
- social media networking sites - Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter etc.
- LED TVs
- robot heart
- retinal implant
- robotic exoskeletons
2010 - 2021 - The Evangelists
When big tech took the reigns of organizations, product functions became more mature and important.
This meant that Product had a seat at the table or at-least that's what we product folk think 🤭.
Many more organizations formed around this phenomenon building tools & tactics to support this function such as universities and schools to help support the workforce that needed to be cross skilled, up-skilled and trained and of course make money!
Product leadership roles such as Chief Product Officers and Head of Product became a fundamental role in many organizations.
This is what I call the age of inspired product missionaries where product people were given the opportunity to become evangelists and really show what they can do with product & businesses.
Takeaway Points of the 21st century - 2nd decade
- Product led organizations have led the world to a new era of technology and customer experiences aiming rocket ships for the moon (literally!).
- Hyper scaling and growth has become the norm and focus for many organizations.
- Product management tools and tactics have evolved leading to various frameworks and product missionaries designing and building their own tools & tactics. Almost like Bruce Lee and martial arts!
- The key technological changes and speed of delivery of "Experiences" resulted in customer buying behavior shifting from SQL - sales qualified leads, MQL - market qualified leads to PQL - product qualified leads, naturally as the demand for convenience has grown.
- Product development lifecycle went from being contained in projects with initiation, discovery, delivery & closure and a focus on scope, time & budget to product led with continuous life cycles with focus on customer retention.
This was due to the problem where 5% was spent on discovery of the problem and 95% on build which added poor value and focused on the solution space in projects.
- User research was starting to catch on in different organizations where the focus on the problem space balanced out with the solution. Methods for doing this started to become widely adopted and methods such as continuous discovery came out.
If you haven't checked out Teresa Torres book on Continuous Discovery Habits, I would highly recommend it.
- Digital products evolved their growth models into cyclic loops from AAAR to RARRA or even adopting the HEART model from Google
The RARRA GROWTH MODEL
Retention. Create incredible value to ensure everyone who visits your site is retained.
Activation. Make sure new visitors see that value the very first time they visit your site.
Referral. Get them talking about and sharing your site/business with others.
Revenue. Convert some people into customers based on the value you provide.
Acquisition. Use your paying customers to help you find more just like them.
Link to article
- Product management functions grew tenfold however, there was a struggle of the authority in prioritization & decision making with the older founder and sales led organizations not wanting to give up the reigns.
This is very easily seen in the way roles are advertised as "product owners" instead of product managers and organizations where political status quo is more important than outcomes.
"Many stakeholders were not comfortable turning over responsibility to the product teams, especially when they had ill-equipped “product owners” that were more about the process and the backlog, and much less about the deep knowledge of customers, data, business and industry necessary to enable the team to effectively solve hard problems in ways that worked for the business."
- MARTY CAGAN
Marty Cagan in 2018 wrote about the Revenge of the PMO which highlights all of this below.
Link to article
- Product coaches became a thing.
Many traditional organizations tried to transform & pivot and failed, partly due to lack of digital maturity and assuming that a framework will evolve the organization, lack of core competencies on their teams to be successful, and mainly due to lack of appetite to accept change which requires investment, patience and time. This was where product coaches came in.
21st century key influences to product development - 2nd Decade
- standardization of OKRs
- the lean startup (innovation accounting and all!)
- product management tools (aha, pendo, productboard, airfocus, etc)
- empowered (book)
- continuous discovery (book)
- product school
- other product orgs
- universities catch on with crash courses, certs & programs
- web 3.0
Key Innovations of the 21st century
- Social Networks with a focus on Video & Images - Instagram, Snapchat & TikTok
- Mixed Reality
- 5G & 6G
- Siri voice assistant
- Alexa voice assistant
- Google voice assistant
- smart home speakers!
- solar sail based spacecraft, IKAROS
- synthetic organism, Mycoplasma laboratorium
- intelligent retinal implant system (IRIS) bionic vision restoration system
- reusable launch system or rockets!
- video doorbell
- Apple iPad
- commercial use of facial recognition technology
- 3D bioprinting solutions
- semi-autonomous cars
- air fryers
Product over the last 4 eras, has been influenced by politics, ideology, economics, society, culture, science, technology, and medicine, however due to hyper growth in the last decade, the practices of good product and bad product management have spread globally.
The Product field will continue to evolve eventually to a point where the availability of new tools will enable us to do much of the work on business modelling, discovery, design & development.
Low Code will become a focus, and people will eventually be able to create, market and launch products in under a week globally.
(Not saying you cannot do that already!!)
The future of product management is yet unknown but one can say that it will be embedded heavily into other business units as the years evolve.
Product evangelists will have to fight for their seat at the table in more traditional organizations while frustrated ones will go work in startups or even found them.
The 21st century will potentially have the most amount of entrepreneurs, founders and innovators as it has all the right support structures in place.
There is also a potential that a new business function will arise, which will have a cross functional unit of marketers, designers, analysts, engineers & ops all in one, which will ultimately lead to a new revolution and ways of working.
( 🙄 but wait hasn't that already started? 😉 )
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