Manage existing products differently than new ones

If you want to be a bad product manager, manage an existing product as if it was a new product. It doesn’t matter whether it’s been out for five years or whether it’s launching next week — a product’s a product. Make the decisions you think are right for the product, regardless of how long it’s been in the market, current customer perception, market penetration, or product history. You’re not responsible for decisions that your predecessors made. If there were bad decisions made in the past, you need to correct them, regardless of what impacts it may have.

If you want to be a good product manager, understand that an existing product needs to be managed differently than a new one. Existing products have history, and this history needs to be taken into consideration in many decisions. The existing features, benefits, brand perceptions, past prices, and historical customer satisfaction are all aspects that need to be taken into account when managing an existing product.

New products have the luxury of starting from scratch. There is an opportunity to build it right the first time, focusing on the right features, functionality, and benefits. Positioning and pricing can be determined irrespective of historical precedent. Sales channels, marketing materials, contracts and agreements can all be set up to support the product appropriately. As a product manager of a new product, you can have oversight and influence into — if not responsibility for — these aspects from the very beginning.

If you are a product manager for an existing product and there were product managers before you, then you are managing decisions that in some cases were made years prior. Good decisions are great to inherit, but bad ones are incredibly challenging. The original price may have been artificially low and never changed for fear of losing revenue. Extra features may have been added to meet needs of a certain market segment that you are no longer targeting and you now have to figure out whether to keep them in the product. You need to understand why these decisions were made and whether they are still applicable today.

In many cases there are legal or contractual obligations that prevent a product manager from treating an existing product like it was totally new. Contracts with major customers or distributors may have certain clauses that restrict flexibility, since there may be certain features or pricing levels that need to be maintained.

When managing an existing product, you can not ignore its legacy. What’s done is done, and you inherit decisions of all prior product managers, whether you agree with those decisions or not. The history of the product needs to be a consideration in everything you do. You should not ignore the past, nor should you continue in a direction simply because the product had historically been heading that way.

The decisions you would make if the product were being build from scratch today may be totally different than the decisions you make when the product is not new. These are difficult decisions but good product managers can move the product forward without being a slave to its past.

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2 thoughts on “Manage existing products differently than new ones

  1. Great post and very true ! I think Product Managers often feel there is less cachet in being the product manager for the ‘old’ product rather than being assigned the snazzy ‘new’ product line. However, having to manage a legacy product is one of the best learning experiences a product manager can have.

    You really learn how some seemingly small decisions made in “Version 1.0” can come back to effect your product in the long haul. Learning these lessons while managing an existing product will be invaluable when you do get a chance to be the product manager for a brand new product.

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