What Product Managers Need to Know in 2021 [+Webinar]

To learn more in-depth about these important trends for 2021, watch our on-demand webinar, 8 Trends to Track for Product Success in 2021.

2020. Craziest. Year. Ever.

I suspect many of you are like me and are looking forward to turning the page on 2020. That said, the pandemic will be with us for a while longer and will have lasting effects on how we live – and how we develop our products. As we’ve done in years past, we’re going to take a look forward now and share our thoughts on what trends product professionals should consider and leverage to make their best products in 2021.

Looking Back

No, we did not predict that there would be a global pandemic in 2020 back in January. As one leader I respect likes to say, “crystal ball… broken.” And for much of 2020, it was very cloudy, to say the least. That said, it’s interesting to look back at the predictions we made for 2020 and see how well we did. Here’s what we covered back in January:

  1. Meeting Customers Wherever They Are
  2. Digital Transformation
  3. Smart Spaces
  4. Customer Privacy & Digital Rights
  5. Improving Product Management Skills & Teams (Product Operations, Product Experimentation, Actionable customer insights, Change Management)
  6. Longer-Term Trends to Track (Human Augmentation, Autonomous Things, Blockchain)

Several of these trends were accelerated by the pandemic, even though we didn’t know it was coming. With customers staying home more yet still needing products and services, companies that engaged more effectively with their customers via digital touchpoints were able to more rapidly serve their needs. While we didn’t imagine how important curb-side delivery would become, this was the ultimate outcome of “meeting customers wherever they are.” Digital Transformation was also thrown into high gear with more companies than ever moving quickly to add digital value to their products. Smart Spaces continued to become more practical, and this is a trend we’re going to discuss further for 2021.

In terms of Product Management skills, the trends we covered were all essential to helping companies pivot to meet new customer needs – quickly.

The longer-term trends we listed were just that, but Forester makes some interesting predictions about blockchain for 2021, and oddly enough our coverage of Autonomous Things mentioned a toilet paper delivery robot – that would have been very handy this year.

Looking Forward

2021 can’t come soon enough, yet we will still be dealing with the legacy of 2020 for years to come – and there are some silver linings. Here’s our list of trends to consider for 2021, a mix of both continuing trends and new ones:

Product Management Skills & Techniques

  1. Become even more Customer-Centric
  2. Look for Insights using Customer Data
  3. Build a first-class virtual PM organization
  4. Benefit from Diversity in Product Management
  5. Innovation & Technology Trends

  6. Product-Led Growth
  7. Seamless Experiences
  8. Digital Transformation
  9. Pivot Power

#1 Become even more Customer-Centric

If you’ve followed our blog or listened to our webinars for any length of time, you know how much we emphasize the need to understand your customers deeply. So how can this be a new trend?

It’s not. But it’s a trend for 2021 that will be just as important as it ever was. Surprisingly, many of our clients are still at the early stages of transforming their approach to products from inside out (“if we build it they will come”) to outside-in (find a customer’s pain points and relieve them). That said, the way to understand customers is continuing to evolve, both in terms of techniques (e.g. Jobs-To-Be-Done analysis) and the technologies (customer engagement and measurement technologies).

#2 Look for Insights using Customer Data

Which leads to the second trend – to gain a deeper understanding of your customers, you need to measure how your customers are using your products. For digital products, there are many tools available like Google Analytics, App Annie, Amplitude, Pendo, and more. Some of these allow you to measure actual product usage, while others enable you to engage with customers with short surveys and questions at just the right moments.

What if we’re non-digital?

For non-digital products, there are still many techniques (both digital and non-digital) you can use to better understand how your products are being used. For example, I recently bought a hand-pump spa vacuum, essentially a plastic suction tube. You really can’t get more non-digital than that. But as I was unpacking it, out dropped this little card:

This card invited me to engage digitally with their brand – in different ways, depending on how I was feeling about the product. This is just one example of how any Product Manager can create digital touchpoints with their customers to better understand their likes and dislikes of your product.

#3 Build a first-class virtual Product Management organization

Surveys vary, but as many as 42% of America’s workforce is working from home, either partly or fully, as a result of the pandemic. And many are predicting that even after the pandemic is over, many will continue to work this way.

So in 2021, building a Product Management organization that can operate effectively in a fully-remote or hybrid model will become crucial for success. This requires not just the right set of tools and technologies to enable working from home, but also the right shifts in culture and leadership to enable cross-functional product teams to work effectively. You can learn more about how to build a better Product Management team culture in our two-part webinar series, 10 Keys to Unlocking a Winning Product Team.

#4 Benefit from Belonging & Diversity in Product Management

Efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been underway for years, but the events of 2020 accelerated efforts to improve how companies hire and promote talent regardless of race, creed, gender, or gender expression. Even more important is the shift to belonging, as many organizations have a leaky bucket where they hire diverse talent, but that talent simply leaves because there isn’t a sense of belonging. This is a trend that we are happy to predict will continue to gain traction in 2021 with the U.S. leading the way. DEI produces teams of Product Managers who can identify better with their customers, bring more perspectives to solving problems, and enable the creation of new products that will solve problems for more customers. Our recent blog post on diversity and inclusion in Product, by guest writer Ngozi Ofoche, founder of Black Women in Product, provides more insights about this powerful trend.

#5 Product-Led Growth

We covered the topic of Product Led-Growth earlier this year in our blog and webinar series – it was one of our most-attended sessions. We see this trend continuing to gain importance in 2021. As traditional marketing channels were impacted by the pandemic this year, adding the ability for a product to promote itself, both in terms of upselling new capabilities and cross-selling companion products from a company’s portfolio has become not just a “neat new idea,” but an imperative to drive revenue growth.

#6 Seamless Experiences

In last January’s prediction article we identified two trends, “Be Where Your Customers Are,” and “Smart Spaces” as trends to watch. The first trend was about providing access to a product or service from the many digital touchpoints available to your customers – smartphones, wearables, smart speakers, and digital assistant-enabled vehicles. The second was about environments at home, at work, and in public spaces that are evolving to provide users with the services they want through more natural interactions using voice and gestures.

2020 saw progress on both fronts. Many more vehicles are offering Alexa or Siri fully integrated into the driving experience, allowing a more widely available touchpoint for digital services. It also became a little easier in 2020 to integrate new products with Alexa, Siri, or Google Home right out of the box, instead of requiring an engineering degree to get things to work together.

In 2021, Product Managers who can provide these seamless experiences that both “just work” out of the box, and can be accessed from multiple touchpoints will be able to differentiate their products in a space that promises to become crowded. Once again, understanding customer needs and delivering a better whole product experience will be the way to delight your customers.

#7 Digital Transformation

This is a continuation of the trend we first discussed as important for 2020 and is definitely a trend that will only become more important in 2021. The pandemic hastened the need for products and services to become available via digital order and delivery mechanisms, as well as completely change some service companies to offer their services in an online or virtual format. We were one of those affected – transforming our flagship Optimal Product Management in-person course into a completely online offering in less than eight weeks.

In 2021, digital services are going to continue to be the preferred way to get work and life done. Even after the pandemic is over, many are predicting that customers will want to stay digital. So, the demand for digital products and services is only rising – your products will need to transform as well if they haven’t already.

#8 The Power to Pivot – Your Business Model

As if going through a digital transformation isn’t hard enough, in 2020 many companies had to also contemplate how to change their business model. This is even more difficult since everything is on the table – how to make the product (ghost kitchens with no restaurant seating), deliver it (digital release of movies first, e.g. Disney’s Mulan), package it (curb-side cocktails), and even price it. While some may be frightened by so much change, savvy Product Managers should see this current environment as a huge opportunity to apply whole product thinking, break out of old models, and innovate in exciting new ways to delight their customers.

Turning the Corner on 2021

In 2021, companies that want to continue to innovate will need to combine both technology innovation and business model innovations to satisfy customers, both consumers and businesses, in new ways. “What’s important to customers has changed,” John Roese, Dell (DELL) Technologies chief technology officer, told CNN Business. “We’ve broken through a bunch of psychological or sociological obstacles to embrace technologies such as video, bots, drones, AI.” The pandemic accelerated the erosion of these obstacles, and in 2021, this trend will continue. To learn more about these eight important trends for 2021, watch our on-demand webinar, 8 Trends to Track for Product Success in 2021.


Contributions to this article made by Denise Hemke, Vice President of Product Management, Analytics at Workday.

About the Author

Roger Snyder - VP of Marketing
Roger Snyder is a Principal Consultant/Trainer, and VP of Marketing at 280 Group.
Roger has worked in the field of Product Management for over 20 years, with experience in startups, growth companies, and various technology sectors. He specializes in improving product strategy development, implementing full product lifecycle processes, and roadmap development and evolution.
280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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