Product School

Four Product Management Trends to Watch For in 2021

Nathan Thomas

Author: Nathan Thomas

January 9, 2023 - 6 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 6 min read

There’s an old saying from the world of competitive hockey: An average player reacts to where the puck is. A great player reacts to where the puck is going to be.

Good Product Managers make decisions based on the world as it is today. Great Product Managers make decisions based on how the world is going to be tomorrow.

2020 has been a year of upheaval, challenge and opportunity. In the wake of this extraordinary period of change and adaptation, four Product Management trends stand out that are likely to gain more prominence as we enter 2021: 

  1. Design Dominance: People will only want to continue to use products they actually enjoy using.

  2. Product Proliferation: The number of products that have inserted themselves into every aspect of our lives has increased drastically.

  3. Adaptability Advantage: The overwhelming advantage given to firms who are able to adapt and thrive in times of uncertainty.

  4. Cultural Core: In challenging and uncertain times, it matters more than ever to work in a supportive environment, even if you’re working remotely.

Let’s dive in and take a deeper look at each of these four trends in turn, so you can stay ahead of the ball (or the puck!) as we finally enter 2021.

Design Dominance 

UX design

Spending your life at home means one thing for sure: We are spending more time interacting with digital products more than ever.

Instead of using our computers at work, we use them all day. Instead of using tools like Zoom and Skype for occasional work conferences, we use them to catch up with friends, family and colleagues on a constant, daily basis. Tools like Slack are open all the time.

The bottom line is, we are all spending more and more of our time using digital products and interacting with software. This means that a user friendly design is even more important than ever before.

Users may tolerate a poor interface, unattractive aesthetic or frustrating workflow for a product they use once or twice a week, but they will not put up with this from tools that are central to their lives and become part of their daily habits.

Research presented by InvisionApp underscores the fact that the significance of design is only increasing as we head into 2021. As their research shows, design is reshaping “products, portfolios and industry standards” at over 70% of companies. No longer an afterthought, design is now a primary consideration at the majority of companies.

You might also be interested in: 3 Product Design Lessons from Apple and Google

Product Proliferation

Not only are we spending more time using products than ever before, but we are also using more and more products throughout the course of an average day.

From the Internet of Things (IoT) that connects your smartphone to your television, your garage and maybe even your air conditioning unit, to the cloud-based software that integrates your company CRM with your email database and your accounting app, we are constantly surrounded by a world of products that accompany us everywhere we go. 

Think about what you are doing right now. How many Products (with a capital “P”) are central to your work and home life? Think about it for a second, and you’ll probably realize there are more software apps running in the background, cloud services backing up your work, and algorithms handling tasks, than you may have at first been aware of.

There are already over 20.4 billion objects currently online in the IoT. By 2025, this number will be 75 billion.  The good news is, this trend is likely to necessitate further demand for Product Managers. And it’s not just true of the tech sector: All industries now depend on software to carry out even the most simple daily tasks, and this trend is only going to keep accelerating.

Adaptability Advantage

Swiss army knife

Recent events have shown us the need for even large companies to quickly adapt to changing circumstances:

  • The educational industry needed to suddenly move to an online-first model. 

  • Entertainment companies shifted from theatres and concert halls to streaming services and online events. 

  • Retail businesses made eCommerce a priority, rather than supplement or an afterthought. 

  • Restaurants moved to a delivery service model, and/or adapted to offer curbside delivery.

Companies that are quick to acknowledge the reality of the circumstances they are in, and anticipate upcoming trends, are the firms that survive. 

Spotting trends before they are firmly established gives you an adaptability advantage as a Product Manager. It allows you to lay the groundwork for a successful company wide transformation, preparing your entire organization for the adoption of new mindsets, technologies, habits, and structures which will propel you to success in unfamiliar circumstances.

Perhaps in today’s world, it’s true to say the only certainty is uncertainty!

Cultural Core

Product Managers have to lead through influence, not authority. And yet they are, undisputedly, leaders. When times are tough, good leaders are needed more than ever. 

Leadership is different from management. Management is about the organization, keeping your team on track towards their KPIs, OKRs and on the Product Roadmap. Leadership is about the less tangible, “soft skill” traits such as empathy, rapport, and culture. These matter just as much as the “hard skill” demands of management.

Stage HR shows that employees who feel valued and respected at work are 5X more likely to stay at the company. In 2021, Product Managers will be called upon as leaders to create a “Cultural Core” in the workplace (remote or physical) that allows employees to feel supported and valued. 

As a Product Manager in 2021, delivering for your customers won’t be the entire point of your job. As a leader within an organization, you are also going to have to focus on supporting your employees. 

Leading through your example, you will need to deliberately foster a culture where employees can feel safe, respected and valued. Especially in an uncertain world, providing this comfort and assurance will be a critical skill.

Conclusion: In a World of Products, It’s Still About the People

People are spending more time using more products in a fast changing world. Product Managers will be expected to give design higher priority, manage an ever-growing product ecosystem, and make rapid, significant changes as new challenges or opportunities emerge. All the while, PMs will need to act as leaders to foster a supportive and empowering company culture that allows employees to thrive despite the uncertainty that may surround them.

You have your work cut out for you! Enjoy the challenge, 2021 is going to be an exciting ride. 

Updated: January 24, 2024

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