Internal Product Management - Not as glamorous but definitely rewarding

Internal Product Management - Not as glamorous but definitely rewarding

When you think “Product Manager”, what do you immediately think of?

  • Someone who sets up A/B tests in order to maximize Life Time Value (LTV)?
  • Someone who is focused on increasing Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR)?
  • Someone who is running focus groups with consumers in order to understand what’s happening with their retention rate?

Those are all examples of product managers whose core users are external to the organization.

There are a whole host of product managers whose core users are internal to the organization, i.e. they are work colleagues, using internally developed products, with no financial input into the product (so no LTV or MRR) and no opportunity to stop using your product (so no retention rate).

It’s a whole different world, with none of your standard glamour of product management.

What on earth are internal products?

These are products that an organization uses within its operations and importantly they are developed in-house, by a team within the business.

They could be anything from Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, to tools, calculators, or websites.

The important thing is that they are not off the shelf services from third party providers. They are built and maintained by teams within the same organization that uses them.

Why do people bother with internal products?

Internal products develop in the same way that normal products do, in that there is a need to solve a problem, but instead of looking outside the organization for solutions, the organization decides to solve the need themselves because:

  • they can’t find external solutions that meet their needs
  • their requirements are very niche
  • they have in-house skills to easily solve the need
  • they start out as quick solutions and then grow organically over time

Do internal products need a product manager?

Yes, for the same reasons that external products need a product manager, so do internal products.

Someone needs to confirm requirements and determine objectives. Someone needs to create a product vision and prioritize backlogs. Someone needs to support the team delivering the product and check performance against the vision.

It’s the same job with the same responsibilities, but a few subtle differences.

Where is internal product management different?

In most areas, internal product management is exactly the same as external product management, with the same tasks, the same ceremonies, the same stresses.

However, some variances exist in relation to:

  • the metrics that you’re monitoring — you aren’t measuring LTV and MRR, but you might be measuring improvements in department efficiencies (e.g. it used to take the stock control team an hour to process their stock check but now it takes fifteen minutes).
  • your contact with users — with external products you often need to encourage your users to give you the feedback you need, so they don’t just walk away, whereas for internal products your users are at the next desk, or in the kitchen when you’re making a coffee and they are constantly around you, providing feedback and wanting results. They also can’t just walk away and use a different product (most of the time!)
  • the politics — all product users are keen to see their suggested improvements get actioned sooner rather than later, but when you’re dealing with internal product users then you’ve got office politics at play which you need to pay attention to. How can you balance the needs of both sales and finance, given the end of month sales rush and the upcoming year end financial reporting?

How to be successful at internal product management

When you’re an external product manager, you can watch your key business metrics (MRR, LTV, retention, etc…) and you get the feedback you want to show you how successful you’re being, but it’s not the same when your managing internally.

Your aim is to support the business and just delivering features won’t always return you obvious results, and trying to get confirmation of value out of your colleagues, who are swamped with work and not willing to give you the validation you need, means it’s challenging to keep motivated.

However, there are some areas where you take control of your product and clearly show success:

Own product communications

Many of your colleagues won’t even think of your product as an actual product, and what they’ll see is your department being a service department to them, and your backlog as a list of actions they’ve given you most of which you haven’t done yet.

However, if you take control of communications to the organization you can frame this in the way you want, highlighting how the product had been improved over the month or in a particular release, sharing information on process and progress.

Action: Determine ways to get across the product message to the business. Intranet updates, monthly all staff emails, whatever it takes to show what you’re delivering, how you’re delivering it, and why.

Don’t lose sight of strategy

It’s very easy to be reactive as an internal product manager, responding to the myriad of “urgent” business needs, and over time this can lead to an unwieldy product, so ensure you know where you want your product to go and bear this in mind whenever you’re being approached with change requests.

You will be chased for delivery dates, so you should be prepared and know how you want to answer this. What does the roadmap look like? If the current roadmap doesn’t meet expectations, then are their alternative approaches or what’s the process for getting the roadmap adjusted?

Action: Start thinking longer term about where you want the product to go. What themes are appearing and how can you fit individual feature requests into these themes? How can you bring this altogether in an overall strategy?

Build your stakeholder relationships

Due to the fact that your stakeholders are your colleagues, you can really get to know them, what they do and how they go about it. Over time, internal product teams actually become great sources of operational information for the business, due to their close relationships across the entire organization. 

Take opportunities when making a coffee to chat people about their roles and responsibilities. External product managers would kill to have access to users so regularly and to such a degree. Make the most of it.

Action: Speak to at least two colleagues every day about the work they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Find out their challenges, and over time you’ll piece together some organizational challenges which provide product opportunities.