The Product

All hail the product... but also the product manager.

Product managers and brand managers in consumer product companies have some of the most exciting jobs in the business world today. They’re miniature CEOs, chasing opportunities with new products and services that can reshape entire corporations.

Some of the best-selling products ever were the result of a product manager’s bold bets on the future of consumer tastes: Zippo Windproof; Ford Mustang; Q-tips; Gerber Knife Survival Series; Pack N' Play Portable Playard; BIC Multi-purpose Lighter; the Coleman Sundome Tent.


Product managers need strong interpersonal skills. They deal with people across the entire corporation from finance to marketing and manufacturing. They broker deals with power centers in the company to get products to market. They need to recall the lessons from failed products of the past and look into the future to understand what the next generation of consumers might want. And, they have to master an endless parade of research tools to make all the right decisions and keep up with the competition.

Now, Artificial Intelligence (AI) promises to make the product manager the most important person in the company, or, it could make them irrelevant.

AI is the new buzzword. Like big data, wearable tech, social media, mobile commerce, and gamification before it, some businesses use the term liberally, sprinkling it on everything like hot sauce in an attempt to spice up weak business models.

But don’t let the buzzwords fool you - AI is fundamentally different from the other trends that swept through the business world in the past decade. AI is different because it’s not just a tactic, tool or an intermediary like the others. These past trends were created by companies that merely got in between people and the things they love and made money doing it. They were brokering engines of one kind or another. AI is different because it will transform the way we make the products that people love, which, in turn, impacts the future of our largest industries.

All of this makes it all the more important to define AI, and sort through the rubbish to categorize the real applications that we think will transform the way product managers set their strategies and plan their products.

We’ll start by suggesting three categories of AI :

TEMPORAL AI: Takes data from sources that you never thought to examine, analyzes it in ways you never imagined, and reaches conclusions you never considered. It learns 24 hours a day, and will inevitably outthink you. It does more than count time, it has a sense of time more sophisticated than yours.

DEEP AI: Can answer any question, but needs data labeled and categorized by you. This level of AI can perform the analysis you ask of it, at speeds that no human will ever match. It can learn to analyze more information as you give it more data, or tell it where to look.

NARROW AI: Requires rules written and programmed by you. Once you put predetermined components of questions into its database, it can assemble answers, but nothing more.

We think the first step towards artificial intelligence in product management will be a means to understand more deeply what consumers say they need, like and dislike, in a natural way, without the consumer feeling observed. The consumer would simply react in some way in the physical world, social media, or with the product itself, and the AI would count those reactions. The Product Manager would be left to interpret those reactions, make a decision and facilitate some action. Think of counting how many people ‘liked’ some kind of electric drill, in what time of year, and in which geographies. This equates to using great human judgment layered on top of Narrow AI.


The second step would feel more like an artificially intelligent co-worker that is smarter than you are, but has no “street” savvy. In this stage, the product manager can ask the AI, “do people like the new BLACK+DECKER electric drill?” The AI will then analyze hundreds of data points gathered from publicly accessible sources, (for instance some user-review channel on YouTube celebrating BLACK+DECKER power drills, then present the product manager with a composite picture.) The product manager would still be left to interpret the AI’s answer and make a decision where to take the product.

The third step would be more like a strategist, capable of predicting which of the product manager’s decisions will delight specific groups of consumers, while anticipating the moves of competitors in response. Eventually, every brand manager would have one, and product management will feel like one big multi-dimensional chess game. The consumer products world will turn into the largest real-time, game-theory exercise ever, which may even drive forecasts about earnings of individual companies in every market.

The first step is already here with SIRI, ALEXA, CORTANA and the flood of social listening platforms. The second step is also here, but unaffordable by most companies, and it feels like IBM’s WATSON. The third step feels more like the early models of AI the show WESTWORLD.

Imagine an AI so powerful, it would predict that the product manager for a power drill should add features that enable the tool to automatically sense drilling into softwood, hardwood, metal, and masonry, then adjusts rotational force without human intervention. The AI determines the product should be advertised from January through March on Youtube, then the product should appear in The Property Brothers show in April. The AI suggests two models and their respective price points focused on 20 states.

Somewhere in all of this, we believe a new golden age of the product manager will emerge. With AI, the product manager will again become the master strategist, the driver of the business.

The arms race has begun. Every company of consequence must either bring AI into the product management process or risk joining the dozens of brands that were washed over by waves of innovation.

For more on how AI can help your product management process, contact us.