What can L+D learn from product management?

Today’s post is written by Holly MacDonald, #chat2lrn crew member and Chief Spark at Spark + Co located on an island off the coast of BC in Western Canada. Holly is an instructional designer, consultant, serial dog walker and a self-confessed whale nerd. Find her on Twitter @sparkandco.

According to wikipedia:

Product management is an organizational lifecycle function within a company dealing with the planning, forecasting, and production, or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle.

In L+D, we often focus on what goes into our instructional product (content), but less about WHO uses it, WHY they use it, WHEN they use it etc. We tend to think of our work in terms of “projects” not products, but what if we changed our perspective?

What if we developed instructional products? What lessons could we learn from product management?


Product managers are guided by the following principles:

  • Products have a limited life and thus every product has a life cycle.
  • Product sales pass through distinct stages, each posing different challenges, opportunities, and problems to the seller.
  • Products require different marketing, financing, manufacturing, purchasing, and human resource strategies in each life cycle stage.

Lessons for L+D

We could develop principles for our instructional products.

How do we develop instructional products to make maintenance or sustainment easier? Do we even consider that? Do we start a “project” thinking about it’s lifespan and how things might be different on launch than 2 years down the road? For our audience and for ourselves? Do we consider product roadmaps?


Product planning involves relentless focus on the customer – using tools like Customer Discovery – the product manager is always thinking about their customers and how to deliver their product to their customer segments. They often use techniques like the “Fuzzy Front End” – which is the conceptual idea stage of the product. Some also use the “Minimum Viable Product” methodology to test their design.

Lessons for L+D

This is analogous to our analysis phase, however do we ensure that we define our customer on every instructional product? Do we truly define the problem that our instructional product will solve? Are we focused on our customers? Do we understand that our customers and users are not the same?  Do we do an FFE? Could we adopt a Minimum Viable Product methodology?


Product managers know their competitors – who are yours? Who vies for your customer’s attention? They also scan the competitive landscape to determine what influences are happening: political, economic, social, and technological.

Lessons for L+D

What is going on in your “market” that you need to keep tabs on? Do you do any forecasting around external forces? Do we anticipate what our business/client is going to need in the future? Are we prepared to provide that?


Product managers of course spend a lot of time on producing their product. They use techniques like “design thinking”. Consider all of the things that are designed: teapots, cars, solar panels, chainsaws, electric cars, stand up desks (and a bazillion other things). Take the lowly door. Even doors can be designed in a way that’s right or wrong. A door that isn’t designed well is a “Norman Door”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yY96hTb8WgI

Lessons for L+D

Do we approach design in the same way? Do we look at the overall process of design from all angles: http://alistapart.com/article/design-for-real-life-excerpt. Can we resist the pressure to just jump in and start building? Do you have “safeguards” in place so you don’t build a “Norman Course”.


There’s been variations on the “Marketing Mix“, or the “P’s” of marketing – product, price, promotion, place, (and in some instances, 5 P’s, adding profit) and more variation for service businesses (adding physical evidence, people and process to the mix) and even more for more “digital products” for decades. However you think about it, product managers use a model for marketing their products.

Lessons for L+D

Could we use some of  the “P’s” for our instructional products or adapt them to instructional products?

We’d love to know what you think. What CAN we in L+D learn from product management? Come and join us on April 7th to share your ideas, insights, questions, challenges and concerns.

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