Upstream and Downstream Product Management

Product Managers Handbook

The Product Manager’s Handbook by Linda Gorchels

Upstream product management focuses on roadmaps, innovation, and the “fuzzy front end”. Downstream product management contributes on-going lifecycle management and product growth.

The role of a product manager

The Product Manager’s Handbook by Linda Gorchels covers planning and execution phases of the product development lifecycle. Gorchels also includes a set of competencies for the product management role and some planning frameworks.

The book contains interviews with a variety of product leaders and a set of recommendations for career success. The role of the product manager is described through various lenses including a “day in the life of” perspective.

Gorchels presents two views of product management in the book: upstream and downstream. Although a single individual may play in both domains, the two roles have different areas of emphasis.

Upstream product management

Upstream product management includes developing roadmaps for various audiences and at different levels of details; creating relationships with customers, suppliers, and industry leaders; and getting business sign off for new initiatives. Managing new product development through the concept-to-commercialization cycle is also within the realm of upstream product management.

Even though the future is unknowable and long-term plans may become obsolete, the process of planning is valuable when it forces product managers to examine the context of their decisions.


At the simplest level, road maps are time-based charts linking knowledge about markets, technology, and business strategy. While the concept is fairly straightforward, its application is not.

The process of creating a roadmap is more important than the end deliverable, which, inevitably, will need to be revised frequently due to changing priorities and as new information comes to light during development. The value lies in synthesizing customer and market data, prioritizing, and projecting current capabilities into future scenarios. Although roadmaps are based on many assumptions that will quickly change, the conversation and discovery elements of the activity are important.

Roadmaps have many uses and audiences. High level roadmaps can illustrate technology and strategic product direction while product- and feature-based roadmaps showcase delivery of new functions and capabilities. Engineering teams, product marketing, customers, and partners all have different needs and bring different perspectives to roadmap conversations. Tailoring the deliverable to the audience creates several avenues of conversation that expand the overall product strategy.

An important element of successful roadmapping is inclusion of suppliers, partners, and external experts. People who are involved in the industry and market will have valuable perspectives and new ideas for what is occurring at the edges of the domain. This fresh set of ideas will inform the roadmap and decrease the chances of being caught flat-footed by customers and competitors. Staying within the building limits a product manager’s ability to see beyond current constraints and context.


Product managers must ask themselves: How will the customers of tomorrow be different from the customers of today?

The emphasis is not on projecting the present into the future. Rather, the emphasis is on trying to understand how the future will be different from the present and the impact this will have on present planning.

Innovations should be considered in three time horizons: Core growth, Adjacency growth, and Breakthrough growth. Core growth operates in the zone of existing and similar customers along with repositioned and derivate products. Adjacency growth is achieved through tangential markets with platform and new-to-the-company products. Breakthrough growth delivers new-to-the-world products to unfamiliar markets. The level of risk and skills required for each horizon are very different. Product managers may not be equally strong across the entire spectrum, but ability to situate products and initiatives is a required skill.

When planning new product initiatives it is critical to take stock of lessons learned and debrief with the team on past successes and opportunities for improvement. Comparing successful product launches with unsuccessful ones can decrease risk and help pinpoint repeatable winning choices.

Downstream product management

Downstream product management involves reinforcing and protecting sales performance of core and secondary products, renewing and revitalizing declining products, relaunching and resurrecting select products, and retiring failing and mature products. Identifying where a product lies in the overall lifecycle and choosing the appropriate strategy are core downstream activities.

Categorizing and evaluating performance

Product managers reduce risk by having portfolios of new and old products.

Portfolio planning and evaluating your product offerings against competitors for gaps is a great way to identify new opportunities. There are number of ways to categorize a portfolio: the Pareto Principle, the Boston Consulting Group’s famous matrix, or a reinforce / renew / relaunch / retire lifecycle framework. Products should be reinforced when they are contributing heavily to profits, have high brand value, are a solid strategic fit and are growing in the market. Renewals are in order when profit contribution, brand value, strategic fit, and growth are all ranked as having high potential. In that case, additional investment can pay off by moving the product into a higher performing level. Re-launching is a good choice when a product needs to be re-aligned or re-introduced in the market in order to appeal to a different or new segment. Retiring a product should be done at the end of its useful lifecycle when all attributes are in decline and there are other more lucrative opportunities in the wings.

For product performance, use a leadership vs usability matrix. Compare products which are easy to use and perceived as leaders with those that are ranked low on usability and leadership perception. Identify gaps and evaluate whether additional investment is warranted. Some lower performing products may be moved along the spectrum with targeted investment, while others may require too much time and money to become competitive. Individual product attributes such as price, usability, technical support, compatibility, and specific features can be mapped relative to competition and user importance to determine which provide the highest leverage for improving overall product viability in the market.

Go To Market

 Viewing the product as addressing customer needs rather than as a bundle of features is paramount

Turn the traditional internal seven P’s (product, price, promotion, place, position, people, proficiency) into an externally focused seven C’s (customer, cost, conversation, convenience, clarity, customer service, confidence). Relentless focus on the problem the customer is trying to solve and the goals behind that problem allow you to take the customer’s perspective and accomplish the shift from an internal perspective into an external one.

Product managers should reframe their perspectives from creating and selling products to helping customers make buying decisions.

Understanding what is important to your customers and the context for their decisions will increase marketing and sales effectiveness. Asking detailed questions about the motivating factors for a purchase, timing, objections, use of current solutions, alternatives, and sources of information used will help you position your product and support engaging conversations with your customers. Looking at the product and customer from a variety of angles will give the you the perspective you need for effectively communicating. Outbound marketing teams can take these insights from the product team to connect with potential customers and orient themselves to the customer’s life.


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