Moving at the Speed of Demand

A look into healthcare product management in the time of Coronavirus

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a product manager for a leading healthcare provider and insurer in the middle of a world health pandemic?

Claire Marcus, Product Manager UPMC Anywhere CareMeet Claire Marcus, senior product manager at UPMC Health Plan. Claire is helping to manage a product that’s playing a critical role in Western Pennsylvania’s healthcare system.

UPMC AnywhereCare is a telehealth product that enables patients with non-emergency symptoms to use video to connect face-to-face with an online provider and receive diagnosis and a treatment plan if necessary. During the recent coronavirus pandemic, telehealth has seen a significant rise in demand as people seek medical care while following social distancing measures.

For Claire, this situation is a prime example of a product manager’s need to respond to market demand quickly and effectively. “Our entire department is reorienting around how we support telehealth. A month ago, we were saying ‘wouldn’t it be great to do this in the next couple of years,’ and then COVID happened and our focus shifted to how do we do this right now.”

UPMC’s ability to respond quickly to market demands boils down to how its teams are aligned with its enterprise-level strategies – a primary focus of Claire’s role. Unlike traditional product managers, Claire is less involved with the technical aspects of product management. Instead, she ensures that other product managers and UX designers are all working towards the same business objectives. She says, “I’m really more of the businessperson within the department.”

Her day-to-day is often spent communicating with stakeholders outside of her team. For example, a VP of member service may raise a product issue, which Claire may investigate through a service blueprint or product analysis. Her goal is to understand the business implications of a given problem and the potential solutions’ cost-benefit analysis. Armed with this knowledge, she is better positioned to collaborate with product managers regarding where a given solution or feature may fit into the product roadmap, if at all.

Aligning product decisions with the business strategy is critical for long-term success of the product. In some settings, this role is assumed by the product manager who is managing the technical aspects of the product. In other cases, the role is more distributed. Sometimes, senior product managers, like Claire, help bridge the gap between product management and business strategy.

In a recent survey conducted by the 280 Group, more than 61 percent of respondents indicated that product managers in their companies are viewed as leaders. However, more than 57 percent also said that product managers are too tactical and not able to act as strategic leaders.

Claire’s take on this challenge is related to how product managers — especially those with technical backgrounds — communicate about their products. “What I’ve observed is that it’s easy for product managers to get really focused on technical issues and struggle to talk about their product in layman’s terms.”

This may hinder their ability to connect with the members of the C-suite who may not have technical knowledge. Instead, she recommends product managers practice speaking about their product in simple terms. She recommends asking yourself, “how would I talk about this product to my mom?”

Another challenge Claire sees in product management is developing the ability to look beyond the product. Good product managers are very tuned into the needs of their users, but they must also balance this with an understanding of how their product fits within the larger business ecosystem. For Claire, this is an area where product managers need to make a conscious effort in order to make a difference in the bigger picture of an organization. “Have regular meetings with people outside of your department and make sure that you’re maintaining that visibility into what everybody is working on and where the business is moving.”

From marketer to product management leader

Claire credits her knack for product strategy to her diverse experience in marketing. To her, product strategy and marketing are very alike. “Marketers have a deep and nuanced understanding of their market and are able to identify opportunities — see the white space — and think about how to differentiate and position their products. Also, marketers negotiate with multiple stakeholders from sales to operations, to supply chain and finance. It is a huge collaborative process. I would say it has been exactly the same with product management.”

However, the downside of a marketing background within an inherently technical profession is that it requires some adjustment. One thing Claire wished she knew before her first day on the job is the Scaled Agile Framework. After joining UPMC, her entire department launched into a scaled agile transformation reorganizing everything around the SAFe framework.

The future of product management

For those who are thinking about entering the field and may be wondering where product management is going, Claire advises looking at their consumer behavior trends and consumption patterns. “The transition that’s been happening for many years towards personalization, seamless delivery and the omni-channel experience is pervasive across all industries. Product managers need to be aware of how people expect to consume digital products.”

When asked what advice she’d give to aspiring product managers, Claire stresses the importance of understanding the business. “If you understand your business, then you will always figure out how to manage your product.”

She also adds that because product management is a very collaborative effort, it can be challenging to maintain ownership of the product among a slew of vocal stakeholders.

“Be the product owner. Make sure that everybody knows that you own the product. You should have a voice in every decision that’s made. Even if you’re overruled, at least you have a seat at the table and people understand what your position is.”

For aspiring product managers

Carnegie Mellon University’s top-ranked Tepper School of Business and School of Computer Science have partnered to create a master’s In product management degree. This 12-month program is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on building better product managers. Learn more here.