If software is eating the world, fueled by data, then the product manager defines its course with a product strategy. But what is a great product strategy, really?
After having spent years building products, and recently led the buildup of one of the largest product & tech organizations in Norway, people often ask me what product management is and what defines a great product strategy.
Here is my beta-attempt to give clarity to the ambiguous case of product strategy. I know it has flaws and would love your input on how to improve it!
- Without a product strategy, you’re not really a product manager. The product strategy is the PM’s backbone in fulfilling her responsibility: Define vision & strategy, prioritize, communicate, create alignment, drive executing with impact, and make sure you have a winning team.
- A great product strategy tells the full story of why, what and how: It explains why your product matters, what you aim to accomplish and how you will do it. That’s it.
1. Why your product matters
- Understand the problems before trying to solve them: Express a profound understanding of the situation and its complications. Reduce to a handful of fundamental challenges / opportunities.
- Address challenges worth solving: Be ruthless about focusing only on problems where a solution is really desired, you build on your unique strengths, and you foresee viable long term growth.
- Do your analysis well. Conduct your user research, data analysis, market and competitor analysis, business modeling, assessment of technology shifts, map out your strengths and weaknesses. Build your PM toolbox with frameworks and models to simplify complex matters. Be a sponge.
2. What you aim to accomplish
- Focus on doing one thing really well: Do less, then obsess. Say no. Stay true to your core reason for being, and strike the right balance on core, adjacent and transformational innovation.
- Create an inspiring vision everyone remembers: Push everyone to think big about the problems you solve, show how it creates value for people, give focus and guide the team in decision-making.
- Park hypothetical battles in the future: Reduce the cognitive load of your team by parking potential future matters in the future. Distinguish what matters now from what’s coming up next, and beyond that.
- Set a goal for the next big win: Stretch your team towards an inspiring long-term goal (let “long-term” match your maturity— e.g. 6 months, 1 year, 3 years or more). A goal codifying a clear step towards your vision.
3. How you will do it
- Set product principles for rapid decision-making: You don’t know up front what’s right to do. Instead, enable your team to make priorities and decisions at high speed as it moves. Clear principles helps.
- Detail the problem scope: Bring clarity to what’s in scope within your current horizon, e.g. by drawing up the product system at hand and define key problems to solve. Show clearly what’s out of scope.
- Set key metrics: Enable your team to know if they are on track and have relevant impact / create value, or need to pivot. Hold yourself and your team accountable for actual impact. Let metrics guide your next steps.
- Articulate the results you aim for: Define the near-term results you aim for (e.g. next month or quarter) — that brings you closer to your long-term goal. OKRs work well. Care about impact and value creation, not delivery.
- Clear the path for an autonomous team: Ensure you have a team that can deliver value end-to-end towards its users. For any dependency on other teams, function (e.g. sales, marketing, legal) or external parties, do what you need to remove bottlenecks and ensure smooth operation.
- Pay your debt and run wisely: Strike the right balance on building for the future and paying off your debt, and sprinting vs. running marathon. Set expectations up front.
What else defines a great product strategy?
- It is mindful of all aspects: The product strategy cuts through your entire operation, and should be the result of a well orchestrated collaboration between design, technology, data and business.
- It only exists if people know it: People must know the strategy for it to happen, so the impact of the product strategy is only as great as the PM’s communication skills. No matter what five people I ask what you’re building and why, I should get one answer.
- It should be a chameleon: Depending on the audience and context, the product strategy should take many forms. Everything from the short, long-term and inspiring version to the long, near-term and detailed version.
- It’s worthless without execution: This is where the strategy comes to life, and where strategy is translated into tactics and task with actual results. Make sure execution is a clear reflection of the strategy.
- It adjusts for learning: A great product team is driven by new learning about its users, product and surroundings. Reflect this in future ambitions and path forward. If learning makes you deviate from your strategy, rethink the strategy and circle back to the why and what.
- It’s revised systematically: Capture learning continuously. Revise your metrics daily. Adjust tactics at least weekly. Revise performance at least monthly. Set new key results at least quarterly. Do a thorough revision of the entire strategy at least once a year. Communicate it always.
… speaking of communication
- Remember that an emotional buy-in beats the rational one any day. Have your facts straight, but win the heart.
- Make the problem definition relatable. Either directly, by proxy (one reason why personas are still relevant) or with good examples.
- Visualize your vision and solution so people can “touch it”. There is a reason why you’ll find concept videos floating around.
- Output, like a release, is tangible and easy to communicate. However, learning and impact is what matters. Focus on the latter.
- Know your audience and tailor your message to it — just like you should be obsessed with knowing your user and tailoring the product for her.
- Writing is a good way to create your strategy — allowing you to stay focused on the content. Visualize it when you tell it.
- Practice (a lot), make sure you get quality feedback and update it.
I hope you found this useful. If you have good recommendations on improvements or further reading, please share. We’re all learning.