Product Managers: What is your product strategy?

Strategy is fundamentally about trade-offs
Ask a Product Manager (PM) who has put together a product strategy and they will tell you that it's hard. In fact, even the best PMs sometimes struggle to create and articulate a clear product strategy, and almost no one gets it right the first time.

Why is strategy hard? 

The answer may lie in an insight from Michael Porter’s Dec 1996 Harvard Business Review article What is Strategy? in which Porter asks why so many organizations struggle with defining, explaining and acting on their strategies. Porter argues that strategy is fundamentally about making trade — offs and organizations struggle with this because of conflicting imperatives related to operational effectiveness and growth.

Although the modern view on some of the examples Porter uses in his article has shifted the essence of his argument remains true: good strategy requires making tough choices and organizations struggle with making these choices.

PMs are extensions of their broader organizations and oftentimes stewards of entire facets of the organization's overall strategy. As such their strategies can fall victim to the same problems that the organizations described in Porter's article face — the inability to make a tough call that will likely exclude what seems like an important customer group, vertical, product area, etc.

To test this argument think about the last time you heard someone struggle to explain their strategy, possibly a PM. You will likely recall a lack of focus on a particular problem space, customer or approach and may even remember sensing an underlying desire do everything all at once.

The best PMs however are first and foremost great at execution, that is getting the right things done at the right time. They do this because they deeply understand and are able to articulate what they will and won’t do because they see everything through the lens of their product strategy.

To be clear product strategies can and should change as new information becomes available but during any given period product trade-offs should be made through the lens of the prevailing product strategy at the time.

What to do if you are struggling with your product strategy

First ask yourself why. Is it because you really don’t know your strategy or is it because you’re just having a hard time making the trade — offs that your strategy requires. If the problem is the former take a step back and think about your long — term vision for your product and your company’s core values. Use these to articulate the underpinnings of your product strategy.

For example, would you rather deliver lower — cost services in a traditionally expensive market or provide a premium experience to all customers? Your reasons for choosing one strategic position over another will depend on several factors but it is important to arrive at a clear answer — your product decisions will differ based on your choice.

If you want to deliver lower — costs you’ll likely prioritize services and features that deliver operational efficiency. If you want to provide a premium — experience, you’ll focus on maximizing customer service in the most satisfying way for your customers. Moreover your answer will lead you to define substantially different metrics for measuring success and focus on equally different customer bases.

By having a clear answer you have also leveraged the single most important function of strategy: helping make trade-offs. To be sure, by aligning your organization to one of the above strategies you have made a choice to prioritize certain audiences, levels of investment, features and services over others.

As a PM you should rely on your company’s values, your product vision, data and constraints to ensure that you have defined and aligned on the proper strategy. Then use this strategy to guide all of your organization’s choices.

What if you are having trouble applying your strategy?

If you are having trouble applying your strategy to make trade — offs but are clear on what your strategy is, congratulations because you are ahead of the game. The most important thing to do in this circumstance is to understand why you’re having trouble applying your strategy.

Is it because you have too many stakeholders who have opposing priorities or is it because you yourself are having a hard time making trade-offs? In either case you need to fall back on your product strategy as the lens to guide your own and your organization’s thinking.

This will be uncomfortable at first and may even lead to tough conversations about why certain things are being done while others are not, but if you have a well — aligned product strategy and are using it to guide your decisions you’ll probably end up on the right side of these conversations.

A good litmus test to see whether you’re applying your strategy correctly is to look at your product backlog. If the work you’re doing is aligned to your product strategy you’re good, but if you have prioritized work that doesn’t clearly fit with your strategy you may have a problem that needs to be addressed — that is either your strategy or the application of your strategy needs to change.

Strategy is an art and like many things that get better with time your strategy will be stress — tested and refined as more decisions using your strategy are made and new information becomes available; your strategy may even change completely. Regardless your job as a PM is to steward your product strategy through all changes and ensure that your team is working on the right things at the right time.

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An older version of this article was originally published at my Medium Blog.