The Importance of Product Strategy
Without Vision and Strategy, Everything is Tactics
Having a good product vision and strategy is critical to building and shipping good products, and staying viable as an organization.
But it is incredibly difficult to do.
That’s probably why most companies and product organizations don’t have one. And why many product teams and leaders fail when creating one.
Want to listen to the podcast version of this newsletter? Check it out above.
A product vision is the reason for your product’s existence. Why are you creating it? What problem does it solve? What do you want to be as a product or company?
The product vision ties directly to the company mission, and is inspirational and long-term focused. It’s a north star for our product and teams. Which is why it can be so difficult.
A good vision is the story we tell about our product and even company. You have to get buy-in both from the leaders of an organization down to the teams and individuals doing the work.
The product strategy is how you’re going to achieve the product vision. It’s the high-level plan of what you’ll focus on (and what you won’t) in order to solve the problem[s] your product addresses and how you’ll do it.
A good product strategy helps your team and organization clearly focus on what is important and prioritize accordingly. As Steve Jobs said:
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.
Having a good vision and strategy allows us to “pick carefully” and say no to the good things that may not align with where we’re going.
If you haven’t failed at creating and generating support for a vision and strategy, are you really a product leader?
It is incredibly difficult to do. Even with the most well thought-out vision and strategy, you will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get others to understand and buy into the direction.
Often you will fail. I know I’ve failed many times. Not for a lack of an excellent strategy or amazing ideas. But because every strategy is about focusing on a few key things, and saying no to many other good things.
The “saying no” part is tough for many. We all have plenty of good ideas. And our businesses often have many excellent opportunities. Whether it’s new markets and new customers, or the next big deal, we want to say yes to everything.
Change is also difficult. A product strategy involves change. It may be a new direction for the product or company, or it may simply mean saying “no” where we are accustomed to say “yes”.
The Absence of Strategy
In the absence of a coherent and compelling vision and strategy, everything becomes tactics and execution.
The product strategy guides us to what we’re doing now and long-term. It aligns everyone around shared goals and purpose, and how we are going to get there. Without it, all we’re left with is tactical decisions and executing.
The problem with only focusing on tactics is that we aren’t going in any clear direction. We may get thrashed around by the winds of opportunity, wherever the next good idea or good deal comes from.
I’ve been a part of this and seen it happen many times.
At one company I worked with, we couldn’t get a few executives to buy into the product vision and strategy. So the product organization was constantly lurching from one sales request to the next, chasing the new deals as they presented themselves. It made for a tangled mess of products and eventually to failure of the company.
At another organization, we went through multiple iterations of our product vision and strategy. But struggled to get others to adopt the direction, and so were forced to continually focus on short-term tactics and execution.
This isn’t uncommon, and most organizations struggle with this to one degree or another. It is incredibly difficult.
So what can we do?
As product people, both leaders and individual contributors, we have options. It may feel like we’re getting nowhere, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t persevere to create a compelling direction for our products.
Create it and don’t shut up about it
Often, it just takes creating a strategy and talking about it every chance you get. Eventually, other people will internalize the message. You know you’re seeing success when other people use their words to describe the product vision and strategy you’ve been pitching.
But you won’t get there if you don’t create something and talk about it every chance you get. This goes for leaders and product managers. We have to create the vision and then sell it hard. No one (and I mean no one) will get it initially. That’s why we have to constantly work at pushing it, getting feedback, and making it happen.
Top-down and bottom up
To sell the vision and strategy, you have to work both top-down and bottom-up.
If you can get a few key leaders or executives to help champion the product strategy, they can help others understand it as well. You’ll never reach a consensus or get everyone fully on board, but you need some key leaders to help.
You also need the teams executing to understand and buy-in to the direction. This is often easier, because those of us doing the actual work want a clear direction and strategy, and rarely care if the executive and leaders are still debating. So get support and feedback from product development teams and get working.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is just get started. You don’t have to get approval to make things happen (well, maybe sometimes you do, but it’s almost always better to ask for forgiveness than permission).
If you’ve got the product development teams on board, you can get to work. Maybe you won’t have the budget for big initiatives, but with a clear vision and strategy, you can say “yes” to the right things and “no” to the wrong things. And even if this causes debate, these are good debates to have with our organizations so we can clearly prioritize.
Use data and feedback
Once you’ve made progress, use the data, both quantitative and qualitative, to verify and justify your vision and strategy. Or pivot as necessary. The reason you’re creating features is to drive the strategy forward. And the strategy fulfills the vision you have for your product and company. So how have you done? What needs to change? What should continue?
Use data and user conversations to continually influence and adjust your approach, and also to help other understand the vision and strategy to get continual support.
Creating a product vision and strategy is critical. Without them, you will only focus on the short-term decisions that don’t have any clear long-term path. It’s easy to get caught in tactical execution, especially when you just have to get something done or shipped for a sales deal or a customer contract. But understanding how all the things we’re doing drive our ultimate goal of becoming a specific product or company will allow us to prioritize the right things and say no to everything else.
Other Good Links
To Be Energy-Efficient, Brains Predict Their Perceptions (article) - A really fascinating read that helps us better understand our brains and how we may be biased in certain ways.
“Consequently, many neuroscientists are pivoting to a view of the brain as a “prediction machine.” Through predictive processing, the brain uses its prior knowledge of the world to make inferences or generate hypotheses about the causes of incoming sensory information. Those hypotheses — and not the sensory inputs themselves — give rise to perceptions in our mind’s eye. The more ambiguous the input, the greater the reliance on prior knowledge.”
The 21st century doesn’t belong to China, the United States, or Silicon Valley. It belongs to the internet (article) - I enjoyed this article. I don’t things will play out exactly like this (and I definitely don’t want to be a currency trader), but directionally I agree with it.
“We do not argue that states are irrelevant; rather, they will be more relevant if they embrace the arrow of history and work with the network and less relevant if they attempt rearguard actions against it. Such is the nature of great protocol politics.”
The Top 5 Christmas Movies: A Definitive List (podcast) - We had a lot of fun recording this podcast, and giving you the definitive list of the best (and worst) Christmas movies. We watch so many Christmas movies each year, but always come back to these.