Ultimately, empowered product teams are all about giving teams hard problems to solve, and then giving them the space to solve them. 

But, how do we decide which problems they should solve? 

Answering that question is what product strategy is all about.

Remarkably, most product organizations I meet don’t even have a product strategy. 

They have no shortage of features and projects being worked on, and everything they are building is being built for a reason, but as you’ll see, they have no product strategy.

If you’ve never seen this great South Park clip on the Underpants Business, I’d encourage you to pause for a minute and take a look (if you’re watching this at work, you may want to make sure the volume is not too loud).

Seriously, this really is what I see in so many of the companies I visit.  They have product teams that are more accurately feature teams, and they’re slaving away, pounding out features all day, but rarely getting closer to their desired outcomes.

This results in two things: first, there is a depressing amount of wasted effort (primarily due to their dependence on product roadmaps); and second, they are not putting enough concentrated brain power behind the most important things in order to achieve the results their company needs.

You may wonder how it is that so many companies don’t have a good product strategy.  I know I do:

“Not miscalculation, bad strategy is the active avoidance of the hard work of crafting a good strategy. One common reason for choosing avoidance is the pain or difficulty of choice. When leaders are unwilling or unable to make choices among competing values and parties, bad strategy is the consequence.” – Richard Rumelt in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

So, what even is product strategy, and why is it so important?

“Strategy” as a term is ambiguous as it exists at every level on just about everything – business strategy, funding strategy, growth strategy, sales strategy, discovery strategy, delivery strategy, go-to-market strategy…   

Whatever the goal is, your strategy is how you’re planning to go about accomplishing that goal.  Strategy doesn’t cover the details; those are the tactics we’ll use to achieve the goal. Strategy is the overall approach, and the rationale for that approach.

While there’s many forms of strategy, what I care about here is product strategy.  Which in short means: how do we make the product vision a reality, while meeting the needs of the company as we go?

So many of the companies I meet have a goal (like doubling revenue), and they have a product roadmap (the tactics), yet no product strategy to be found.

In terms of product teams, product strategy helps us decide what problems to solve; product discovery helps us figure out the tactics that can actually solve the problems; and product delivery builds that solution so we can bring it to market.

So why is product strategy so hard?

Because it requires four things that are not easy for most companies: 

  1. The first is to be willing to make tough choices on what’s really important; 
  2. The second involves generating, identifying and leveraging insights; 
  3. The third involves converting insights into action
  4. And the fourth involves active management without resorting to micro-management.

Choices means focus.  Deciding what few things you really need to do, and therefore all the things you won’t do.

But I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve gone into and they have on some wall or spreadsheet a list of literally 50 major objectives or initiatives they’re pursuing. 

And each product team complains to me that they really have no time to pursue their own team’s product work because they have obligations that cover more than 100% of their available time, not to mention all the “keeping the lights on” work, and dealing with tech-debt. 

Moreover, many of these 50 major objectives or initiatives are truly hard problems, and just getting a little time slice and no clear ownership from a dozen or so different product teams has virtually no chance of making any real impact.

So, focus comes from realizing that not everything we do is equally important or impactful, and we must choose which objectives truly are critical for the business.

While product strategy starts with focus, it then depends on insights.

And insights come from study and thought

These insights come from analyzing the data and from learning from our customers.  The insights might pertain to the dynamics of our business, our capabilities, new enabling technologies, the competitive landscape, how the market is evolving, or our customers.

Once we have decided what’s critically important (focus) and studied the landscape to identify the levers and opportunities (the insights), then we need to convert those insights into action.

In a company that’s serious about empowered product teams, this means deciding which objectives should be pursued by which product teams, and providing those teams with the strategic context necessary for them to solve the problems we need them to solve.

But we’re not done there because product strategy is never static. 

As product teams pursue their objectives, some make more progress than others, some need help or encounter major obstacles, some find they need to collaborate with other teams, some realize they’re missing key capabilities, or any of a hundred other possible situations.

Properly managing this activity requires smart, engaged leaders practicing servant-leadership.

I’ve been a student of product strategy for most of my career.  After decades of practice, I think I’m reasonably good at it. My favorite activity is still solving the hard problems (product discovery), but if I had to choose, I’d say product strategy is the more important skill, and certainly the more difficult.

In the coming articles, we’ll dive deeper into each of these elements of product strategy – focus, insights, actions and management – but the bottom line is that product strategy requires choice, thinking and effort.

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