Product Bugle 24/6: How to bake the perfect product strategy
In which I borrow lots of great thinking to come up with a handy guide. Oh, and some TV and Music and Book tips
The perfect product strategy: a recipe
I’ve seen lots of great product managers stumble a bit when they are suddenly called on to come up with a product strategy. Day-in day-out they are knocking it out the park; but suddenly they’re asked to ‘be strategic’ and they turn into Bambi on ice.
They might go way too high level; or just show a slightly dressed up roadmap. Often s what they come up with is perfectly OK, but a bit uninspiring. And, in honesty, I’ve been guilty on all three fronts at various times.
I’m a huge fan of Felicity Cloake, the Guardian Cookery writer who does ‘How to make the perfect…’ in which she looks at a number of different recipes from different chefs for, say, chocolate sorbet and works out what works before putting together her own recipe. So shamelessly stealing that format; here is a knitted together guide to putting together a product strategy based around some of the better things I’ve read out there.
What is a strategy anyway?
In Richard Rumelt’s excellent Good Strategy, Bad Strategy , he says…
‘Strategy’ should mean a cohesive response to an important challenge…a strategy is a set of analyses, concepts, policies, arguments and actions that respond to a high stakes challenge….
.. defining strategy as broad concepts, thereby leaving out action, creates a wide chasm between ‘strategy’ and ‘implementation’. If you accept this chasm, most strategy work becomes wheel spinning.
The point is - it’s not just some high level statement of good intentions, it’s both grounded in analysis and insight - and results in action and activity.
So when you’re strategy is done people are going to know what needs to be built next; and why; and how success will be measured.
So what does a product strategy look like?
I think this summary of the three components of a product strategy from Jackie Bavaro on Lenny’s podcast is simple and well worth shamelessly appropriating.
Your vision - inspiring picture of what the future looks like
Strategic framework - what market you’re going after; what success looks like; ‘here are our big bets on what we think it takes to win that market.’ ‘Your unique way of breaking down the problem’.
The roadmap - where you work back from your vision to check if its feasible.
Matt LeMay makes the insanely sensible suggestion that if you’re asked to do a product strategy - the first thing you should do is ask whoever asked you for an example of one that was done well before. Do that. But don’t be limited by it; or feel there’s a form you can just fill in. It’s important you undertand what’s going on underneath as well as the format of the actual output.
The vision thing
Sometimes the vision can just literally that - something visual - an idea that gets everyone exciting; or just a single sentence ‘sizzle’.
Other times it’s a little richer. Roman Picher’s Product Vision board is at the more comprehensive end of things and starts to bump into the ‘strategic framework’ that’s mentioned above.
But if you want to go beyond the single sentence sizzle. you’re looking for a classic ‘one slide’ overview - this is a pretty good place to start.
One thing here is whether your vision should be time-bound. IE: We’re going to put a man on the moon within five years. Which becomes very relevant when you’re looking at the possible roadmap at the end of this.
Building up ‘the strategic framework’
This is really the meat of it - effectively where you’re going to play; and how you plan to win. In powerpoint - this will 90% of the time manifest itself as a set of three to five ‘pillars’ which you then go into specifics on.
But what should those pillars be? Gibson Biddle - and I’ve pointed before to his essay on Product Strategy - but you can just read the summary .
His mantra, learned from the lap of Reed Hastings, is ‘DHM’ - Delight Customers in Hard to Copy , Margin Enhancing ways.
If you listen to Gibson speak (and he’s just done another of Lenny’s Podcasts..) he gives examples of looking at things that might be exciting, but aren’t margin enhancing; or will only appeal to 2% of customers, or are too easy to copy. In other words - there’s a fair bit of insight and analysis - and yes, discovery, needed before you really get strong on where you’re going to play. Challenge yourself. Go beyond the obvious.
In his examples though he tends to have single words like ‘Personalisation’ - whereas here, I’d personally prefer to be talking about Outcomes here - something a bit more specific that captures your particular approach.
Getting specific - what are you going to build?
Next you’re really starting to look at what you’re going to build; and how you’re going to measure it.
Gib Biddle then builds up a grid of ‘strategy’ / ‘metrics’/ ‘tactics’ . Which is strong - and definitely something worth using.
You could at this point also skim Teresa Torres’ Continuous Discovery Habits - and her Opportunity > Solution tree. Where within each outcome, potential ways of meeting a customer’s needs; or desires or removing their pain - is a potential Opportunity - and each opportunity in turn has number of sub-opportunities and ‘solutions’.
Whichever model you go with, you need to make sure that youre solutions or tactics include removing blockers that lie in your way such as constraints due to technical / platform capabilities. The point is, if you know there are challenges - you need to be clear about how you’re going to tackle them.
So however you tackle it - the approach is the same..
you’re breaking your initial vision into 3 - 5 broad pieces
you’re using insight and discovery to guide you making sure you’re building something of sustainable value
within that you’re then looking at the concrete things which you are going to build; and and/or test in order to succeed and how you’re going to measure it.
Bringing it to life: the roadmap
Gibson Biddle drops everything into a rolling quarterly roadmap; with each ‘strategy’ as a swimlane. Which isn’t a million miles from this from Product Roadmaps Relaunched, which is a grid against outcomes and provides a perfectly usable template.
However, Jackie Bavaro stresses that the real purpose of a roadmap in a strategic initaitive is to validate that you an achieve your vision in time. You effectively work back. Ie - she asks ‘If we’re going to be there in x years - where do we need to be in x months…?..If we want to achieve that vision in three years, we need to tackle that big thing now.’
I like this. It turns the idea of a roadmap into a real test of your strategy’s credibility for you. Even if you won’t want to be super precise about things years out - you can at least use it to ensure you’re doing the most important work first. Which goes back to my essay last week - about thinking big, and starting smart…
The special ingredient: YOU
In an essay this week on characteristics of a good product strategist, John Utz lists these
Superb Story Teller.
Sky Diver. (A big picture thinker able to dive from the clouds to the ground)
Really these break into three things 1) how you see things - your mix of stepping back to see the big picture; but also getting stuck into the detail when needed; 2) how you communicate; 3) how you collaborate and bring people with you.
A lot of these points are actually in Matt LeMay’s Product Management In Practice - although I talked way too much about that last week.
The point is - you can bend or break any of the frameworks or guidelines above; but you need to go about this in the right way if you want to be successful. I would also steal some of Matt’s principles such as One Page One Hour and ‘Avoiding the Big Reveal’ - to ensure you’re sharing work early and often to get feedback.
I hope that was vaguely useful. If not - give me a shout!
Watching and listening this week..
TV: A mix of Love Island and good weather means I haven’t been watching to much TV this week, but I managed to squeeze in the S2 finale of Tehran on Apple TV+. I’d been getting a bit annoyed with the endless 24-style tension and release (oh no…a seemingly unescapable situation…phew a lucky escape…oh look everything’s going well…oh no it isn’t!). But, last week was a bit of a cracker with just the right mix of resolution and open threads paving the way for Season 3 (I assume). If you haven’t watched it - you should. Now, I’m getting into For All Mankind.
Music: I’ve been having the Spotify ‘Beats to Think To’ playlist on constantly. Im sure the whole thing has been created by AI (including the artist and track names). Or it’s actually a massive data training set so that some future AI can work out how to create interesting but unoffensive techno wallpaper.
Podcast: Two of my mini-heros Martyn Ware and Lloyd Cole in conversation is a bit of a treat. I’m looking forward to Martyn’s forthcoming autobiography: Electronically Yours.
Audiobook: I finished Jennifer Egan’s Candy House - which was so cool, and so clever, but somehow slightly unsatisfying.
Gig of the week: Elvis Costello in Hammersmith
A bit shaky at the start; and lost me in the middle - but made up for it with half an hour of hits at the end..
Next week: Web3 - where now?
McKinsey is telling us the metaverse is going to be worth $5 trillion by 2030. With crypto crashes and some high profile NFT’s perhaps not quite worth the millions they were a few months ago, what’s happening now…and next.