Looking At the Horizon

A chess board with a single chess tool

The last posts have been quite ‘hands on’ focused, so today I thought it’d be refreshing to raise our heads off the ground for a second and look at the horizon.

So, yeah, let’s talk a bit about the basics of product strategy planning and what it means to you.

Depending on your seniority & experience you may or may not have dealt with product strategy before. If you haven’t – that’s great because today we’ll cover the basics of that. If you have – then you probably know most of what about to write here, but I think it’d still be beneficial to skim through because you may find some bits of information that would still be useful for you.

What is Product Strategy?

Ok, so first things first – what is ‘product strategy’?

I did some Googling and from what I’ve found I liked the following definition the most:

A product strategy is a high-level plan describing what a business hopes to accomplish with its product, and how it plans to do so

(credit to: ProductPlan, see the post here)

Practically it means imagining the brightest future of your product, at least a year from now – and how you plan to accomplish that.

By the definition of ‘strategy’ it means looking beyond the immediate feature set you planned for the quarter or the one following it.

The future holds a lot of promise, but also a lot of risks. When planning your strategy you will need to consider changes in the market, customers habits, evolving needs and more. But we’ll get to it in a second.

When Should I Start Working on My Product Strategy?

Well… once you feel you got a good understanding of your product, your current stakeholders (internal & external) and the business you are in – it’s probably a good time to start thinking about the mid-long term strategy.

Now, if you are not very senior OR the product you were assigned to is not one of the main products of your company – it may be very likely that no one will ask you to work on your product strategy at all. I know many such cases.

If it’s indeed your reality, and if you feel depressed, neglected, disappointed, or any other negative feeling because of that, I think you are looking at it the wrong way. This is an opportunity! 

It’s time to wear your entrepreneur hat and grab the initiative.

After all, in such scenarios, no one is expecting anything of you in terms of strategy. So no need to ask for permission. Just go for it, and there is a very good chance that if you do your homework and put the effort – you’ll probably come up with a decent strategy for your product.

If one of my subordinates would have done that – I’d be highly impressed. Hence, I believe that you will manage to get the blessing of your superiors when it’s time to present it to them.

Do All the Products Require a Strategy?

Generally speaking – when asking if something applies to ‘all’ or ‘everything’ – the answer is almost always ‘no’. Therefore, this question is a bit unfair. Let me rephrase it to something that makes more sense:

Do Most Products Will Benefit from Having a Product Strategy?

Yes.

Strategy is the first step towards a roadmap. No strategy? No roadmap OR a lame roadmap that doesn’t make much sense.

It doesn’t matter much if the product you are responsible for is big or small. Without a strategy in place – you’ll put most of your energy into either turning off ‘fires’, or working on features that were asked by others and will be prioritized according to who is making most of the noise or who is ‘stronger’ (higher in the hierarchy or big customers).

“And what’s wrong with that? I’m serving the strongest stakeholders per their requests. Isn’t it why we are here?”

A fair question, and I understand why it may seem to be the right way to manage your priorities at first glance. However, working in such a mode forces you to be reactive to reality rather than creative. You are not really managing the product, but rather the product is managing you and eventually your role will become focusing solely on translating the customers requirements to specs the R&D can work with. 

Products that are developed in such a way, with no strategy in place, tend to grow with features that serve only a very specific segment of your customers, while the others will become neglected. Very often – this will not lead you to where the company wants to be in terms of market or whatever success KPI they have defined.

It will certainly not reveal the full potential of your product, so I strongly advise against this kind of approach.

Ok, you got me convinced – where do I start?

You start by opening your ears and your eyes and start looking around you. There are few things you *must* be on top of before seriously starting to think about your product strategy:

  1. Know your business you are in: 
    1. Value proposition of the main products 
    2. The business model
    3. Identifying all internal and external stakeholders with emphasis on the customers
    4. The general go to market strategy of your company
    5. The competitive landscape
    6. How your company measures success
    7. The stage and the ‘health’ of the business (is it cash-flow positive, has it raised funding, ARR, customers churn and more…)
  2. How does the leadership or your superiors see your product and what were their original plans for it?
  3. How does the market currently interpret your product and use it?

 

That may sound like I gave you a lot of homework, and you know what – you are right… 🙂

But you know something else? Without being deep in the details of the above – there is a reasonable chance the strategy you will come up with won’t be good enough to lead your product to success. 

For example – without knowing the competitive landscape – you may decide to take your product on a path which has already been tried & failed by your competition.

Without understanding how the leadership sees your product and how the company measures its success – you may come up with a plan that is not in line with your leadership definition of success and hence raise a lot of objections.

And I can easily come up with tons of other examples, but I guess you got the drift.

Cool. So fast forwarding into the future – you did your homework and believe you have enough understanding of the above. Now what? How a strategy is formed up from here?

The next step is to understand what is the gap from where your product is now to where it should be if you are to meet the company’s vision for success in the next 2-3 years.

Usually a company will define its success by obtaining or maintaining a market leadership. Sometimes it will be around the amount of revenues or traction. Whatever it is – you need to ask yourself how can your product’s success be aligned and contribute to the company’s success.

For example – let’s say your company sells a service to another business (e.g. – a classic B2B business). You are not in charge of the main product, but rather you are in charge of the reporting and the analytical dashboards to the customers.

You may wonder, at first, what impact can you possibly have on the success of the company by owning merely the reporting aspects of the business. But then, because you learned the competitive landscape, you noticed that the customers’ reviews of the competing products point towards a confusing reporting, or lack of insights (or something else). This is reinforced by interviewing your own customers and focusing on their reporting needs.

You then understand that by focusing on ‘business insights’, for example, and integrating them into the dashboard – you may actually provide a competitive edge to your company. Amazing! This is a great hint that may become the cornerstone of your strategy once validated.

Stay open minded and gather as many such ‘hints’ as you can. Don’t fall in love with just one option. You should have several options to choose from so you evaluate them against each other and against the reality.

Ok, I have some initial ideas to play with. What’s next?

Now it’s the time to define your checklist as for how you would like to validate each of your options.

If we continue with the example above – then let’s say you have several options in your disposal:

  1. A strategy that focuses on providing business insights in addition to the reporting
  2. A strategy that focuses on enriching the reporting with drill down views and strong exporting options of the data
  3. A strategy that focuses on UX and UI overhaul of the dashboards in order to make them more intuitive and efficient

 

Now define a checklist you would to execute for each of these options so you can rank them.

In future posts we’ll go deeper into several aspects of how to evaluate a strategy, but for now – here are some ideas of what the checklist should include:

  1. How does this option strengthen the main company’s KPIs if implemented?
  2. How strong is the competitive edge provided by this option?
  3. How qualified is the team you have to build what you want, and if not – what are your chances to obtain the resources you need? (for example – the business insights above may require some data scientists to be allocated to your team)
  4. How strong are your signals that the customers really need this?
  5. How strong this option contributes to the defensibility of your business?

And there are many other options you can check against. Since you don’t have all the time in the world – I suggest focusing on at most 6 bullets to check against and to use for filtering.

At the end of the day – you need to be convinced that the market needs it (or will need it a year or two from now), you can actually build it and that it will greatly and positively affect the company’s KPIs.

Once you have your winner – it’s time to draft your strategy.

Drafting Your Strategy and Presenting It

Recall that a strategy is not about having a specific feature, but rather about the new value your product will provide to your customers a year or more from now. And by the way – the strategy you will outline may state that the customers of the future should be different than the customers of today (e.g. – addressing a new market). 

So in essence – the strategy should define:

  1. What is the (new) value your product will provide in the future
  2. Who will it provide it to
  3. What’s the way to get there and what’s the timeframe

 

Again, continuing the example above – you may come to the conclusion that the business insights is the most promising venue. So a very initial and simplistic draft of such a strategy would be something in the spirit of:


The reporting tool needs to be evolved to provide business insights as well in the form of [provide about 3 solid examples here]. According to my research, such insights are exactly what the customers are craving for and may actually be the decision point of whether to choose our product or not. Looking into the future, for our market and the current trends – customers will most likely grow to expect such capabilities from any reporting tool so we better start focusing on it right away.

It seems to be possible to deliver the first meaningful package of business insights within the next 18 months assuming we reinforce the team with 1-2 data scientists and a product analyst.


The above is, of course, just the pitch, but it encompasses the essentials.

I guess you know the drill from here – make a nice short presentation, which includes a competitive landscape, your signals from the customers, the market trends, and your assumptions (yes, those are assumptions that need to be validated) and the potential impact for the company.

Present it to your boss or to the company’s management, depending on the size of your organization and your seniority.

They may like it and that’s great, but they also may not like it.

If the latter is the case – make sure you listen carefully to their feedback. Where is the resistance?

If you did your homework poorly – then the listener may dismiss your strategy by pointing out to an important data point you’ve missed. You will need to fix that and revise.

However, if you did your homework properly – then the resistance should focus around your assumptions. That is fine, so don’t be discouraged by that. Assumptions are assumptions and we’ve already discussed them in the past here. Different people can assume different things.

If that’s the case you should simply ask for the time and resources to prove your assumptions. If you showed seriousness so far – there is a very good chance you’ll be granted to explore those.

In any case – if your strategy is ‘pending approval’ – you should ask your superiors what should be the guidelines for prioritizing the work in the meanwhile, because, as mentioned – you would like to avoid working on random features, but rather have some strategy in place, even if it’s not yours.

But if you do manage to get the blessing of your superiors and your strategy is approved – then this is great news! You should be proud of yourself. I can admit that I can still feel a sense of accomplishment when I manage to get the buy-in of the leadership to pursue a specific strategy.

Anyway – once a strategy is established – you are ready to proceed to the product roadmap. But that is a discussion for a different post 🙂

Last – I did try to emphasize throughout this post that a product strategy is important, even if you own the ‘side dish’ and not the ‘main course’. This is why my example was focused on a product which is not the main product of the company.

If your product is actually the ‘main course’ then your life may actually be harder, because you’ll see that the product strategy may interest a bunch of other internal stakeholders in your company and everyone will have something to say. This is not for beginners, and you will need to step up your game because your outputs will be examined closely. Don’t worry though – I will address this and cover your bases in future posts (but if it can’t wait – feel free to reach out and I’ll do my best to assist).

 

That concludes the post for today. Again, if you found it useful – feel free to ‘like’ it. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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