Lately I found myself brainstorming with other PMs about product strategy. It seems that once the product managers I’m working with have mastered the hands-on aspects of their work, they are starting to look up the pyramid and starting to ask the type of questions that make you understand that they have really matured.
I’m talking about questions in that spirit:
“Wait… is there a more intelligent, and less messy way, to prioritize the building blocks in the near future?”
“How should I decide what items should I put on my roadmap?”
“When considering the future of my product – there are several possible venues. Which one should I choose?”
And a dozen other variations of the above.
All these questions lead to the same conclusion – there should be a well defined product strategy for your product. If there is one which was already defined – then get familiar with it (assuming it was defined by the product leader you’re reporting to). If there is none, or there is one which is no longer relevant – then focus on defining one – whether or not you were specifically tasked with this job.
You see – without having a proper product strategy defined – the questions above won’t have a good answer. Your roadmap will be an inconsistent timeline of guesses, and it will change very often.
You may find yourself a year from now struggling with very similar challenges to the challenges you are facing today with your product, because you’ll realize that you spent the last year progressing in circles… which is not really a progress. Of course, this is an extreme – but I’ve seen it happening.
When is it the right time to deal with product strategy?
Going back to my favorite pyramid (here) – you can see that the product strategy is layered above the roadmap and below the north star. It’s quite high.
For senior product managers my advice is to start dealing with the strategy on their first roadmap planning.
Now, to clarify, I noticed that many product managers confuse ‘quarterly planning’ with ‘product roadmap’, and they often use these terms as synonyms.
This demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of what each term means. So let’s tackle this for a second before we proceed, as this is important:
Quarterly planning is the process of planning your next quarter only. As I noted in the past (and in the article linked above) – it has a very high resolution granularity of the features which are going to be built in the coming quarter. It’s a very important process but it represents only a single step in your product roadmap.
The product roadmap, on the other hand, is a higher level view of where you’re going. It’s probably looking a year or a year and a half max into the future, and it’s covering only the major building blocks of what’s going to be built. It must not include all the small features, tech debt items (unless really major), UX changes and bugs. Those are not important when you’re considering the big picture (but again, they are super important in the context of quarterly planning).
So, when I’m talking about the phase when you are considering your roadmap for the first time, I’m talking about the phase when you finally have the opportunity to lift your head above the ground and consider the future of your product.
But for the sake of this post – we will assume that you’ve reached the stage when you can finally focus on the future.
At this point in time – you are probably feeling comfortable with managing the ‘hands on’ aspects of your work (daily priorities, writing specs/PRDs, orchestrating the product delivery process and so on). You probably have done a couple of quarterly plans already (at least) and you’re asking yourself what’s next.
According to the pyramid – the answer is obvious – the next layer is the product roadmap. And that’s true.
However, before starting to work on that – I’m asking you to pause and consider the product strategy and the north star first.
Well… to be honest – I’d like you to think about the future of your product from day one. However, you’ve probably been too busy mastering your day-2-day and honing your time management skills. Hence, I’m practically telling you:
“Kudos for making the time to consider the future of your product. And since your time is precious – let’s do it the right way.”
You see, from my experience – when I see that a product manager is starting to ask questions about their future roadmap – it’s a signal that he/she is probably ready for the next step.
And since I believe that it’s really not ideal to work on a roadmap without an established product strategy – then it’s also a great opportunity to look into this.
What if there is already a defined product strategy?
Then you need to examine it carefully and see what it means to you and your product. Whether it was you who defined it or someone else – it needs to be reviewed for its validity right now.
We will discuss shortly how you should quickly evaluate a product strategy, but the bottom line is – if the current product strategy seems to be valid and relevant according to your evaluation – then by all means – please proceed to your product roadmap planning.
However… if there is no product strategy or the current product strategy doesn’t seem solid or relevant enough – keep reading.
Ok… I need a product strategy..
Well then, let’s discuss product strategy.
I covered the basics of how to define a product strategy here. You should definitely read this post if you haven’t done so already, as I will assume what’s written there is already known to you.
Now, let me break down the process into stages:
Conducting a proper research
So yes – defining a product strategy requires that you’ll do some homework & research. I listed everything you need to go over in the post linked above. Essentially, you’ll need to know your market (your users/customers’ pains), the current trends, the competitive landscape and what makes your value proposition unique (or why do you think you have a chance against the competition).
Revisiting the north star
Once you’ve completed your homework and feel confident about your research it’s time to consult the north star of your company/department.
No north star defined? Bummer. You have two options – embark on a journey to define it and get the buy-in for it (I suggest reading this post if you want to know what it takes) OR determine an internal KPI that should serve as the north star for you as part of defining your strategy.
Of course the first venue is much more beneficial, but it’s also much harder. If you are unsure whether you have the energy/time to put into this – then I recommend taking the second venue (for now; Defining a north star for the whole company/business unit is essential for the long run).
If there is a north star defined – just revisit it and see if it makes sense to your product. However, if the whole company/business unit is already aligned with it – then you don’t have any choice here but to adopt it for framing your product strategy.
As you can see – there are several possible scenarios here – and since it will take some time to cover them all – I will just say that at the end of this stage you need to have a KPI that will frame your product strategy.
It should be a KPI that fulfills the following conditions of a north star –
- If it goes up – it means that your market share is going up as well
- If it goes up – it means that your revenues will go up as well
- If it goes up – it means that your users/customers are getting more value from your product.
- It must not be capped. It can theoretically grow, and grow and grow…
The example I always provide (which is adopted from Monday.com) is ‘weekly active users’. And that’s assuming that you’re getting paid per license. You can read about it in depth here.
Whatever your business is – make sure you have such a north star KPI – whether it has a wide adoption in your company or not.
Finding what’s holding your product back
Now it gets interesting. It’s time to start thinking about the foundation of the product strategy. And we start by the things that are blocking your product from becoming successful or growing fast enough.
What I learned in the last months when mentoring PMs, is that the most efficient questions you can ask yourself when trying to think about the strategy are the following two:
- What is truly preventing you from conquering the world today with your product? Why are you still not the market leader or why you still don’t have millions of users?
- What would it take to drive your north star to the sky in the fastest possible way?
When I ask the PMs I’m working with these two questions, they find them inspiring. You can see the wheels in their brain immediately get into motion, and you can immediately hear insights such as:
- Well… our integration is a nightmare for our customers [an activation problem]
- The onboarding takes forever [an activation problem]
- We are missing capability X, Y and Z that everyone complains about [a retention problem]
- We don’t get enough customers to actually try the product [an activation problem]
- Capability X which is crucial and exist – doesn’t provide good enough results [a retention problem]
- Not enough people have heard about the product [an acquisition problem]
And so forth.
I don’t stop here, though. I want to make sure the person is going deep enough. So I ask:
“Ok.. so let’s assume for a second that the problems you mentioned are solved. Does your product then conquer the world?”
They think again, and so should you. You really need to go deeper into what’s blocking your product for reaching world-class fame. Why are you still not the market leader?
You iterate the above and come up with all sorts of blockers. Some of these blockers are not real. Just implement the f#@$ing feature and you’re done. This is purely tactical.
What you are looking for are things that are holding you back from conquering the market in a storm. Big things/themes. Not specific features (unless we’re talking about big capabilities).
Examples of true blockers:
- Not enough users are downloading your app, or you don’t know how to reach enough prospects
- The current business model is not generating enough revenues to cover acquisition costs.
- The value proposition is not strong enough (it’s nice to have and not a must have, or at least interpreted this way)
- Onboarding new customers is cumbersome and eventually they lose their patience and leave
- Churn is high after users have actually tried your product
Now, those are real problems that your product strategy needs to address. Each of these true blockers that you come up with needs to be analyzed for the root cause. For example – if you came to the conclusion that your potential customers are not eager to try your product because they believe it’s nice to have, rather than a must have – think hard why that is.
Is it because the story you (your marketing) tells sucks? Meaning – the value proposition is very strong, but poor marketing obscures that?
Or – your product doesn’t actually deliver enough value.
If it’s the first – work with your marketing team to improve the story, and it definitely needs to be part of the product strategy (how to properly market your product), though it’s definitely not the whole strategy.
If it’s the second – that’s tough, but you have no choice but to crack this one out, and good that it comes up early (I hope). How does your product need to change in order to become a ‘must have’?
You see – all of these blockers that are standing between you and the market domination are the strongest hints for what your product strategy needs to be.
Forming up the strategy
Now again – you have some homework and processing to do. You have some ideas about what’s preventing your product from being successful. You may have some ideas about how to tackle this and how your product should adjust. Can you back up any of these theses with real data?
You should start by gathering data that exists in your company’s data sets (feature requests, going over sales calls, watching recorded interviews, analytics, etc…).
You should then go out to the ‘market’ and talk to customers/users. As many as are willing to talk to you. Are the blockers you came up with real? Would the changes you thought of will help to shift the paradigm? Do they have suggestions of their own? Interview these customers like I taught you on the ‘Interviewing like pro’ series (here, here and here). Dig for hidden pains and see if it aligned with your initial thoughts.
And then – “glue” it all together. Come up with a plan. A good plan will:
- Address the real blockers you found
- Will make adjustments to the value proposition so it will be clear and impactful
- Describe a solid path as for how to grow fast and push the north up in the fastest way possible
Now, if you are already on top of the data, and you’ve been analyzing your business for quite a while – then forming up a product strategy shouldn’t necessarily take long. Sometimes it’s a matter or a day or two.
However, if you’ve been a bit detached from the market for a while (not judging here, you just need to be honest with yourself), you haven’t talked to customers for a while, you haven’t been on top of the analytics lately, etc.. – then it might take you more time to do it properly (weeks, up to a month – if taken seriously).
I gave an example of a simple product strategy in my original article (mentioned above). I admit it’s over-simplified, but real product strategy is also not rocket science. I will try to provide some examples for real product strategy plans in future posts, as this post is already quite long.
For now just note that a true strategy can be described in one page or 4-5 slides top. Don’t make it more than it needs to be. Your executives, your boss and your team should get it quite fast and if you addressed the bullets above then there is a good chance they’ll embrace it and give you proper kudos.
So… that’s it for today!
If you found this post/series useful – please let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.
Thank you, and until next time 🙂