A guide to an effective product strategy

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Any product strategy worth its salt will explain who the product is for, what problems it will solve, how it’s different from competing products, and why your company should spend the time and resources to build it.

Putting one together is easier said than done – especially if your time is mostly spent putting out fires, running meetings, and making a thousand little tactical decisions a day. But investing in a solid, high-level strategy is extremely important.

We asked product managers how they lead their teams and manage to think strategically at the same time. Here is what they said:

How to improve your product strategy

  • Take the time to think strategically.
  • Know your audience.
  • Cut projects differently.
  • Involve customers when possible.
  • Prioritize continuous delivery.
  • Communicate with your engineers.
  • Empower your team.
  • Stay focused.
  • Constantly evaluate.
  • It’s OK to fail.

1. SAVE TIME TO THINK STRATEGICALLY

Great product managers take time to be strategic, and it’s an absolute must for you to do well in this role. My biggest advice is to block out time and schedule meetings with yourself and treat that time like gold. I have periods of deep reflection about three times a week, where it’s an entire afternoon or an entire morning.

If you don’t lock down that time and make it really explicit in your calendar, it becomes very easy for people to just schedule your whole day, and you feel like you’re only in a meeting and you can’t really spend the time to think strategically.

— Gabrielle Bufrem, Head of Product Management at VMware

2. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN PROPOSING A CHANGE OF STRATEGY

bedell product strategyWhen it comes to raising the flag with founders and investors, I think they would appreciate you acknowledging that something isn’t working and identifying new solutions at the same time.

If you’re trying to get your CEO on board, you can present business data and results to illustrate your point. If you want to get sales buy-in, you can use customer interviews and reviews. It’s just about being adaptive.

— Claire BeDell, Director of Product Management at Invisibly

3. CONSIDER GOING FROM TWO-WEEK SPRINTS TO SIX-WEEK PROJECTS

vanderbyl product strategyWe had all these scrum ceremonies, meetings, emails, PowerPoint presentations, etc. We filled our days with meetings. And after a while, you start noticing the impact that all this disruption of flow has on the productivity of the R&D team. So we looked for other ways to organize ourselves. We turned to the company Basecamp, which had just released a book called shape up.

Instead of having a two-week sprint and trying to manage everyone’s time rigorously enough to deliver something within two weeks, we instead divide our work into six-week projects, where we let teams go and do their work and deliver something. We’ve found that six weeks isn’t exactly far in the future – you can always have an educated estimate of what you can achieve in six weeks. But it’s not so short that you can’t accomplish anything, which we found was somewhat the case with a two-week sprint.

— Ivan Vanderbyl, Product Management Director of Tricentis Flood

4. REALLY ENGAGE CUSTOMERS

monegro product strategyOur marketplace has a buy side and a sell side. Every six months, we let customers on both sides of the market come up with compelling arguments as to why they should be part of what we call our Product Advisory Board. We’ll look at them and eventually we’ll have 20 customers on both sides of the market who are basically part of the product team.

They are expected to be available for us to make a phone call, respond to emails, review wireframes – act like they are building a product with us. And in turn, they can influence the product. This was very useful for discovery-type work. These are informal, organic conversations that largely occur when we do this.

— Hostos Monegro, Director of Product Management at LeafLink

5. PRIORITIZE CONTINUOUS DISCOVERY

bufrem product strategyIt is very important that product discovery is not seen as something you only do for part of the sprint. It should be something you do all the time.

Good product managers talk to customers at least three times a week, that’s the minimum. And that can either be to validate the problem you’re trying to solve, or to do usability or value prototyping with customers.

I think a lot of PMs are very overwhelmed with all the daily work and don’t really see discovery as something that should be part of every day. And they only do that if they’re trying to validate something, or if they’re trying to see if their requests make sense or not. But you should continually find out.

— Gabrielle Bufrem, Head of Product Management at VMware

6. KEEP ENGINEERS IN THE STRATEGY LOOP

bedell product strategyCommunicate [with engineers] early and often, even if there is no problem. Giving them the context of why they build what they build goes a long way. Ultimately, they are part of the business and must understand the business needs of the product they are working on. This way, when things need to change and change, they will hopefully understand the reasoning.

Even though it’s sometimes unfortunate that they “wasted time” on something that isn’t going to continue, at least they know why and they don’t get caught up in this feeling of having no control over the situation.

— Claire BeDell, Director of Product Management at Invisibly

7. GIVE ENOUGH AUTONOMY TO YOUR TEAM

monegro product strategyIf zero range is at one end of the spectrum and full range at the other end, you don’t want to be at either end; it’s a matter of finding where on that spectrum makes sense to you.

We are currently around 75 percent autonomy. People want to be in control of what they are going to do. They feel empowered by that, and we want to make sure our teams have that. But then we don’t give too much either, where it becomes too intimidating or uncomfortable for some people. And [we want to] reassure our leadership team to have influence and have a say. It’s a nice balance for us.

— Hostos Monegro, Director of Product Management at LeafLink

8. STAY FOCUSED AND KNOW WHAT DO NOT TO DO

bufrem product strategyThe best product strategy advice I’ve ever received is that strategy is about what you decide. do not To do. It’s very tempting to do a lot of things, to be a player for everyone. But successful companies usually decide what they are going to do and, more importantly, what they are not going to do. Concentration is extremely important.

I push teams to focus and define a goal and a key result that drives what part of the business they want to focus on right now. Otherwise, you risk what we call peanut butter — spreading your efforts so thinly, like toppings on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It does not represent anything substantial for the business side or the customer side.

The strategy is to be comfortable with compromising.

— Gabrielle Bufrem, Head of Product Management at VMware

9. CREATE A CULTURE WHERE IT IS OK TO FAIL

vanderbyl product strategyWhen I joined the product team, someone told me that half of everything I built was going to fail. You don’t believe it at first. But once you’re in that seat, making decisions, half of the things you build start not seeing the market, or were painfully hard to adopt or support, or never shipped. because the project was poorly defined. You realize that there are all of these challenges that come into play, and it’s important to communicate them to whoever is involved.

— Ivan Vanderbyl, Product Management Director of Tricentis Flood

10. ALWAYS EVALUATE

bedell product strategyI’m always in a bit of a passive evaluation state as to whether a defined strategy is still working or not. Always evaluating against the benchmarks that I and the team have established.

You have to find the right balance between concentration and agility. The willingness to change direction is important, but at the same time, you can’t change so much that your business ends up being a hodgepodge of a million different things. I think it’s easy to do – especially in terms of product – because the sky is the limit in terms of what you can build.

— Claire BeDell, Director of Product Management at Invisibly

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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