The product strategy is difficult.
And let’s be clear: it should be. It’s a messy world, and the strategy is to try to bring order to this chaos.
Like many things, however, the difficulty of the project does not negate its importance. No matter how difficult the strategy is, you always need it. And the inputs that go into the product strategy, from how your business is positioned in the market, to its current financial solvency, to the resources you need to allocate, to a number of other things that provide a cavalcade of options to align the business with the desires of your customers and the direction of your leadership. With so many different paths to go, how do you know if you’re doing it right?
Product performance based on market projections is often how an organization as a whole rates the product. This performance is our responsibility, especially since product managers generally make, defend or evangelize decisions that affect them. As a result, the best companies judge product leaders based on their ability to understand what inputs are important, manage them, and develop a strategy that ultimately brings ideas to life successfully in the marketplace.
This organizational decision is very good. After all, good market performance is what a company expects from a product. But it does raise the question of how you should judge your own product strategy or that of your team on a granular level.
Well like most aspects of product management it depends. Each team is different, which means that each will need different measurements to score their work. I don’t promise a quick fix for this problem, but as a product you should be used to it by now.
What I can offer instead are a few key ingredients for any scoring rubric. An effective product strategy reduces decision fatigue while increasing team flexibility by providing psychological security around decision making. You need to think about how your strategy achieves this. So let’s talk about it.
What is decision fatigue?
Every decision we make tires us out mentally. Decision fatigue, then, refers to the tendency of our decision-making ability to deteriorate in quality over a long session. This phenomenon should remain a priority for product managers. After all, what is product development if not a set of decisions we make to improve the likelihood of launching a successful product?
Every decision we make has a cost. And this applies not only to our decisions, but also to those of our teammates. Each time the team chooses a particular course of action, the next decision becomes more difficult and is more likely to be wrong. This process is intensified each time we grapple with a particular decision. The more work you have to do to decide, the more you tire.
The product strategy should facilitate decision-making
Now that we’ve explored decision fatigue, let’s talk about the role of product strategy and how it helps teams stay focused.
The product strategy takes several forms. If you are in a highly competitive industry, there might be some guidelines on how you will attack the competition. If you are focusing on growth, it will detail the means to achieve it. If you are tech-savvy, you’ll be looking for places where your technology will be more effective. So the details of your strategy will change depending on your market and your goals.
What does not change, however, is that when someone is part of the strategy team, they should feel comfortable making a decision. Feeling in danger is a drain on your internal energy reserves. We’ve all felt how bad leadership and unnecessary ambiguity hurt our ability to make rational decisions and deliver consistent business results. Psychological security is a good bulwark against decision fatigue.
Your job as a product manager is to increase psychological safety by giving your employees a good product strategy. It means being as clear as possible about everything you can. Your strategy should clearly communicate the strengths the team needs to work with, the limitations that exist, and provide a narrative that team members can use to help them with decision-making.
For example, let’s say I create the strategy for an innovation team. I want my document to list assets such as the number of hours allocated to the different disciplines within the project. I also need to alert the team to the limitations they face, such as tools and technologies that are not on the table. Finally, I need to let the team know of any stories that should guide their work, such as the company’s goal of increasing revenue by 5%. The strategy presents all of this information in one place for easy access.
A good strategy gives a team concrete guidelines in which to operate. A team that doesn’t have to think about where to start or what might be forbidden is a team that can focus directly on the problem at hand. If your product strategy doesn’t provide enough information to help them make decisions, you’ll find that they:
- Make decisions that may not be the best ideas for the business at the time, or
- Don’t decide anything at all.
Add to that the fact that teams can and will do both of these things in the process of a project. Worse yet, they’ll do them with little to no consistency, making it hard to predict which mistake you’ll face. All of this means it’s only a matter of time before the team zigzags when they should zigzag, especially as decision fatigue sets in.
Let’s be clear here, there is a difference between being descriptive and prescriptive. The right strategy is the first, not the second. We use strategy to help teams understand what the world is, not exactly what to do. This is why it is so important to ensure safety by giving the team the context to make decisions. When feeling secure, not only will they produce more consistent results, but you’ll also find that they operate more creatively. When team members feel they are not at risk of making mistakes, they feel more free to experiment and engage their creativity.
In short, a good product strategy is a document that reduces uncertainty and the overall number of decisions that must be made while providing cover for those decisions. Your team should be able to review your strategy and feel comfortable that following it will reduce headaches down the road.
Test your strategy
Let’s say you have a product strategy ready. Your management team believes this will reduce decision fatigue and empower people to make decisions. At this point you should ask a few questions to refine it. Note that these can go too far, however, and balance is important.
Does my product strategy reduce the number of decisions my teams make?
The best way to reduce fatigue is to reduce the number of “boring” decisions your team makes. Your strategy and the accompanying artifacts (design systems, roadmaps, etc.) should help people narrow down the choices and paperwork involved in any decision so they can focus on what really matters.
If you overdo it here, however, you’ll find that teams become robotic as they’ll be waiting for top-down direction on every topic. This type of decision paralysis is especially bad for teams in complex environments, like innovation teams, who need extra flexibility because they fail so often.
Does my product strategy reduce the context necessary for decision making?
Another way to fight fatigue is to limit the amount of information a person needs to make a decision. Your strategy should identify which decisions are negotiable (i.e. what technology to use) and which are not (i.e. if you have a limited budget). The accompanying artifacts (epics, initiatives, etc..) should emphasize which items are non-negotiable using active, clear language. Avoid lint.
Remember that it is important not to fall into the trap of being prescriptive. The product strategy describes the world; it does not prescribe the actions to be taken.
Does my product strategy make it safer to make decisions?
The product strategy should increase psychological safety by providing protection to frontline employees who make decisions. Your accompanying artifacts (team charters, valuable documents, etc.) will enforce what is “right” by giving teams insight into what management and other stakeholders define as good work.
Don’t fall into the trap of over-generalizing here, because then you will find yourself head first in the “culture of toxic positivity” and people will be afraid to criticize anything. If all is good, nothing is good. Standards matter.
Overall, you need to make sure that your product strategy helps your product teams reduce decision fatigue without reducing the quality of people’s decisions. A good product strategy is designed to ensure that your teams row together to improve the likelihood of good decisions. Ultimately, it leads to good customers and a great business.