So you’ve been working as a product manager for a while, you get things done and ship great products. But ‘product strategy’ is still a fuzzy word for you — what does it really mean?
For me, a product strategy is an opinionated view on what are the best few routes to achieve your long-term goal. I often think about it as planning to climb a summit. You look at all the possible routes, but you don’t have the resources to try all of them. You evaluate the weather, your condition, your resources, and then pick the best route for you. It might not be the best route for everyone but it’s the best one for you.
Here are the four steps to create your product strategy:
- Immerse yourself in research
- Select three themes for your strategy
- Flesh out features within each
- Communicate your strategy
Step 1: Immerse yourself in research
Allow yourself to dig deep into your product area and just be curious. Ask yourself:
- [Bottom Up] How are the top-line metrics performing and why? Among your past projects, what worked and what didn’t?
- [Bottom Up] What user needs have you seen from qualitative user research?
- Why should anyone care about what you do? What really differentiates your product?
- What are the notable industry trends relevant to your product area?
Step 2: Select three themes for your strategy
After completing your research, you should have lots of ideas about what to build in your products and see some recurring themes.
Now for the most difficult yet critical part of coming up with your strategy: select three themes for your strategy. Doing everything is not a strategy. Being opinionated about what not to do is just as important as what to do for defining a strategy.
Choosing three themes forces you to prioritize ruthlessly and makes it easier for people on your team to remember. A fourth one is ok if you really need it, but you start running the risk of making your strategy hard to remember.
What’s a good theme?
- A good theme is not a feature. For example, integrating with ApplePay is not a theme, frictionless payment is a theme.
- A good theme enables everyone in your team to think creatively about what they can do to contribute to the theme. Let’s say your theme is frictionless payment. Then, engineers can investigate the latest technology on Android for frictionless payment. Designers can study if there’s underlying emotional reason why user doesn’t want to give your product her payment info.
- A good theme is something you can rally your team around the theme for at least 6 months. It’s not the flavor of the month — it’s the underlying thread that connects your investments.
Step 3: Flesh out features within each theme
Now that you have great bones for your strategy, let’s add some meat to it. From your research in Step 1, you should have plenty of feature ideas for each theme. Now is also a good time to brainstorm with engineers, designers, and analysts under the structure of the themes. Engineers can explore technologies to enable the strategy and estimate the engineering cost. Designers can create forward-looking designs within the themes. Analysts can help identify biggest opportunities through analyzing existing funnels.
Prioritize ideas and roughly map out what’s achievable in 6–9 months, 1 year, and later, so you can paint a picture of what success looks like in different time frames.
A good strategy should also describe the resource you need to achieve your goals, such as additional staffing or capital.
Step 4: Communicate your strategy
Product managers sometimes underestimate the impact of effective communication. We think we already did the hard part to figuring out what to do, so why do we need to sell it? The truth is, an excited team pumped up for the vision vs. a ‘whatever’ team makes all the difference in velocity, creativity, and pride in craftsmanship—factors that ultimately affect the quality of your products.
Here are some tips for effective communication:
- Write down your strategy in a format you can easily share. Use the format — a document, a slide deck, etc. — that works best for your target audience.
- Get your team together and share your strategy with authentic excitement. Ask yourself why should they care to listen to you? Once you’ve shared, actively listen to all feedback and give thoughtful responses.
- Repetition is your friend. Continually tie each project and metric back to your themes so your team knows their day-to-day tasks are part of something bigger.
- Create a visual roadmap for the themes and features in each month/quarter and print it out as a big poster on your wall
You will know you have successfully communicated your strategy when anyone you stop in the hall can name your strategic themes and some features.
Why did I write this? I’ve been working with a few product managers in my team to help them write their first strategy doc for their product area. I’m also inspired by our CTO Bridget Frey’s You’re Just Not That Strategic: Seven Objections You’ll Have to Overcome to Get to the Top and want to share the tools to think strategically. Nothing here is ground-breaking and I’m sure the framework can be better. Please feel free to give me feedback!