The modern strategy professional. Image via Midjourney from an author prompt.
As a consultant running mobile and Agile product engagements, I used to think success was all about brute force, hard work.
The greater the number of hours I could spend “executing,” the more hours my consultancy could bill the client.
But since becoming a full-time employee, and working closely with Product people at all levels of the Enterprise, I’ve come to see that forcing people to work as many hours as possible only leads to
- Average results
- Poor quality
- Multiple mistakes
- Constant rework, leading to
- Unhappy customers
More is less
Organizations don’t need their Product people to invest more hours — they need them to:
- Be more effective, work together in ways that boost team collaboration
- Make smarter choices with their products and services to provide creative solutions to their customers
- Deliver on their organization’s most mission-critical goals.
Strategy is the key to achieving all three.
Strategy to the Rescue
There are many approaches to strategy, but ultimately, the definition I’ve found most helpful is a “set of choices” designed to achieve effectiveness in solving a problem.
And one of simplest and most effective ways to design strategy is Roger L. Martin’s “Playing to Win” strategy framework.
Where many strategy approaches are obtuse, complex, and inactionable, reserved only for elite MBA graduates, Martin’s (despite being a double Harvard grad himself) approach is squarely focused on being simple, straightforward, and solidly actionable, available to anyone who wants to be more effective.
And here are three ways Product Managers can increase their effectiveness through strategy:
- Design a Personal Strategy
- Collaboratively design your team’s strategy
- Collaboratively reverse-engineer your product’s current strategy
We’ll delve into each below.
1: Design a Personal Strategy
Personal Strategy represents a radically different approach to making the most of every hour you spend at work.
The overwhelm most Product Managers experience comes from letting work happen to them. Without an intentionally-designed set of choices around where they can be most effective, their calendar will fill up with meetings and people will pile work on them that will take them farther away from the things that really need to get done.
Many try to do it all, and end up falling continuously farther behind, leading to inevitable burnout.
How to create your Personal Strategy
Designing a Personal Strategy really involves nothing more than consciously and intentionally making a set of choices in answering the five questions of the Strategy Choice Cascade and how they relate to your role:
- Winning Aspiration — “What unique value will you aspire to contribute to your organization?”
- Where to Play — “To which activities will you allocate your scarce time, in what proportion?”
- How to Win — “How will you create disproportionate value from each hour of work?”
- Must-Have Capabilities — “What capabilities will you need to develop and exploit to create maximum value?”
- Enabling Management Systems — “What systems will you create to help build and maintain the capabilities you must possess?”
Adapted from Roger L. Martin, “Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks”
The focus is not to answer them one-by-one in order before moving on to the next; it’s to continuously toggle back and forth between them, and consider them as working together and supporting each other.
Understanding expectations for the Product role in your organization
Despite what some product thought leaders might say is “right” or “wrong,” the reality is expectations for the product role vary radically from organization to organization.
Research and dig deep into what your manager and your team expect you to handle, and distinguish what they expect you do from the outcomes they really need the product person to drive. Focus in particular on what your predecessor did well (and poorly), and how expectations might have shifted over time.
In stepping through the five questions to design your strategy, match your strengths to areas where you may be especially strong now, or have particular interest in developing skills in that area.
Are you great at presenting? Written documentation? Have a background in User Research and testing? UX? Engineering?
Lifting up others on the team
Working with your manager and your team, look to delegate areas where you may be less strong to others who are more capable or better-suited.
Perhaps there are some areas around Governance, Risk, and Compliance (“GRC”) you can delegate to a Business Analyst. Maybe someone else can step up and track the effectiveness of social media outreach?
Once you’ve identified your choices, keep constant discipline around how to use your time most effectively. Recognize when you’re most effective, and block out deep work time in your schedule to access Flow states to do your best work in your chosen areas.
For more on Personal Strategy, read my full article here.
2: Collaboratively design your team’s strategy
Now that you’ve started to increase your personal effectiveness through strategy, it’s time to increase your broader team’s impact.
Bringing the entire team together, it’s time to answer the same five questions of the Strategy Choice Cascade, adapted for group-based collaboration and impact:
- Winning Aspiration — “What unique value will our team aspire to contribute to our organization?”
- Where to Play — “To which activities will we allocate our scarce time, in what proportion?”
- How to Win — “How will we create disproportionate value from each hour of work?”
- Must-Have Capabilities — “What capabilities will we need to develop and exploit to create maximum value?”
- Enabling Management Systems — “What systems will we create to help build and maintain the capabilities we must possess?”
Adapted from Roger L. Martin, “Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks”
Working within constraints
At a high level, most teams’ “Where to Play” choices are already made for them.
They might be a marketing team, tech platform team, or user experience team. The key at the team level is intentionally designing the other choices so they reinforce and support each other to come together and deliver on your chosen qualitative “Winning Aspiration.”
But the team won’t be successful unless these choices also “nest” with and align to your personal strategy.
Team Roadmap strategy
Ben Foster and Rajesh Nerlikar shared one highly effective and often overlooked area of adapting your team “Where to Play” in their excellent book “Build What Matters.”
They suggest teams should negotiate with their leadership and intentionally decide what percentages of work they’ll do around:
- Innovation: Net-new work
- Optimization: Iterating existing features to higher levels of effectiveness
- Operation: Keeping the lights on and maintaining existing features
Many teams start each quarter intending to build new, customer-focused features, only to be dragged down by Technical Debt.
Collaboratively deciding up-front that one quarter needs to be focused on technical debt remediation and code cleanup can make it easier to deliver the right features sooner over subsequent quarters.
Things will always come up, but thinking through what needs to happen to support the long-term viability of the product and what tradeoffs need to be made is essential.
Now that we’ve opened the door to personal and team effectiveness, it’s time to gather the team to peel back the onion on our product.
3: Collaboratively reverse-engineer your product’s current strategy
Many teams spend years blindly taking and acting on requests from stakeholders.
But without a set of guiding choices, there’s no foundation to align around what their product truly stands for, and more importantly, what it isn’t intended to achieve.
Over time, the accumulated debt of these disjointed feature requests can gradually take your product further and further off-course.
Understanding what your current product strategy is, and whether it’s still valid is the first step.
Always work backwards from your end-user client
It all comes down to asking the right questions.
Similar to designing a team strategy, you’ll want to pull your team and stakeholders together and work backwards through the Strategy Choice Cascade, but this time, from the point of view of our target users:
- Winning Aspiration — “What unique value does our product aspire to contribute to a specific user persona?” “What problem do we solve for them?”
- Where to Play — “What customers do we serve? Across what channels? In what markets?”
- How to Win — “How will we differentiate for these users? ”
- Must-Have Capabilities — “What capabilities does our team and our organization need to deliver on our Where to Play and How to Win choices?”
- Enabling Management Systems — “What systems do we have, or will we need to create, to help build and maintain and continuously improve the capabilities we must have?”
Don’t fight over opinions
As we step through each of these answers, the question to ask isn’t “What do we think we know?”, or “What do we believe?”
The goal will be to ask:
What Would Have To Be True?
About the set of choices we’re currently operating under, specifically with regard to:
- Our Team
- Our Company
- The Markets in which we compete
- Our Competitors
Do our choices still make sense?
The foundation for better choice-making
Asking “What Would Have to Be True” will allow us to identify what choices we may be operating under that no longer make sense.
For the first time, by collaboratively reviewing the answers to the five questions of the Strategy Choice Cascade, you can expose underlying assumptions on the part of different stakeholders and across your team, and bring them front and center.
Until we can expose our current assumptions, we won’t be able to take the first step to designing a more effective product strategy.
Making your current strategy explicit is also the first step in the Strategy Choice Structuring Process to collaboratively design, test, and make a better set of choices.
Agreeing what not to do
Surfacing things you’ve been doing on auto-pilot that may no longer align with current conditions can be a big breakthrough for many PMs and their teams.
But seeing for the first time things you may be doing that are actively undermining the intention for your strategy is another powerful outcome of this exercise.
Deciding not to do these things can represent an enormous step forward.
Strategy is what you Do
Keep in mind that strategy isn’t what you say you do– it’s what you’re already doing.
It’s important to accept you already have strategies for:
- Your Team
- Your Product
Using the Strategy Choice Cascade will allow you, your team, and your stakeholders the opportunity to make those choices thoughtfully and intentionally.
Many Product Managers and their teams are kept massively busy trying to keep their products running and shipping new features.
By using strategy in these three unconventional ways:
- Product Managers with a Personal Strategy can free up time from low-leverage tasks to higher-value activities that will greatly increase their impact.
- Teams with a strategy can approach their work in ways that allow them to achieve greater quality and effectiveness
- Reverse-engineering your current product strategy allows you and your stakeholders to bring hidden assumptions to the foreground, opening the door to a better and more aligned set of strategic choices.
These three approaches can work together to reinforce each other and create powerful ways to reduce work that doesn’t add value, and create better outcomes.
Roger L. Martin
Foster, Ben; Nerlikar, Rajesh. “Build What Matters: Delivering Key Outcomes with Vision-Led Product Management” Lioncrest Publishing.