Why 'Product Strategy' is a Misnomer
Do we need a separate product strategy or do we need to a plan to align our activities with an overarching business strategy? Ryan Frederick, author and Principal/Founder of AWH makes the case for the latter in this episode.
"Strategy is supposed to be something that is singular. A company has a strategy not strategies."
strategy, product, people, company, leaders, counterintuitive, corporate strategy, product managers, thinking, overall strategy, teams, initiatives, create, leadership, department, scorecards, understand, strategic planning, plan, measure
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources. To help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at product voices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
JJ Rorie 00:37
Hello, and welcome to Product Voices. Today's episode is all about product strategy and why this might be a misnomer. My guest today is Ryan Frederick, principal and founder of product and data consulting firm AWH. He's the author of two books, the founders manual, a guide book for becoming a successful entrepreneur and sell naked and other advice for growing and managing services firms. Ryan, thanks so much for joining me.
JJ, good to hear your voice. Thanks for having me.
Yeah, I'm excited. We haven't talked in a while. So I'm excited about this conversation. Okay, tell me about this product strategy being a misnomer. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on that. What do you mean by that?
Well, one of the things I see happening a lot is companies who are void of overall an overall strategy for the company, then go to various departments, including product and say, Okay, well, we must have a marketing strategy. And we must have a sales strategy. And we must have an operational and we must have a product strategy. And I think that puts a lot of undue pressure on product managers inside of the product discipline, to then have to, to sort of coalesce as a product strategy when there's an absence of an overall company strategy. And so I think, my concern, what I'm seeing a lot is often product strategy is just sort of code for well, leadership doesn't really have an overall company strategy, that product can then sort of serve in the wake of we're expecting product to now really come up with what's being labeled as product strategy, but is really going to be sort of leveraged as Oh, yeah, that's just our that's our overall strategy. And I think that does a disservice to product managers and puts way too much pressure on them, and really shouldn't be part of, of the domain of their role and their existence.
Wow, that's so true. So a couple questions stem from that I'll start with if if a product manager finds themselves in a situation where there's not really a clear, overarching corporate strategy, how would you advise going about that? Because it's not really fair that they have to, you know, set their own own path without that beacon? But they sometimes have to, so how would you advise them to go about that?
Yeah, I think they have to have a conversation with leadership, then that that articulates the fact that there's there's a void of strategy for that for product to then follow in into leverage. And I think that product managers have to be able to have that conversation with leadership that says it's not products responsibility to develop an overall company strategy, its products responsibility to understand that strategy, incorporate that strategy into the company's product or products, and to work from it. But it's not products responsibility to develop a an overall strategy for the company. And I think that's happening too often now. And I think it's a hard conversation to have experienced, inexperienced, new product managers probably aren't positioned and probably aren't capable of having that conversation with company leadership around a lack of overall strategy. But experienced product managers should, especially if they find themselves having joined an organization fairly recently, and then they're being tasked with, okay, come up with the product strategy. And then when they go look for the overall company strategy, it's not there. That's really the time where they've got to say to leadership, okay, we can have product, leverage an overall strategy, but first, we have to come up with the overall strategy, and I think product considered that table and should sit at that table of the other leaders and disciplines within a company to say, Okay, what is our overall company strategy, but I think to just sort of pass the baton and for Product Management to accept the baton, have come up with a product strategy that is, is conducive to support the overall organization strategy, I think is, is a big mess. And I think one of the reasons this happens is when there's a void of leadership and strategic thinking and planning inside of an organization, then that is that void gets filled. And that void gets filled by the departments coming up with various departments strategies, but that often then puts the departments at in conflict, because you've got marketing now with a marketing strategy, and you've got sales with a sales strategy. And you've got product to the product strategy. And oftentimes when the strategies, which also is a misnomer that I can talk about there, then competing, right, because they're not aligned, and they're not connected, because they're not a derivative of an overall company strategy. You've got departmental leads and strategies now saying, well, the approach that I'm taking in marketing is this. And then you've got sales saying, Well, we're taking this approach. And then you've got products saying, Well, we're taking this approach, and we don't know where that fits in with marketing or sales. Right. And to your point, you know, it's hard to be a real strategy, department strategy, if it's not tied up to something bigger, right, and connected across the department. So I'm gonna bring that up in just a moment. But But first, I want to ask you kind of the flip side of that last question, which is, if leadership realizes that product, or other departments don't have a good understanding of the strategy, couple a couple of ways that that comes about, either there really isn't a corporate strategy, or in the leaders mind, there is a strategy, but it's not being communicated. Well. And I see that a lot. I'm sure you do, too, where leaders believe that they're communicating the strategy, and it's clear as day and everyone else is, you know, they think it's clear as mud. And so how would you advise leaders who see that there's a disconnect there, they see that the department's product, for example, doesn't understand the bigger picture? And how would they go about kind of helping them understand that, you know, there is a corporate strategy? And you know, we need to tie it all together? How do you advise leaders to go about that? Yeah, I think there's a big difference between acknowledgement and people acknowledging a strategy and people understanding it and people consenting to a strategy and committing to it. And I think leaders often just look for the acknowledgement piece, right? Where department don't, you know, leads and people in, in sort of managerial positions that can then set the conversation and the tone in their departments to follow a strategy. I think leaders are often just looking for sort of that acknowledgement of okay, yeah, your strategy, Cool, good. And then those people tend to just go off and do what they want to do, because they never really bought in. And so I think that there has to be, in particular about, you know, being a little old school before we started the conversation. I'm a little bit old school, and that I think that a leader or leaders have to be able to have their team come together that are going to need to understand and need to disseminate the strategy to the to the rest of the team members, that they've got to be able to sort of look in their eyes and say, Are we you know, do you get this right is Do you understand this? Do you understand the whys behind it? Do you understand where we're going with it? Do you understand your role and your participation in it? And I think too much of that has been lost. Some of that's because of remote work. Some of that is just because the leaders want to move on and they want to check the strategy box and they want to say, Yep, we've got a we've got a 15 page strategic plan with lots of wood, lots of scorecards, and, and plans and goals and visions and purposes, and etc. And then they think the, the, you know, the writing of that plan, and then the distribution of that plan, and the people's acknowledgement of receiving the plan is somehow an effective way of communicating it, when, of course, we know that it isn't, and I think that's just I think that's just been made worse, because then more challenging because of more remote work and more teams being disconnected from each other, and leaders not coalescing people and legitimately getting from them. A belief in the plan and a commitment to participate in the plan, even if, you know there's disagreement because I think that's one of the other things that leaders want to avoid. None of us you know, particularly enjoys comfort quotation but I think that leaders need to be vulnerable enough to go to other leaders in the company and say, Okay, here's, here's where we are, strategically, here's where we're going, here's why we're doing it, etc, and then allow others to be able to poke holes in it, you know, and challenge it. So that, through that, that challenging, what comes out is buy in, and what comes out is ownership or in understanding and there isn't enough leadership around the the creation of the strategy, fundamentally, it's too much of, here's what we've come up with, distributed out, now you need to follow it, and there's very little buy in and worship, you know, that, I think, is an increasing challenge for lots of companies and lots of leaders.
I think that's a really important point, that difference between, you know, just acknowledging that this is the strategy and the buy in, and that's where things fall down so often. So I want to dig a little bit into into this, when a group of leaders or managers are with the leadership team, the executive team, let's, let's assume that they are having this, this meeting this session to, to get buy in to poke holes to actually create the strategy together. Honestly, a lot of folks feel maybe intimidated or uncomfortable saying, I don't understand, I don't understand why this is the strategy. I don't understand this, why this is happening, or I don't believe in it. Any advice. And of course, the more comfortable they get in leadership, and the more comfortable they get in the in the culture of the organization, they're in there, they're more apt to do that. But any advice for those folks who maybe it's maybe they're new leaders, they're they're new managers, etc. They just don't quite feel comfortable yet. Any advice for those folks to say, take the stand and say, I get it. But I want to question it for now. What do you think about that folks who want to stand up and say, I don't quite understand, or I don't quite believe in it quite yet? Well, I think there's a, there's a way to position that that probably works better than others. And what I've seen work the best is someone then being a standing up and saying, I assuming that this person has an important role in product. That, you know, they stand up and they say, I we're making a commitment to be a product, lead, customer led organization, which means that to do that, we have to make sure that we understand what the strategy is, where we're headed, and the role that product plays in that and the execution of the strategy, and hopefully producing the eventual outcomes. And to do that, and for our team in product designers, engineers, ops, etc. Right, we need to make sure that we understand how the strategy connects to product and our contribution, right as part of the product team. And I think when someone positions it as if you expect us as the product team to build great successful, exceptional products, right? We can't do that. And avoiding we can't do it disconnected from understanding and having the context of of where the strategy, you know, is, is grounded, why we're executing on the things we're executing on why we have the initiatives that we have, etc. So I think trying to connect it back to your asking us to build successful products. We can't do that without the context of the strategy where it's grounded in and what we expect the strategy to achieve. So I think taking it back to your asking us to play our craft to pay for us to play our craft really well. We've got to have this understanding. Yeah, great advice. Let's take that a step further and go back to something you were talking about earlier about how how to kind of connect, or how easy it is to be disconnected from from department strategies or department strategies across each other. How have you seen great teams really tie a product strategy and marketing strategy, a sales strategy or whatever strategy together to each other? And then of course, backup to the to the overall corporate strategy, any best practices there?
Yeah, I think the first thing is that the really successful product companies typically don't have departmental strategies, so they don't have sales strategies and marketing strategies and product strategies. They have an overall strategy because strategy is supposed to be something that is singular. A company has has a strategy not strategies. And I think that's where things go sideways immediately is because companies have multiple strategies that are often departmental and often competing, even if they're not departmental, they still often have multiple strategies. And, and that is where things can go right sort of right out right out of the gate. So a company should have a single strategy. And then under that they should have initiatives that probably have departmental impact responsibility now, but I wouldn't call them strategies, because that's where I think it becomes confusing and conflicting, because now you have multiple strategies, and people trying to work two different ends, where if you have a single strategy, and now you have initiatives under that strategy, that are referencing and that are leveraging that one strategy, then I think it creates much more synergy, it creates a lot, much less friction departmentally, because now everybody is saying, Okay, here's the strategy, here's our contribution to the strategy, here's how we're going to work with these other groups, you know, to make sure that we're executing on these initiatives under the under the strategy. So I think it fundamentally breaks down when you have multiple strategies, including a product strategy that now is competing often because the other thing is that happens when you have multiple strategies isn't you have people now competing for dollars, and you have people competing for resources and attention, etc? When you have a single strategy and initiatives under that part of what you do at the beginning is you say, Okay, how much are we willing to commit to this initiative, funding wise, timewise, resource wise, etc. And it breaks down this abstract strategies environment to a single strategy that everybody can then support and work underneath.
I really like that, that way of thinking, an overarching strategy, one strategy, that then everyone can can, you know, determine how they're going to contribute to that, I think that's a really great way to look at that. So I want to ask, do you, one of the things that frustrates me and probably lots of folks is that, you know, things like, strategy are so important, but so misunderstood, right? And, and how that manifests itself often is, you know, things like strategic alignment, I mean, it could there be a bigger buzzword, right, in business. What does that actually mean? How do you actually align? Right? It's like, okay, strategic alignment, let's say that five times, and we're a good company, but it's like, how have you seen great product teams, or great teams in general, find true measurables that can can prove their contribution to the strategy, if that makes sense? Or show that they're actually, you know, prioritizing initiatives that are going to further that, that that bigger strategy, and then kind of retro actively look back and say, yes, these were the contributions that allowed us to execute on that strategy, any, any tangible ways to measure the initiatives and the activities that go to furthering a big strategy?
Yeah, I think that one of the mistakes that's often made too, is is companies will then try to measure too many things as part of a strategy. And it certainly breaks down when they have these multiple competing strategies across various departments, because you've got, you know, just a myriad of of KPIs OKRs, you know, and you know, a bunch of other three letter acronyms, right, running around with people trying to, to manage to and all of these scorecards, and dashboards that exist around all of these things, and I think that the most successful product teams that I've seen that that are, are executing the product, craft and discipline inside of a company in a, in the clearest way possible connected to a company's overall strategy, is they get to as few metrics and things to track and measure and manage to as possible. And because inside of a product, there's, there's 1,000,001, things that you could measure, track and manage to. And most of them are, if we're going to be honest with ourselves, most of them are on the periphery, and most of them don't matter as much as one or two or three things matter. And often those one, two or three things you can get to the other, you know, millions things that you're measuring and tracking inside of those things, if those are really the most important things, and the best things, and so the best product teams actually don't, you know, don't get sort of lost in the, hey, let's measure track, you know, everything that we can. Because at that point, you're really what you're not really probably tracking, you know, and measuring the most important things. And if you are, you're diluting them, because you're paying so much attention to the other things that take up room in the reports and the dashboards and in the scorecards, etc. And, and I just think that we've kind of jumped the shark now where we've got so much data, and we've got so much ability to measure and track things that that now we've lost sight of, well, if we track this one thing, then and it has tentacles to 56 other things in the product. Well, guess what, you know, that's a really important measurement that has lots of downstream impact. And we probably don't have to be paying as much attention to those 57 Other tangential things downstream, because if we're, if we're getting this right in the product, we know that equals those other 57 things, you know, being being the way we want them to be. Yeah, absolutely. And what I find in a lot of companies is that they find one of those tentacles and they latch on to that, right. And it's not, in other words, a downstream type of of measurement, and they're not actually finding the one that's, that's driving, right, they're kind of finding a lagging indicator, if you will, as opposed to the ones that's going to lead you to success. And that's harder, and the ones who can find that if we do this, well, everything else falls into place, then that those are the ones who tend to succeed, or at least measure the right things, right. And that's harder to say than to do. Because it's not always easy to find that data point or that measurable that's, that is the one that's going to drive, you know, a lot of, for example, a lot of companies will will focus on customer sat or something like that, well, there's a lot that goes into that. And just that number, you know, you're missing all of these other things that are actually driving that measurable. Absolutely. And I think customer side is one, I think another one that is very generic, but seems to get a lot of attention still is, is, you know, time on page or time on screen or, you know, you know, etc. And it's yeah, that's it's, it can be very irrelevant. And a lot of cases, because if someone is only spending 10 seconds on, you know, a page or screen of an application, and, and they moved on, right, and they they, they bought what they needed to buy, they submitted what they needed to submit, you know, what have you then the fact that they were only on the page for 10 seconds, actually, it you know, sort of rings true to support, the user experience has been implemented and the UI elements etc. And so companies get really hung up on on things that sometimes are actually it, and they think they're good. And actually, those things probably should be flipped and valued in a very different way in perspective, because the what the outcome that they're really desiring and the experience they're actually trying to create would be the would be the inverse of what maybe they're valuing and paying attention to. Yeah, absolutely. I love that. So So final question for you. Let's say you're going into an organization and trying to help the the entire team with strategic planning, right, and getting them to understand that let's have this big, big strategy. Everything else is is there to contribute to that overall corporate strategy? What advice would you give them from the beginning and any resources that you might think they would find valuable as they went down that path? Yeah, I think that what happens in inside of strategy is there are typically three phases to, to strategic planning, strategic thinking strategic work, think in its thinking, planning and doing. And in very simple terms, it's more nuanced than that should be more nuanced than that. But what happens in most cases is it's an 8020, with about 80% of the time and effort going into the planning phase of creating a strategic plan, document or artifact, right that says, here's our strategic plan. And here's what we hear are the goals. Here are the objectives, you know, that we have as part of our strategic plan. It almost becomes more of a forecast asked, right or a projection document than it does anything that's, that's super strategic. And so and then the pieces that are good that get the 20, then are the thinking and the doing. And for just simple math, we can say 10 and 10. So and that's reverse of what it should be the counterintuitive way to do strategic planning well, and then and then to have your, your departments and groups participate like product and like marketing and like sales, is the thinking, analysis, research contemplation part should be the 80%, that the documenting part right of actually getting into into some sort of an artifact that can be distributed and consumed should be 10% in the doing 10% with a big asterik. In that the doing certainly over time, in terms of effort, resources, money is going to become greater than the than the thinking phase of of coming up with a strategy. But just inside of strategy, the thinking analysis, research contemplation phase should be 80% of the of the time and effort. And that rarely happens. And it rarely happens. Because most people's goal, as part of strategic thinking and strategic work is to develop a strategic plan because it feels like then it mission accomplished. And so people move really quickly from thinking about and really doing, you know, the deep work of being honest with themselves to about what's the state of the business? What are our assets? What are our weaknesses, right? What are our challenges, what have we gotten right? What have we gotten wrong, right. And really, you know, having those hard conversations and internalizing where things really stand. And most people don't want to do that for themselves. And most people don't want to do that for their companies. And that's why people move really fast from that thinking stage, to the planning phase, because it feels like inside of creating that strategic plan document that feels constructive. It's no different than sort of, you know, what we discovered in product, right, but you know, where it used to be inside a product, it was okay, as quickly as possible, start building something, start writing code, start building something. And then we we learned and we valued Well, you know what? design matters, right? And figuring out, you know, how it should flow and what the user experience should be right matters, right? And doing that before you write code seems to make sense. And then we realized, you know, what, actually understanding the problem at a really deep level matters. And that actually matters even before you start designing a user experience and figuring out how you're going to solve the problem. But we don't yet do that very well. And consistently, in most cases, with strategic planning is, let's think, let's think about it as little as possible. Let's start writing a plan because maybe during the plan, we'll figure some of this out. And then what happens is the goal just becomes to finish the plan. And then the thinking self, you know, self reflection analysis part sort of goes out the window. I'm sorry, I know that. That last answer was a little bit long winded. But you know, I think that most strategy work and execution is pretty bad. Because the thinking phase, which is not, you know, we're as humans, we're not great at that, that thinking phase right? It we're much better at doing and creating something as a, as an artifact than we are about actually sort of analyzing what we what we should be creating and what the value of it is and what the context of it is.
Yeah, I actually love that, that analysis and that perspective. And I don't know that I had really put it together in that way. So I think it's really important, especially when you tie it back to what we do in product and telling that story, right? Because we we, we do that we are solution focused so often. And it's the same thing with building a strategy. That's, that's really poignant there. So and I do a lot of facilitation of strategic planning, you know, sessions and that sort of thing with, with teams and leadership and, and almost every time that that we have one of these sessions, you know, it's two day session, three day session, whatever it is. And at the end of it, if we don't have something tangible, like this is our product strategy, or this is our collective roadmap, or this is whatever. A lot of people feel like it's a failure and the discussions, the conversations that thinking within that day, two days, three days is so much more important than the artifact that comes out of it. Right and the artifact can't be good if you don't have that. And it's still just really hard for some people to grasp that. So I think that's an amazing way to kind of think about out that.
Yeah, I think it's counterintuitive. I know you're a golfer and you know, golf, you know, golf is very counterintuitive, right? You you hit down for the ball to go up. That's why it's very challenging for people to get good at golf and to and to excel at it because it the fundamental premise sort of belies logic and then figuring out how to do it consistently is is challenging. I think many things in life that are really important. I think sales is very counterintuitive. The, the less aggressively you pursue a prospect and the more value you add, and the more sort of humble you are vulnerable you are, that step prospect in that sales process is probably going to go better for you. I think the same is true with strategy that it's counterintuitive. Most people want to get to the plan into that artifact, yet, if they actually spent more time in the thinking reflection analysis phase, that plan, not only would the plan fundamentally be better, but their actual strategy, right, which is the important part would would would, would be more anti fragile. And it would, it would, it would create more of a winning position for the company. So it's it's counterintuitive, but the most important aspects of life and business are often the things that are counterintuitive. And that's why companies that are really good at strategy and understand the elements of it. And that can then trick can translate that to different functions like product. They're the companies that everybody recognizes and holds up as the most successful, because they get the counterintuitive aspect of it. And they know they don't just sort of fall prey and victim to how we innately want to approach it, they actually sit back and say, Ah, that's not the the the intuitive way to approach it is actually not going to create the outcome that we want. So we've got to have enough discipline and fortitude to say, we're going to approach this in a counterintuitive way, which we know is going to produce the outcome that we want.
Yeah, so important. I just love that perspective. Ryan Frederick, this has been an amazing conversation. Thank you so much for joining me and sharing your wisdom and these these amazing perspectives on strategy. Thanks for joining me.
Ryan 32:27 JJ, thank you.
JJ 32:29 And thank you all for joining me on Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Outro 32:33 Thank you for listening to product voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product voices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.
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