Strategic digital product management: strategy

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Few words in corporate lingo are more overused than “strategy.” Frequently, problems in companies are attributed to the lack of a clear strategy. In practice, however, it often is the lack of alignment around the strategy. This tends to lead to a situation where there’s an official strategy in the documents and presentations and another, implicit, one where people are doing what they think is best. Obviously not a recipe for success.

From a product management perspective, there’s a significant need for developing a clear strategy connecting the different levels at which a product manager operates – feature, product and ecosystem. Developing this strategy should focus on formulating a clear why and the consequences for the what. This might be more involved when it concerns the company and portfolio levels and less effort-consuming when it concerns features, components and subsystems, but in practice, it’s important to have a clear “why” and “what” there as well to focus the efforts of the R&D teams.

In the companies I work with, I’ve seen at least three challenges: making choices, lack of alignment and bailing. A product manager often has lots of responsibility but very little authority to make decisions. Instead, the role is concerned with taking input from a wide variety of stakeholders, combining this and putting together a strategy that optimally balances the various forces. The problem I’ve seen play out many times is that it proves to be surprisingly difficult to say no to certain ideas. Instead, the product manager is incentivized to give everyone a little bit of what they’re asking for.

This leads to at least two problems. First, the plan tends to get overloaded and the R&D team implementing the prioritized functionality loses motivation as it’s clear that it simply is impossible to deliver. The second problem is that the result often fails to meet the needs of anyone. As I wrote in an earlier post, trying to be everything to everyone results in being nothing to no one.

The second challenge is concerned with the lack of alignment. Even if there is a strategy that has been formulated and formally accepted by key decision-makers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will also be executed. Frequently, some parts of the organization start executing the strategy whereas others pay it lip service but by and large keep doing what they’ve always done. This lack of alignment generates lots of activity and frustration but very few results as the different parts of the strategy don’t get together.

This challenge isn’t just limited to R&D, but it’s even more common across functions in a company. A typical example is when the company decides to offer customers digital solutions that are monetized using a subscription model or another continuous mechanism. R&D has built the solution, but the sales function doesn’t manage to sell it. Typically, this isn’t because customers don’t want it but because the bonus is so much higher for selling traditional products in a transactional model that the sales staff refuse to spend time on something that doesn’t generate income for them.

The third challenge is bailing on the strategy. Even when a company puts an ambitious strategy in place and manages to engage everyone, there still is a significant risk that people lose hope and abandon the strategy when it doesn’t immediately lead to success. Often, this can be identified when key opinion leaders start to talk about where the revenue comes from, that the old way of doing things is still working and there’s no need to change, and that they never believed in this new strategy anyway. That leads to a gradual abandonment of the strategy and we end up in a lack of alignment situation, even if we didn’t start there.

The best way to address this is to make choices. My favorite definition of strategy is by Michael Porter: strategy is deciding what not to do. Product management has to simply cut away from all the requests and demands until they’re left with a consistent, holistic and realistic strategy that can be executed realistically and leads to a focused, clear outcome.

As it’s quite challenging to manage this for many product managers, tactics can help reduce the difficulty. In my experience, there are three that are particularly useful. The first is what I often refer to as the Barbara Bush approach: Just Say No. In many cases, there’s a constant nudging by stakeholders that ceases when a clear no has been communicated. This is often uncomfortable as we’re all human beings who like to get along, but it can cut out a lot of hassle.

The second strategy is morphing. We take multiple requests and morph them into one manageable chunk of functionality. The important step here is to clearly communicate how the original request is now part of this morphed functionality and therefore people got most of what they wanted.

The third strategy has become much easier with the adoption of DevOps and that’s to sequence. It’s basically saying “yes, but not now” and then promising the functionality to be built in an upcoming sprint or release. There’s the risk of kicking the can down the road as future sprints may also require this functionality to be punted, but at least it placates some of the key stakeholders who don’t want to take no for an answer.

Although defining and executing a strategy is easy from a theoretical perspective, it’s surprisingly difficult to accomplish in practice. Companies often don’t want to make choices, the strategy lacks alignment or teams and individuals bail on the strategy when there isn’t immediate success. Still, product management needs to define a strategy that’s realistic, focused and consistent. Some strategies for managing stakeholders include saying no, morphing and sequencing. To end with a quote by Max McKeown: “Strategy is about shaping the future.”

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