It’s 6:45pm and 61 people from the world of digital product and design are networking in Huckletree’s event space. As Mel McVeigh, product director at Opposite Days and co-host for the evening, takes to the stage, people make their way to seats in the modern auditorium. On the screen reads ‘Is Product Strategy Broken?’ – the subject for tonight’s discussion.
Mel opens by explaining that the purpose of tonight is to discuss this question and product strategy as a whole and that she wanted to "keep it small, keep it local, and keep it open." She introduces Jane Austin, director of product design at Babylon Health, and Jane Honey, product director at Intercom. Then the debate begins.
As co-hosts, we have drawn up our key takeaways from the event below.
Product strategists need to drive cultural shifts
One of the key problems facing product managers is a lack of understanding about the right approach to strategic questions. Many organisations believe that they need a product strategy, but do not fully understand where it fits in the process. Is strategy just strategy and do you need a translation of commercial strategy with a product lens?
This means that many product managers and designers join businesses that are very delivery and execution-focused and don’t leave enough time for strategic thinking. They are overly invested in metrics, delivery, and shipping products and services; consequently driving the wrong behaviour because they sometimes don’t step back and simply ask: "Why?".
This behaviour is then passed down within the product team and across the business, making it very difficult to change. This means that some product strategists – through no fault of their own – are not taught the mind set or the methodologies to drive strategy effectively, resulting in ‘broken’ product strategy. Product strategists need to champion strategic culture to gain the best results.
A large part of this, according to Mel, is down to making people feel safe to be creative and innovative. A culture that encourages exploration and curiosity will, by default, reach a more successful end result. People will naturally be resistant to changing their behaviour, but you can’t be an advocate of "ship to learn" if you are not driving that culture internally. Change management is very often linked to product strategy.
Go beyond quantitative data and trust your intuition
Poor product strategy comes by leaning too strongly on data and metrics for safety. Quantitative data can be powerful, but should not be taken in isolation. Instead, start with gathering qualitative insight as part of a team activity and synthesizing that knowledge.
Focusing on science, metrics, or specific, quantitative end results can often overlook some of the most important client needs. Typically, a product strategy involves a number of different stakeholders, each with their own unique objectives.
It’s important to consolidate and get to the heart of these to get the optimum solution – the test for success may not be as obvious as initial metrics, which can be misleading. Instead, by taking a holistic view of metrics at a macro-level (commercial, customer behaviour, operational), you can achieve a longer-term solution. Always trust your intuition.
Product strategists need to be curious
Curiosity is a key part of product culture and there are two types of curiosity: solving puzzles and solving mysteries. Product strategists need to do both, but we tend to anchor on the puzzles. While solving puzzles – for example, rolling out new platforms, integration, fixing infrastructure – fits into certain delivery models, there are too many product strategists that shy away from solving mysteries.
Design and creativity are both unknown areas that it can be impossible to put structure around. However, this is a fundamental part of product strategy. If you can’t support both types of curiosity, you do not have a strategy. Mel argued that for this reason, she believes that product strategy could be broken.
Simply put, there are not enough people looking at the ‘grey’ areas of customer experience and where new opportunities may exist; too many are focused on delivery and solving known problems. There are two ways to look at a problem: outcome-focused with a clear end goal, and / or identifying an opportunity space starting with a mix of insight, data, and customer to design a new solution or opportunity.
Knowing your customers is fundamental
Jane Honey disagreed that product strategy was broken, simply because getting to know your customers can be hard work and is not always done successfully. A clear vision should consist of two or three sentences that can repeatedly be consulted and all activity should stem from that. It’s important not to jump immediately from strategy to idea, but to go constantly back to the translation layer at every step to ensure that you are accurately delivering against the customer’s needs.
It’s important to take the time to clearly articulate and agree values, principles, and processes for building the product. Having a clear idea of how you’re going to achieve the objectives means that you can build an aligned and realistic strategy. Jane Honey said that she spent 40% of her time defining what success looks like and building an understanding of the customer (including looking at analytics, talking to designers, articulating the problem), and 60% on solution design and delivery. This gives greater clarity and meaning to every step you take from that point.
Slow it down to speed it up
It can be easy to get caught up in a delivery-focused culture which is driven by achieving end goals. As a result, many product people fail to take the necessary time and space to look at the bigger picture. Jane Honey suggested reviewing your "winning strategy document" every year (or as often as needed), to ensure that your efforts were always aligned to the company’s core ambitions. In smaller companies, she suggested going after "low-hanging fruit" in design and engineering in order to reduce workload and take enough of a step back.
It's also important to slow down in order to understand your customer and what they are trying to achieve. Stakeholders may push back on slow timescales and want to rush ahead, but this can actually delay the project as you hit speed bumps. In a twelve-month period, you are better to spend two months working with engineers and scoping requirements rather than delivering for the sake of delivering. People don’t make rational decisions by rushing.
So, is product strategy broken?
This really depends on your viewpoint. Some audience members felt that it didn’t exist, others that product strategy was a new name for old tricks (and that renaming was subsequently devaluing). Mel, Jane H., and Jane A. took different angles. However, there seemed to be a common consensus that there was such a thing as good product strategy and bad product strategy. If product strategy was broken, it was because it wasn’t being implemented properly. On the other hand, perhaps by not being followed, it was never working to begin with? The debate continues.
We’d like to say a big thank you from everyone at Onezeero to our guest speakers, co-host Opposite Days, and attendees. We hope you had a great time and enjoy these takeaways from the event. If you have a recruitment need to grow your product strategy team in 2019, or are looking for your next career move, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re working with people just like you, for people just like you, right now.