How To Design a Bulletproof Product Strategy

Anytime a company consistently ships product faster than the average, people will assume they are doing something heroic.

What secrets do these companies hide? What kind of superhuman teams work there? How do these teams get the support they need?

We believe shipping remarkable experiences doesn’t have to be a heroic effort. In fact, it should never be. Excellent product strategy isn’t the domain of mythological heroes, it is available to everyone. You just need to be willing to do the work.

Great product companies have four things in common: a clear product vision; a product strategy; a set of priorities; and a way to measure outcomes. We’ve already discussed the reasons companies struggle with these, and discussed how to create these tools for product success in other articles, but we’ve heard from readers that they’d like more details on Product Strategy and how it fits into existing product environments.

Product Strategy is a fancy way of saying, “this is how we will behave day-to-day to accomplish our end goal”.

Regardless whether you are starting from scratch or rewriting an existing product strategy, a successful company will have a product strategy that has the following attributes:

It must answer the “why”, “what” & “how” questions your team will have.

It must align with the vision of the product.

It must align with the overarching company brand.

It must describe team behavior that lead to desired outcomes.

It must provide a clear way to prioritize activities.

It must be communicated clearly and frequently.

It must be flexible enough to remain relevant in a changing landscape.

On the other hand, a product strategy is not a magic wand that will instantly transform your organization overnight. It takes hard work to guide a strategy through the inevitable political and operational obstacles. We’ll talk more about how to deal with these things later.

At it’s core, a Product Strategy guides your team’s behavior through the ups and downs of a product journey. Unless you’re a newly minted startup, there’s a very good chance you’re already on this journey.

Let’s borrow a visual metaphor from Scott Belsky and look at the typical journey of shipping a major product experience:

Typical product experience journey.

In reality, it’s not even this simple. Most products face multiple ups and downs as they navigate their development cycles, with a honeymoon phase is always followed by periods of frustration.

More likely, as the research suggests, mature companies attempting to enter new businesses fail as often as 99% of the time. This research doesn’t even measure individual projects that never get off the starting blocks. If you’re in a large company, it’s statistically likely things will look like this…

The bad news is that almost every project journey has the potential to follow this downhill trajectory. The good news is that knowing this is how projects fail makes it easier to overcome the pitfalls and set expectations.

Like any journey, if you know what’s over the next hill you can plan ahead. Being bulletproof assumes there will be bullets. This is where a product vision and strategy comes in.

Creating a Product Strategy

You’ll need to decide where your product team sits on the journey illustrated in the graphs above. Are you just starting out or are you suffering through the doldrums? Determine if you need to start from scratch, or if you just need to remold what you have. Remember, it all starts with a clear Product Vision.

A Product Strategy doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. It builds on the foundation provided by a clear product vision. Think of it as the telescope that points to the horizon. Regardless of the terrain between your departure point and the horizon, the telescope sets its sights on your destination.

If the company does not have a clear vision then there will be problems downstream. Developing a clear vision is a requirement of having a clear product strategy. If you do not have an articulated product vision we recommend the Radical Product toolkit as a guide for developing one. It’s free and self-guided, so you can give it a try with your team today.

Before embarking on the product strategy work, have a clear answer to “What is your product vision?”

Developing the Product Strategy is not a discrete project. It must live along with the vision and prioritization principles to be effective. In our visual metaphor, think of it as a vehicle to get to your destination. It has constraints, but within those constraints is the flexibility to adapt to the road ahead.

The vehicle is like a set of instructions to tell the driver how to respond to different terrain. In essence, a strategy is nothing more than an agreement (shared values) on how the team will behave (shared language and guidelines) in various circumstances in order to achieve their goals.

The answers to these questions are the instructions for the team. The answers are the foundations of your product strategy.

  1. What validated problems will your product solve for your users or customers?
  2. What will be the most important user-facing parts of your product?
  3. What experience and emotions will your product and brand convey?
  4. How will you deliver on the promises made by your product’s design?
  5. What technology, expertise, data, partnerships, or other capabilities must you develop?
  6. How will your product get into your customers’ hands?
  7. How will you support it?
  8. How will people pay?
  9. Is there a subscription or upgrade model?

Only once you can answer these questions can you honestly say you have a strategy. The answers to these questions guide your team how to act.

A well conceived strategy will ensure the downstream activities, like prioritization, are better served. Knowing what to do next is the #1 concern of product managers. Just like our snowmobile in the visual above, if you have instructions on how to deal with snowdrifts, you’ll know what to prioritize.

Prioritization is nothing more than a set of choices or decisions about what to give your attention to. “What will we work on now, versus later?” Think of them as your map on this journey.

The map (roadmap) you choose is result of a clear product vision and strategy. Like any journey, you’ll select the map based on where you’re headed. Maps are also updated and improved over time, as your roadmap will be.

Template for an integrated roadmap. Source: Radical Product

Teams choose different roadmap frameworks to help them make decisions. Each framework has its strengths and weaknesses, but we don’t recommend agonizing over which one to choose — the framework is primarily a way of establishing shared assumptions and ways of communicating. A lack of decision making frameworks leads to confusion and delays.

The team also needs to be held accountable for what they prioritize. Metrics help you understand what’s working and what’s failing. Seen from the product strategy and prioritization perspective, metrics tell you what‘s working and what’s not working. That will guide your next steps decisions.

Metrics are captured throughout this journey.

By measuring outcomes you can course correct. Companies tend to measure the wrong things. There’s too much emphasis on internal metrics and not enough measurement of the customer’s happiness. See any feedback, negative or positive, as the magnetic force that sets your compass direction.

A product vision points the way; a product strategy tells the team how to deal with the obstacles and opportunities; the roadmap reminds the team what to focus their energy on; and the metrics tell them what’s working and whether a reprioritization is necessary.

Seen through the lens of our metaphor…

When implemented, these four elements will never be static. In Mike Tyson terms, you’ll get punched in the face. When that happens, and it will, you’ll need to adjust, adapt and improve your strategy.

Final Thoughts

A well-crafted vision is almost always simple. But, not so simple that it fails to convey what makes it special. The vision and strategy should be something almost anyone can understand, and should describe the depth of value the product aims to deliver.

A vision should also be aspirational, or even virtually unattainable, as long as it inspires your team and customers to reach for the new future it describes. Humans are emotional animals — we need inspiring ideas to motivate us.

In contrast, a product strategy needs to be extremely pragmatic.

It should only focus on one big idea. To attain clarity it is necessary to tackle one problem at a time. Don’t be greedy.

If you already have a product strategy, and you’re looking to improve it, the temptation might be to add new process, policy or guidelines to your teams. Adding this cruft moves you in exactly the wrong direction. Instead, seek ways to simplify elements of your current behavior or processes to find stronger alignment with your product vision.

Creating vision or strategy can be hard work but communicating it can be harder. Based on hundreds of interviews with product leaders, we’ve written an article to help you communicate your vision and product strategy to your team, your executives, your customers and to the influencers that can be insanely important in your quest.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s an entire book full of this stuff. Along with with two masters of product, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw, I’ve written a book that all product professionals can benefit from.

We’ve interviewed hundreds of product leaders from around the world and from companies big and small. Their insights and experiences will take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.

You can follow us on the twitters at @rmbanfield @bfgmartin and @nwalkingshaw

The book is available on Amazon.

This story is published in Noteworthy, where 10,000+ readers come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.

Follow our publication to see more product & design stories featured by the Journal team.

Dad, husband, cyclist, product and design transformation leader. I write books on design & product.