Part 1 presented symptoms that arise in the process of implementing product strategies that aren’t “digital” enough—meaning that they don’t effectively anticipate or address the emerging needs of product managers and teams. If any of these symptoms are familiar to you and your team, it’s worth discussing how the product strategy might be strengthened to alleviate them.
A product strategy may have issues simply because it is unintentionally biased by the focus and experience of those who are tasked with formulating it. A CDO may bring a very high degree of “digital” influence to the strategy, but may lack pragmatic experience building and delivering a variety of products types at scale. Whereas a CPO may produce a very thorough focus on the “What” and “Why” but insufficiently factor the impact of changes in the “How” that will affect the performance of the product organization as they implement the strategy.
A strategy is often made less effective simply because its approach has been too cookie-cutter. Strategy, in a business context, is a tool for planning, consensus-building, and direction-setting among the executive management. The classic approach to strategy is that stakeholders (often with consultants) articulate a plan for the future — based largely on quantifying the known in order to project the expected — and then make decisions about the future. This strategy is given to the next tier of management to define the details, align budgets, and plan for resources and operational details. After the planning and budgeting cycle is done, the plan gets executed, with the outcome not fully measurable until completion.
Another characteristic of strategies is the urgency surrounding them, often expressed as a reticence to get feedback or analyze decisions and assumptions— we already have buy-in, just get going. This can reflect the challenge of building consensus and getting buy-in, especially where there’s a high degree of uncertainty or disagreement about the future. It may also be a tacit signal that there is a gut-level awareness that the strategy is incomplete or is glossing over some potential show-stopping issues, but it’s politically or culturally unacceptable to dissent.
Just because a product strategy has been produced and agreed to doesn’t mean it is correct or will be effective. And just because a product strategy isn’t all it should be doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.
Static strategies can make a product organization or even a business look like a zombie — making mistake after mistake, completely unaware, and oblivious to anything except what the strategy dictates.
Strategies can become static if they are only used as an initial stage gate, if they provide little to no ongoing value, or if they lose relevance as time goes by because too many things have changed. Strategies are inherently static if they don’t acknowledge, allow for, and facilitate the adoption of changes — especially at levels that are clearly changing or where there is a high degree of uncertainty. Strategies need to be at least as dynamic and evolving as the context to which they are applied.
The goal is to be sure that the strategy doesn’t get stuck in the initial gate, but instead becomes a tool that remains useful. If there is a growing gap between what your product strategy said and what is actually happening, people should be asking: Was the product strategy missing some key points? Are we still actually following a strategic path or are we just bushwhacking?
A static approach can be made more dynamic—brought to life— in 3 ways (and ideally all three would be integrated as part of an ongoing product strategy function):
The idea behind a portfolio approach is that is that there is no sure bet on future outcomes. Knowing what you will measure and how you will interpret findings in advance means you are more likely to actually do it and be able to make smart decisions.
Right out of the gate, the focus shifts away from the other quadrants. They haven’t become suddenly less relevant, yet what they might imply is often assumed as not relevant to forward-looking product strategy. However, those in charge of product strategy can pull a clever trick: they can simply decide to make those other quadrants relevant by looking at them as inputs and exploring relationship scenarios between quadrants over time as a product strategy would be put in play. This will lead to questions that the strategy should seek to confirm as relevant/irrelevant, and when relevant, explain why, and based on what decisions and implications.
The goal is two-fold: (1) make sure there aren’t unstated assumptions being made by other areas of the business about what the product strategy is unaware, and (2) make sure project strategy doesn’t inadvertently miss key interdependencies. The following questions are examples taking this kind of approach when using the Ansoff matrix:
There may be some reluctance to re-approaching a product strategy that has already been approved or is well underway. Every business needs to consider the kinds of issues they are facing and weigh the costs and benefits of a bespoke solution (i.e., fix it in a product-by-product context) or holistic solution (i.e., address it at a product strategy level). In either case, at least understand what issues can be addressed earlier and how you can improve subsequent strategy exercises. Taking a more considered approach to measuring the effectiveness of the strategy as it is implemented can also begin to shift the overall mind-set away from static strategies, and enable more flexible strategies that provide more value to the teams who implement them.