Held in the lovely Barbican Conservatory, this year’s #mtpcon London Product Leadership Forum brought together a group of senior product leaders for the type of conversations that can only happen behind closed doors.
As a result, all of the issues discussed were under the Chatham House rule, so you won’t see any direct quotes, but everything reported here comes from the most forward-thinking people in the world of product.
We’ll be sharing what we learned from the forum in 3 individual Parts, over the new few days. Here’s Part 1.
The Forgotten art of Product Strategy
Almost 20 years ago, Ben Horowitz wrote that good product teams know “the market, the product, the product line, and the competition well”, and this is just as true today as it was then. You can get away with not having a strong product strategy for a few weeks or months – but it will impact how strong or effective your team is in the long term.
The most common product mistakes fall into two camps:
1. Framework Fanatics
There is an abundance of frameworks (lean, agile, etc), and taken with their associated webinars, sessions, and specialists, they end up becoming the centre of peoples’ worlds. However, these guides should not be your guiding light and they shouldn’t be an end result in themselves. They should simply be a means to an end.
2. Optimisation Optimists
You need to weigh up the opportunity cost for every decision, and keep in mind that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Teams that focus solely on optimisations tend to fail to look at the wider opportunities around them. They reduce the skills of the product managers and make effective products much harder to deliver and maintain.
Agile is not a Strategy
Becoming good at agile is not a strategy – it is a capability that should be built. It’s a framework, rather than something that will set you apart in the market long term. It can’t be successful without a product strategy to back it up.
Even the most effective of processes becomes unusable if taken to extremes. If you become completely reliant on a Discovery process, then nothing gets done without speaking to hundreds of people. It can reduce the ability of your team to make decisions and means nothing gets shipped.
A Good Idea is not the Same as a Great Opportunity
Every product team has good ideas. However many product teams clog up their backlogs with small iterations that have minimal impact. They must leave room for big changes that will have a serious impact on their product and organisation.
Product managers should be scanning the horizon for changes in consumer habits, competitors or new trends. Without looking at these, they can end up simply focusing on small changes which won’t keep the business afloat.
A good product manager prioritises opportunities that will have the biggest impact.
Be Worried if You’re Seen as a Cost Centre
The average squad probably costs about £1m each year. So, if you’re not providing a return on that investment, you won’t be seen as a value creator. We have to be clear on the amount of value we put back into the business – and be happy to be measured on it.
Visions are About the Future
Good product visions should be emotional and look ahead three to five years. The best product strategies are about being different and what you can deliver to cut-through a market. A good strategy contains a clear set of steps that the business will take – and just as importantly what they won’t.
Good product strategies include:
- The market – what’s happening around you?
- Tech shifts – what’s possible now that wasn’t before?
- Consumers – how are needs and expectations changing?
- Internal strengths – where are you going to build a competitive advantage?
- Key strategic steps – what are your three to five priority steps for the future and why will your competitors find them hard to copy?
- Product impact on value – how does this strategy change your business?
Most product strategies don’t cover all of this. They simply describe an ambition or desired outcome, not how it’s going to happen. You need to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
You can read more on this in The Forgotten art of Product Strategy by Tanya Cordrey.
How to Create Effective Product Strategies
Don’t Just Focus on What You’re Delivering
A product strategy needs a narrative around it. When you focus simply on a series of features you ship, no one senior will listen. Instead, look at the wider market opportunity, discuss the barriers that will prevent you from getting there and how you’re going to overcome them. From here, wider groups can start to rally around the plan and contribute to it.
Sell Visions by Showing People What you Mean
It can be tempting to focus on frameworks or abstract concepts in strategies. However, there’s nothing like showing people what you mean by prototypes or designs. Again, from here you can build support for your strategy and get other people excited about it.
Make Your Product Visions big
Many organisations have extremely strong data optimisation and visualisation teams, so you should set your aim further than data can predict. A product vision should be big enough to help people come up with massive ideas and opportunities. For example, rather than being a market-leading game, look at becoming a significant part of pop culture (like Candy Crush has).
Tell Stories to Build a Narrative Around Your Strategy
If you can’t describe a vision or strategy in three slides, no one will listen. Ask yourself, “what are the three things someone needs to remember from this meeting” – and base everything you say around guiding people towards that.
Numbers Don’t Work for Everyone
You need to get people in the organisation onside to build support for your strategy and plans, so you should explain things in terms that people understand. For many audiences, this doesn’t mean a continual focus on numbers. For some, it means appealing to their hearts rather than heads to get decisions made. For others, it means starting with the emotional pitch and then following up with data and numbers.
OKRs are not Product Strategy
The way we manage individuals on our team must align with our strategic visions. For many, they actually get in the way rather than support these plans. You can’t achieve big change or success, by only focussing on the smallest of details in these micro-plans for people.
Talk to people about money, user experience and how you’ll make it happen
The advice is often not to show prototypes or designs to senior stakeholders. People worry that they’ll focus on the details and specifics which we’ll get held to later. However, for the budget to be signed off, you often need to show people where you’re going to get to. It’s important that they can be made to feel what the future experience could be like. Combine a plan with the financials and designs to hit all the things that people care about.
Different products need different strategies
Many leaders will be managing different types of products. A consumer-facing product needs a very different strategy to a platform you’re building. Leaders’ roles are often in helping create a system and set of skills for their people to make better decisions in all of these different contexts. This can include setting up different guard rails or constraints for your teams to follow when building their strategies.