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Strategic thinking skills for product managers "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 19 January 2022 True Leadership Premium Content, Premium Content, strategic thinking, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1960 man brainstorming alone Product Management 7.84
· 9 minute read

Strategic thinking skills for product managers

In Mind the Product’s state of product management survey late last year lots of you said that strategic thinking had been the most important skill in helping you advance your career but it’s certainly not an easy skill to master. We’ve gathered some advice from the community in an attempt to offer some clarity.

In brief

  • Strategic thinking is, in its simplest form, the ability to plan for the future
  • Strategic thinking is hard. So, if you’re finding it difficult to master or frustrating to do, you’re not alone
  • It involves capturing and analysing lots of information something which we’re not typically taught how to do
  • Product people need to find ways to move between tactical and strategic thinking strategic thinking being the big picture, and tactical or critical thinking being their approach to solving problems

What is strategic thinking?

At its simplest, strategic thinking is the ability to plan for the future. By implication then it can be seen as the sole preserve of product leaders. Not so, says Mind the Product’s founder Martin Eriksson, it’s something that every product manager should practise. He says: “The challenge for product is often that especially if you’re ‘just’ a product manager, that you get so stuck into your day-to-day, so all-consumed by the process of taking something off the roadmap and working through all the steps to get it shipped and then moving on to the next thing, that you forget to look up at the horizon. That’s how I think about strategic thinking – it’s not the one foot in front of the other, but where am I actually headed? Where is it taking me? Is it getting me closer to the company vision and mission – or further away? What’s working? What’s not working?” Product managers also need to look at the wider market, at market trends, and remind themselves that their customers have other options, not just product leadership.

In a recent AMA for MTP Leaders, Leadership Mistakes and how to Avoid Them, Tanya Cordrey, former Chief Digital Officer for Guardian News and Media, talked about her biggest mistakes as a product leader. Chief among them was allowing teams to drift away from the strategic vision: “They become rather obsessed with frameworks and processes, end up drifting and find that the process becomes their North Star – the what we do and how we do it becomes the focus rather than the why,” she said. “We have to remember that process is not a strategy, it’s a capability, and it’s a really valuable one and it gives you operational benefits. But, these capabilities cannot permanently affect your firm’s competitive position, less as a strategy, which helps you make the right decisions at the right time.”

Peter Kruty, Director of Product Management for NetSuite in the Czech Republic, recalls a role earlier in his career where he was tasked with getting a stagnating CSM product back on track. As he researched the market, looked at non-customers and broadened his view, he realised that the best move for the business was to stop investing in his product, and that acquiring another product would deliver the growth the company was looking for. “As a product manager I liked my product, and I was counting on it for my work. But thinking more strategically I had to overcome my affection for it.”

Strategic thinking is hard

But we all know that strategy is hard so it tends to get left behind, as Robin Zaragoza, CEO of The Product Refinery, points out. “It’s hard first of all, but secondly it can be looked at as a thing you decide and then it’s done. And that’s the wrong thinking.” Robin comments that you should be making choices about what the business or product is going to do in order to meet the vision or objective, and then constantly proving and validating that you’ve made the right choice. “Then it becomes your strategy.” You need to keep questioning whether all those well-researched features you’ve been working on to delight your customers are in fact moving you towards your business goals.

A man brainstorming alone
Strategic thinking requires you to capture and analysing an enormous amount of information (Image: Shutterstock)

Strategic thinking is difficult partly because it involves capturing and systematically analysing an enormous amount of information – difficult in and of itself, but also something which we’re not typically taught how to do.

How do you hold all that information you might acquire about the market, the direction that competitors are moving in, your plans for your product and your business goals, the impact of COVID, and so on, and turn it all into a set of decisions around the customer base you want to target? Says Robin: “People don’t necessarily have an approach for it. So that’s the thing that makes it hard. Even the most experienced product managers don’t necessarily have a good approach to systematically review strategy. So it’s done differently every single time.”

The closest thing that product managers have to a consistent approach to strategic thinking at the moment is OKRs, says Robin, but you can’t use OKRs effectively without a vision and strategy in place. Whatever the approach you’ve found, it’s also important to think holistically about your strategy, explains Martin. He says he’s come across too many businesses that don’t connect the dots from vision to execution. “Some have great visions but no execution, some great execution but no vision. Too often the missing piece is strategy – not just a business school exercise but the connective tissue between vision and execution.” Martin is currently developing an alignment framework he calls The Decision Stack – this clarifies how to connect the dots from vision and mission, through strategy, objectives, and principles to every single daily decision, so that individual team members can truly understand how their work connects to the bigger picture.

Tactics vs strategic thinking

Product leaders need to find ways to move between tactical and strategic thinking, according to Peter, with strategic thinking being the big picture, and tactical or critical thinking being their approach to solving problems. Being able to move through the levels means you get validation, you make the problems more specific, and you can ground yourself by making problems smaller, real and pragmatic. “It becomes a habit when you’re solving day-to-day problems to check with yourself if we’re doing the right thing from a bigger perspective. So for example, when I assign a project I look at whether someone has capacity for a new project, but also in the back of my mind I think, is this right? Is it giving them an opportunity to shine and grow? This kind of layered thinking needs to be cultivated.”

Thinking strategically is like building a habit. “It’s the only way to do it, and you need to work out what cadence is right for you,” says Martin. “If you’re in sprints, maybe it’s at the end of every two sprints, but whatever the frequency you need to check in regularly and make sure that you’re still headed in the right direction, you’re still impacting the metrics and your goals.” Product leaders need to instil it as a habit in their teams so that their teams understand that strategic thinking is not just for leadership or the C suite. That comes down to consistent communication and giving a team the confidence to execute.

Tips for making time for strategic thinking

We used Mind the Product’s Slack channel to ask product leaders what they do to make a habit out of strategic thinking – these are some of the responses we received (edited for clarity).

“Halt business as usual”

My top trick is to take fewer or no meetings on Fridays to focus on big-picture thinking. It’s about refreshing the memory, halting business as usual, doing a strategic check and letting it roll in the background over the weekend for diffused thinking. I’ve done this for more than five years successfully and trained a few product leaders who rave about the simple technique. Over the years, I’ve developed one-page diagrams from pyramids to canvases depending on the product, company etc. to aid strategic thinking. It’s also why Fridays have been my most effective days a number of times. Harpal Singh – Interim CPO and Product Consultant for MarTech AI Startups

“Schedule time for strategic thinking”

Writing things down, scheduling time to review strategic plans (it forces you to put something together), blocking time (similar to Harpal) and reading about the industry – product and restaurant industry, in my case – it gets creative juices going.

We also do general-purpose user testing of our products and competitors to see how they do (e.g., “Use <competitive product> to <take some core action>“), plus one-to-ones with product people on teams I’m not directly working with; creative juices are flowing when you see how product areas unexpectedly intersect. Miles Skorpen – VP of Product and Design, OpenTable

“Try morning pages”

Morning pages works really well for me – although maintaining the habit is tough! I find them a useful way of making sure every day that I get my head out of the day-to-day and think about the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing. I find it ensures I take a step back at least once a day – and helpfully before I do any actual work. It’s much more about the thinking it provokes rather than the notes themselves. Antonio Gould – Executive Director, Teach Monster Games

“Opening up the time horizon tends to encourage people to think bigger”

One exercise I find success with is asking folks “what do you want analysts/press/the industry to say about the thing you’re considering building in one or two years time?” The prompt shifts thinking to an imaginative/outcomes/value in the future viewpoint. There are many variations on the basic approach for these kinds of retrospective futures exercises – “press release from the future” is a common label to use as an entry point for exploring the toolkit. The scope you ask people to consider can be very granular – for example, the one new feature – but opening up the time horizon tends to encourage people to think “bigger”, both in terms of what to try and get done and the impact. Joe Leech, Product Management Coach

“Set aside time to sit down with other leaders”

For me, strategic thinking begins with having the people you can rely on focused on what’s now and, from time to time, being able to pull them into your thought process as to ‘what is our future?’, ‘what obstacles we are facing?’, and ‘how relevant they are on the way to our vision?’. It also greatly helps to set aside time to sit down with other leaders (formal or not), as the diversity of thinking expands the view of our understanding of the world. Simon Wardley’s maps can be a great asset in uncovering next steps too. Jiri Tuma, CPO, Dataweps

Share your advice

We’d love to know if you have something to add to this piece on strategic thinking and, if you do, you can share them here. We’ll review any tips, tricks or opinions you have to offer and update this article with new information when we have it.

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