Product strategy is hard.
And let’s be clear: it should be. It’s a messy world out there, and strategy is all about trying to bring some order to that chaos.
Like many things, though, the difficulty of the project doesn’t negate its importance. No matter how hard strategy is, you still need one. And the inputs that go into product strategy, from how your company is positioned in the market, to its current financial solvency, to the resources you have to allocate, to any number of other things that provide a cavalcade of options to align the company with your customers’ wants and the direction of your leadership. With so many different ways to go, how do you know if you’re doing it right?
How well the product performs based on market projections is often how an organization as a whole grades product. This performance is our responsibility, especially since product managers are usually either making, advocating or evangelizing the decisions that affected it. Accordingly, the best companies judge product leaders based on their ability to understand which inputs are important, manage them, and craft a strategy that ultimately brings the ideas to life successfully in the marketplace.
That organizational adjudication is all well and good. After all, good market performance is what the company wants out of a product. But it raises the question of how you should judge your own or your team’s product strategy on a granular level.
Well, like most aspects of product management, it depends. Every team is different, which means each one will require different metrics for grading its work. I don’t promise a silver bullet for this problem, but as a product person, you should be used to that by now.
What I can offer instead is a couple of key ingredients to any grading rubric. Effective product strategy lowers decision fatigue while simultaneously increasing team flexibility by providing psychological safety around decision-making. You need to think about how well your strategy does that. So let’s talk about it.
What Is Decision Fatigue?
Every decision we make tires us mentally. Decision fatigue, then, refers to the tendency of our decision-making ability to deteriorate in quality over the course of a long session. This phenomenon should remain top-of-mind for product managers. After all, what is product development but a bunch of decisions we make in order to improve the probability of launching a successful product?
Every decision we make has a cost. And that’s true not just of our decisions, but those of our teammates as well. Each time the team picks a particular course of action, the next decision becomes harder to make and is likelier to be flawed. This process is heightened every time we struggle with a particular decision. The more work you have to do to decide, the more fatigued you get.
Product Strategy Should Make Decision-Making Easier
Now that we’ve explored decision fatigue, let’s talk about the role of product strategy and how it helps teams stay focused.
Product strategy takes many forms. If you’re in a highly competitive industry, it could have guidelines on how you’ll attack the competitors. If you’re focused on growth, it’ll detail ways to get there. If you’re technology-driven, you’ll look for places where your technology will be more effective. So the particulars of your strategy will change based on your market and your goals.
What doesn’t change, however, is that when a person is on the strategy team, they need to feel comfortable making a decision. Feeling unsafe is a drain on your internal energy reserves. We’ve all felt how bad leadership and unnecessary ambiguity take their toll on our ability to make rational decisions and produce consistent business results. Psychological safety is a good bulwark against decision fatigue.
Your job as a product manager is to raise psychological safety by giving your people good product strategy. This means being as clear as possible about everything you can. Your strategy should clearly communicate the assets that the team has to work with, the boundaries that exist, and provide some narrative that team members can use to assist them with decision-making.
For example, let’s say I’m creating the strategy for an innovation team. I want my document to list assets such as the number of hours allocated to different disciplines within the project. I also need to alert the team to boundaries they face, like which tools and technologies are off the table. Finally, I need to tell the team about any narrative that should guide their work, such as the company’s target of raising revenue by 5 percent. The strategy lays all this information out in one place for easy access.
A good strategy gives a team concrete guidelines within which to operate. A team that doesn’t have to think about where they need to start or what might be off-limits is a team that can focus directly on the problem at hand. If your product strategy doesn’t provide enough background to help them make decisions, you’ll find that they either:
- Make decisions that may not be the best ideas for the company at the time, or
- Don’t decide on anything at all.
Tack onto this the fact that teams can and will do both of these things in the process of a project. Worse, they’ll do them with little to no consistency, making it hard to predict which mistake you’ll have to confront. All of this means it’s a matter of time until the team zigs when it should zag, especially as decision fatigue sets in.
Let’s be clear here, there is a difference between being descriptive and prescriptive. Good strategy is the former, not the latter. We use strategy to help teams understand what the world is, not exactly what to do. That’s why providing safety by giving the team context to make decisions is so important. When they feel safe, not only will they deliver more consistent outcomes, but you’ll also find they operate with more creativity as well. When team members feel that they’re not in danger of making mistakes, they feel more freedom to experiment and engage their creativity.
In short, a good product strategy is a document that reduces uncertainty and the overall number of decisions that must be made while also providing cover for those decisions. Your team should be able to take a look at your strategy and feel comfortable that following it leads to fewer headaches down the road.
Testing Your Strategy
Let’s say you have a product strategy that’s ready. Your leadership team thinks that it will lower decision fatigue and empower people to make decisions. At this point, you should ask some questions to sharpen it up. Note that these can go too far, though, and balance is important.
Is my product strategy reducing the number of decisions my teams are making?
The best way to lower fatigue is to cut down on the number of “boring” decisions your team makes. Your strategy and the accompanying artifacts (design systems, roadmaps, etc.) should help people narrow the possible choices and paperwork involved in any decision so that they can focus on what really matters.
If you overdo things here, though, you’ll find that teams become robotic because they will wait for top-down direction on every subject. This kind of decisional paralysis is particularly bad for teams in complex environments, like innovation teams, who need extra flexibility since they run into failure so often.
Is my product strategy lowering the context needed to make decisions?
Another way to combat fatigue is to limit the amount of information someone needs to make a decision. Your strategy should identify which decisions are negotiable (i.e., what technology to use) and which are non-negotiable (i.e., if you have a limited budget). The accompanying artifacts (epics, initiatives, etc.) should reinforce which items are non-negotiable by using active, clear language. Avoid fluff.
Remember, it’s important to not fall into the trap of being prescriptive. Product strategy describes the world; it doesn’t prescribe which actions to take.
Is my product strategy making it safer to make decisions?
Product strategy should raise psychological safety by providing protection for front-line employees making decisions. Your accompanying artifacts (team charters, value docs, etc.) will enforce what is “right” by giving teams insight into what leadership and other stakeholders define as good work.
Don’t fall into the trap of overgeneralizing here, as you’ll then run headfirst into “toxic positivity culture” and people will be afraid to criticize anything at all. If everything is good, nothing is good. Standards matter.
Overall, you should focus on making sure your product strategy is helping your product teams work to reduce decision fatigue without reducing the quality of people’s decisions. Good product strategy is designed to make sure that your teams are all rowing together to improve the probability of good decisions. Eventually, that leads to good customers and a great business.