10 Tips for Improving Your Product Strategy

The first step to developing an effective product strategy is carving out time to think strategically.
Hal Koss
April 30, 2020
Updated: August 12, 2020
Hal Koss
April 30, 2020
Updated: August 12, 2020

Any product strategy worth its salt will explain who the product is for, what pain points it’ll solve, how it’s different from competing products and why your company should spend the time and resources it takes to build it.

Putting one together is easier said than done — especially if your time is mostly spent stamping out fires, leading meetings and making a thousand tiny tactical decisions a day. But, investing in sound, high-level strategy is super important.

We asked product leaders about how they lead their teams and manage to think strategically at the same time. Here’s what they said:

How to Improve Your Product Strategy

  • Take time to think strategically.
  • Know your audience.
  • Break up projects differently.
  • Involve customers when possible.
  • Prioritize continuous delivery.
  • Communicate with your engineers.
  • Provide your team with autonomy.
  • Stay focused.
  • Evaluate constantly.
  • It’s OK to fail.

 

1. CARVE OUT TIME TO THINK STRATEGICALLY

bufrem product strategyExcellent product managers take time to be strategic, and it is an absolute must for you to do well in the role. My biggest advice is to block off time and schedule meetings with yourself and treat that time like gold. I have deep-thinking times about three times a week, where it’s an entire afternoon or an entire morning.

If you don’t lock up this time and make it really explicit in your calendar, it becomes very easy for people to just schedule over your entire day, and you feel like you’re only in meetings and that you can’t really spend time to think strategically.

— Gabrielle Bufrem, manager of product management at VMware

 

2. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN PROPOSING A STRATEGY SHIFT

bedell product strategyWhen it comes to raising the flag to founders and investors, I think they would be appreciative that you’re recognizing that something isn’t working and identifying new solutions along with it.

If you’re trying to get buy-in from your CEO, you might go to them with data and business outcomes to illustrate your point. If you’re going to get buy-in from sales, you might use customer interviews and feedback. It’s just about being adaptive.

— Claire BeDell, director of product management at Invisibly

 

3. CONSIDER MOVING FROM TWO-WEEK SPRINTS TO SIX-WEEK PROJECTS

vanderbyl product strategyWe had all these scrum ceremonies, meetings, emails, PowerPoints and so on. We were filling our days with meetings. And after a while, you start to notice the impact that all this break in flow has on the productivity of the R&D team. So we looked for alternative ways to organize ourselves. We looked to the company Basecamp, which had just put out a book called Shape Up.

Instead of having a two-week sprint and trying to manage everyone’s time pretty rigorously to deliver something within two weeks, we instead break our work up into six-week projects, where we let the teams go off and do their thing and deliver something. We found that six weeks is not really far out in the future — you can still have an educated guess of what you can achieve in six weeks. But it’s not so short that you can’t achieve anything, which we found was kind of the case with a two-week sprint.

— Ivan Vanderbyl, director of product management of Tricentis Flood

 

4. GET CUSTOMERS REALLY INVOLVED

monegro product strategyOur marketplace has a buyer side and seller side. Every six months, we let customers on both sides of the marketplace make a compelling case for why they should be on what we call our product advisory board. We’ll review them and ultimately have 20 customers on both sides of the marketplace who are essentially part of the product team.

The expectation is they’re available for us to get on a phone call, respond to emails, review wireframes — act like they’re building a product with us. And in return, they get to influence the product. That’s been super helpful for discovery-type work. It’s informal and organic conversations largely happen when we do that.

— Hostos Monegro, director of product management at LeafLink

 

5. PRIORITIZE CONTINUOUS DISCOVERY

bufrem product strategyIt’s really important for product discovery not to be seen as something you only do in part of the sprint. It should be something that you do all the time.

Great product managers talk to customers at least three times a week — that is the minimum. And that can be for either validating what problem you’re trying to solve, or it can be for doing usability or value prototyping with customers.

I think a lot of PMs get very overwhelmed with all the day-to-day work and don’t really see discovery as something that should be a part of every day. And they do it only if they’re trying to validate something, or if they’re trying to see if their requests make sense or not. But you should be continuously discovering.

— Gabrielle Bufrem, manager of product management at VMware

 

6. KEEP ENGINEERS IN THE STRATEGY LOOP

bedell product strategyCommunicate [with engineers] early and often, even when there’s not a problem. Giving them the context of why they’re building what they’re building goes a really long way. Ultimately, they’re part of the business, and they should understand the business needs of the product that they’re working on. That way, when things do need to change and shift, they will hopefully understand the reasoning.

While it’s unfortunate sometimes if they’ve “wasted time” on something that’s not going to continue, at least they know why and they’re not caught in this sense of having no control over the situation.

— Claire BeDell, director of product management at Invisibly

 

7. GIVE YOUR TEAM ENOUGH AUTONOMY

monegro product strategyIf zero autonomy is on one end of the spectrum and on the other end is complete autonomy, you don’t want to be on either end; it’s a matter of finding where on that spectrum makes sense for you.

We’re currently around 75 percent autonomy. People want to have control of what they’re going to do. They feel empowered by it, and we want to make sure our teams have that. But then we also don’t give too much, where it becomes too intimidating or uncomfortable for some people. And [we want to] provide comfort for our leadership team to have influence and have a say. It’s a nice balance for us.

— Hostos Monegro, director of product management at LeafLink

 

8. STAY FOCUSED AND KNOW WHAT NOT TO DO

bufrem product strategyThe best product strategy advice I’ve ever received is that strategy is about what you decide not to do. It’s very tempting to do a lot of things, to be a player for everyone. But successful companies typically decide what they’re going to do and, most importantly, what they’re not going to do. Focus is extremely important.

I push teams to focus and set one objective and key result that drives the part of the business that they want to focus on right now. Otherwise, you risk what we call peanut buttering — spreading your efforts so thin, like toppings on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That doesn’t amount to anything substantial for either the business side or customer side.

Strategy is all about being comfortable making tradeoffs.

— Gabrielle Bufrem, manager of product management at VMware

 

9. BUILD A CULTURE WHERE IT’S OK TO FAIL

vanderbyl product strategyWhen I joined the product team, somebody told me that half of everything I’d build was going to fail. You don’t believe that at first. But then once you’re in that seat, making decisions, half the stuff you build starts failing to see the market, or was painfully hard to adopt or support, or never ended up delivered because the project was poorly scoped. You realize there’s all these challenges that go into it, and it’s important to communicate them to whoever is involved.

— Ivan Vanderbyl, director of product management of Tricentis Flood

 

10. ALWAYS BE EVALUATING

bedell product strategyI’m always somewhat in a state of passive evaluation of whether a set strategy is still working or not. Always evaluating against benchmarks that I and the team have set.

You have to find the right balance of focus and agility. Willingness to change your direction is important, but at the same time you can’t change so much that your company ends up being a mishmash of a million different things. I think that’s easy to do — especially in product — because the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can build.

— Claire BeDell, director of product management at Invisibly


Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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