Guest Post by: Julian Dunn (Mentee, Session 6, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Vikas Batra]
I became a product manager because I wanted to take a more strategic role at my company. Two major obstacles stood in my way. First, I did not know how to frame, develop and present product strategy in a systematic way, and second, as a startup, my company has not historically had a good track record of strategy being developed outside of senior management (read: founder). Learning more about how to formulate strategy, therefore, was not only a personal goal, but also one that I foresaw will help the company scale. We are rapidly approaching a company size where not all strategy can originate with the founder; we need to diversify markets, enter new markets, and have at least points-of-view on emerging markets and how we will address them. Thus, I arrived at the Product Mentor program with ambitions to learn strategy development from a seasoned product mentor.
I admit that in the past, I have been soured on “strategy” as a discipline. Prior to the modern era of hypothesis-driven, scientific product management, folks with “director of strategy” as their title have frequently been seen as visionary thought leaders who rely solely on salesmanship and highly theoretical presentations to articulate so-called strategy, without providing data or research to back up their assertions about the market. This sort of hand-waving has been most prevalent in software companies, where the supposed price of strategy missteps is seen as low. Management often believes that poor strategy can be made up by iterating/or pivoting execution, where operational expenditures are relatively low as compared to capital-intensive enterprises. However, this is a naïve analysis that overlooks lost market share due to poor strategic thinking, or the demoralizing effect on engineers having to repeatedly rewrite code because of poor product-market fit.
Fortunately, I was paired with a mentor, Vikas Batra, who has several years of product management experience in enterprise telecommunications hardware. I was eager to learn from Vikas because hardware is a necessarily capital-intensive business, and thus a higher level of rigor and discipline around strategy and ROI is to be expected. Vikas was able to provide me with a framework for developing product strategy, which ultimately revolves around answering the fundamental question of “how do we win?” Winning can be defined in a number of ways, but generally refers to being the dominant player in your product category, with the right level of skills in order to execute successfully within that category. This framework covers five major questions:
- What do we aspire to be? (vision)
- Where do we play? And where do we not play? (category)
- How do we win? (core of strategy)
- What capabilities do we need to win? (necessary execution power)
- What systems/metrics/processes do we need to measure and track winning? (KPIs)
It is customary for strategy documents to be living documents, and frequently modified as the product manager receives input and feedback from three main areas: the market as a whole, customers specifically, and voices from inside the company. Strategy documents and presentations are not thought-leadership handed down by the product manager from on high, but used as a discussion point in order to get consensus amongst a variety of stakeholders: engineering, sales, marketing, business development, executive management, and so on. A good strategy document will be clear, concise, and articulated in a way that is understandable by everyone. Done correctly, its contents should also not be a surprise when it comes time to circulate it around the company.
Therefore, I have been able to use the framework to develop several iterations of product strategy for the products that I own, such as our enterprise offering. We are using my work to drive our initiatives for the second half of 2017 as well as 2018, as well as to guide how we enter new markets. Along the way, I have discovered several other key insights:
- Product strategy is ultimately a subset of business strategy. And if you are a sufficiently large company, portfolio strategy is the intermediary. I was able to use product-level strategy to force higher-level conversations at the company about whether our overall strategy was clear enough.
- Don’t hesitate to show your strategy documents to your most trusted customers for early feedback. They may have additional color and suggestions. Your best customer partners are those who are also able to think strategically about the industry, their role within it, and your role within it. Leverage the wisdom of customers who don’t just want to beat you up about features.
- Strategy is never done. It always evolves, but periodically you do need to snapshot/converge and present it to others to get buy-in on direction. Aim to do strategy refresh no more frequently than quarterly.
As a result of this work, my role and understanding of product strategy have now improved significantly, and the company has greater clarity on the areas on which we should focus – and those on which we should not. I was able to collaborate closely with the senior director of product at my company on this work. This also helped to refocus the company’s view of product management from being primarily an execution-oriented role to a more strategic one including market research, customer development interviews, and feedback.
I personally benefitted from this work by being promoted to senior product manager and having a greater role in influencing strategy. I am appreciative not only for the good counsel of my mentor, Vikas Batra, but also that of other mentors, in particular, Jordan Bergtraum and Felix Sargent, for being generous with their time. As a result of my participation in the product mentorship program I expect to spend the majority of my time in the rest of 2017 doing strategic work, such as product marketing, positioning, pricing, packaging, competitive differentiation (offensive and defensive), customer segmentation, and so on.
Julian Dunn is a senior product manager with Chef Software where he
works on the company’s continuous delivery and automation platform.
Prior to joining the product team in 2015, he worked as a traveling
consulting engineer, helping customers implement Chef’s products. He
has over fifteen years of experience as a software developer and
operations engineer across a wide variety of industries.
More About The Product Mentor
The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…
Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.
Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…
- Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
- Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
- Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
- Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community
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The Product Guy