Product Strategy — are you using techniques and tools properly? (part 1)

Jessica Seixas
Inside SumUp
Published in
7 min readAug 19, 2020

--

TL;DR

Jessica Seixas, Product Manager at SumUp

Product strategy is fundamental for you to understand complex environments and think about how agility and product tools help you in your daily life;

And for that it is necessary that you focus on the main critical problems of the business and the user, actively seek improvements through insights and data, have an active and empowered team to solve problems and be or have a leader engaged in serving and removing obstacles and not micromanage the team.

Lately I have noticed the number of new agility and product tools that come up recurrently. And over the years that I’ve been working with technology, I realized how tools and frameworks can be compared to cake recipes that in the end may or may not actually become a delicious cake.

  • When we talk about frameworks or work tools, how much do you really question whether this tool will actually be useful for your context?
  • Do you just use the X / Y / Z tool or do you test and observe the results, until you find a tool that solves your problem?
  • Do you know how to effectively identify your problems?

In order to explain how I usually think about it, I will tell you briefly about a recent experience I’ve had. A while ago, I started to work in a team — for a better understanding, let’s call it Team A — that was starting pretty much from scratch (new people joining the team at the same time). As great as it is starting a product from scratch, so is the challenge of assembling an efficient team, maybe even more challenging if you ask me. In my last experiences, I went through this process a few times and the problems are similar. Lack of organization, lack of alignment, lack of vision, etc. Solving these problems is not always that simple and most of the time there is a much greater pressure for delivery that ends up by harming the “storming” phase.

Let’s get back to Team A. Well, as months went by, I was able to identify the main gaps that we had, as well as the product itself. And I came up with a thousand different ideas from several books and content that I have read about agility and product.

The hypotheses I had on how to solve the issues were basically: “We need to organize the backlog with some effective prioritization technique”, “I will set up a stakeholder mapping by interests”, “I need to organize the first steps of Product Discovery” etc…

After thinking about several tools and techniques to add to my daily life, I decided to take a step back and just think about the simplest of it all: what are the main pains of the development process and the product?

It was at that moment that I came up with a simple solution to pursue a gradative series of improvals to all the mapped problems. By the way, I also noticed that much of what I considered to be a problem was exactly the lack of a clear product strategy.

When we try to solve all the big deals (problems) at once and fail miserably or maybe there are so many problems that we are unable to fully understand what’s going on, my suggestion is to stop and really analyze our needs and pains. And after that, prioritize what is the most urgent task, what will deliver the most value, and so on. And then I tell you that “problem-framing” is not just separating problems from your product. It is your ability to organize, solve the needs within your leadership and, above all, deliver the expected value of your position. And a lot of these product techniques will help you to think and break your everyday problems better, as well as thinking about strategy clearly or objectively.

I know that “problem-solver” is a skill required for various positions in different areas. That is why I am sharing here some ideas on how I try to organize myself better on a daily basis.

So here’s a disclaimer, I will break this article into two pieces: In the first segment, I would like to explain in a more detailed way what it is a Product Strategy. This term has been widely talked about by product gurus and since it is broad, it raises several questions (including ones made by myself). And in the second segment, I will explain how I used this concept of strategy to prioritize the product management problems that I’ve needed to tackle first.

Let’s start with Product Strategy:

For Richard Rumelt,

“Good strategy does not pop out of some “strategy management” tool, matrix, chart, triangle, or fill-in-the-blanks scheme. Instead, a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation — the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort — and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them.”

Good leaders focus their energies and their attention on solving real problems, on actions that matter and generate value. And according to Marty Cagan, there are 4 steps for you to have a good product strategy:

  1. “Ability to focus in on the critical business problems”
  2. “Generating insights on how to attack those problems”
  3. “Coordinated actions for each product team”
  4. “Active management of the work”

And from these four pillars, I will summarize what each means:

1- FOCUS

Your ability to focus on really critical problems means that you need to focus on what matters. Focusing does not mean prioritizing. It will not work if you have a list with 50 features or a roadmap of it all, even if prioritized. You need to be clear on a short list of things that will actually impact your business. And their leaders need to focus on solving these problems.

2- INSIGHTS

For Marty, many people are not interested in ideas because they are too busy trying to satisfy stakeholders (sad, but true). And sometimes those same stakeholders are not interested in hearing new ideas of solutions. And in a development stage, it is super important to validate our chances to mitigate our risks of wasting time and money on an idea that does not affect the important KPIs. (I already talked about it in this article). So, go after those insights. Do qualitative and quantitative research, monitor the market and the industry. Find out about trends. And more than that, spread this information. In fact, do it, don’t just send it on a Slack channel or another tool. Try to influence and inform people (I’m not saying this is easy, ok?)

3- ACTIONS

We have to roll up our sleeves and put our plans into practice. Plans alone are not strategy. For that, according to Marty, there are two ways this can happen:

  • Command and control” — usually through a roadmap or something like that (commanded by the leadership). This one is not cool, but we know it happens, right?
  • Empowered team way” — product empowered teams. And when we talk about empowered product teams, we are talking about people who are working focused on solving complex problems and achieving business goals (which requires management energy, which is the next topic). It is really a team with a high capacity to think of innovative solutions to achieve a complex objective.

“Generating activity is not a problem; in fact it is easy. The fact that it is easy makes the real problem harder to solve. The problem is getting the right things done — the things that matter, the things that will have an impact, the things a company is trying to achieve to ensure success.” Stephen Bungay

That’s it, generating a feature list is not difficult. What is complicated is finding the right thing to do, the one that will really change the company’s numbers. And to achieve success, one of the solutions is to focus on delivering for key results, using techniques such as OKRs, for example. But for Marty, it is very risky to use this work tool for teams that have no autonomy to seek the real impact. There are still many companies that turn OKR into large product roadmaps, which are totally focused on outputs and not outcomes. And just to summarize this point, three things he points out that are important:

1- Empowered product teams NOT feature teams

2- Product Team’s Objectives NOT Manager’s Objectives

3- Active leaders NOT passive leaders

Clear goals must come from leaders. And not the “key result”. The empowered team needs to find the best way to solve problems. Not giving them a list of features, but a clear list of goals and problems to solve should be the way to go. And an active-leadership must be also a servant-leadership, not a leadership that micromanages.

4 — MANAGEMENT

And finally, management. On this topic, he believes that there are many important challenges in a product development process. The most important thing is to separate what is a servant-leadership from a micro-management leadership.

Leaders who are servants do not mean they are passive. On the contrary, they guide the objectives of the product and the company. The leader actively participates in removing obstacles. Example: there is a dependency on the platform and then, the leader aligns all these needs with important stakeholders to solve this problem. But he is not the one who will answer HOW to do it. In fact, it helps to remove the impediments for the team to understand how to solve this problem. After all, people are being paid to do their job. 💁‍♀️

SUMMARIZING,

  • Focus on the main critical business and user issues — things that we really have a chance to impact the business and make our customers happier.
  • Recurrently learn from users / customers and data. Constantly look for new technologies that will make our lives easier, keeping a close eye on the market and the industry. Good leaders are prepared not to miss any opportunity that lies ahead of us.
  • It is common for different teams to solve the same problem. What’s more, it is necessary for good leaders to guide these dependencies.
  • And mainly, be or have active and engaged managers to manage this work and facilitate the interactions that need to happen. Managers need to connect the points.

In the next article, I will explain how I organized the techniques that I could use according to the gaps in my product strategy.

See you next week on part 2.

--

--

Jessica Seixas
Inside SumUp

I'm a product lover and Group Product Manager @ iFood. My goal at the end of the day is to change the world. 🙋‍♀️