The job of a Product Strategist — also known as an Engagement Lead, Experience Lead, or Product Manager — is instrumental to any team. They skillfully navigate the sometimes murky waters of projects, balancing needs, wants, and demands with a deft hand. The role packs a noticeable punch regardless of project, team, or organization. But for a role as pivotal as it is, it’s shockingly misunderstood and incredibly difficult to define. (When even the name can’t be agreed upon, you know you’re fighting an uphill battle in terms of identification and recognition.)
Digging deep on what these mysterious, nomenclature-ambiguous people do has been on our list of topics for a while, but somehow we never got to it. Then we reached out to our Product Strategists to offer support and — wouldn’t you know it? — we managed to get it done ahead of time and with our sanity fully in tact. (Behold, the magic of these creatures!)
“So, What Do You Do?”
Before we can look at why a good Product Strategist is such an essential role, we need to understand what the role even involves. (Short answer: A lot.)
To be fair, the role is actually hard to define. The responsibilities shift depending on the organization and type of project being worked on, and often depend on the makeup of a team itself. Ask 10 different Product Strategists what it is they do and you’re liable to get 10 different answers. But shift any one of them to another’s team, and they would be able to fill in and provide enormous value without much trouble, so there must be some general functions they provide.
When we talk about a Product Strategist at Myplanet (or an Engagement Lead, or a Product Manager) we are referring to the person who, on any given project, is tasked with keeping the project on track. It’s a vague, broad mandate that lends itself to a number of potential core functions.
We work predominantly (but not exclusively) in professional services, so while there is overlap with what a traditional Scrum Product Owner does, Product Strategists don’t do exclusively the same things. The role typically includes Product Owner duties, like backlog creation and prioritization, release planning, and backlog grooming. But it also includes many things well outside a Product Owner’s domain.
In an Agile environment, which ours is, a team needs to work quickly and effectively. The Product Strategist role, therefore, also incorporates components of a Scrum Master’s responsibilities: helping the team establish and safeguard their processes; empowering the team to run retrospectives; and working to enable knowledge share about project details. But even though they incorporate some of the traditional duties of Scrum Masters, Product Strategists are not Scrum Masters.
And the role will frequently include responsibilities that extend into supporting the design and development teams, like lending a subtle hand in assisting with gathering user feedback or providing context to stakeholders on why there is a need for conducting that user research in the first place. But Product Strategists are not User Researchers, Designers, or Developers — even if they hail from those backgrounds.
More than likely, the Product Strategist will need to touch on components of all of these things at some point during an engagement (and probably much, much more).
“The Product Strategist role falls right at the intersection of Business Strategy, Technology and User Experience,” says Katie McCoy, Associate Director, Product Strategy and Customer Experience at Myplanet. “We are focused on delivering the highest business value for our customers, while also being the voice of the end user and understanding technically what is feasible given a finite amount of time. A good understanding of all three disciplines is crucial in decision making for the product you are building.”
“Product Strategists wear a lot of hats. We’re constantly switching roles.” — Katie McCoy
And when a role touches on so many aspects of a business, and involves so many departments and viewpoints, the main function of the role ultimately boils down to effective communication. “You sit in the middle of all these different people who have, at times, conflicting perspectives on what the priorities should be,” says Eric Goldsmith, a Product Strategist at Myplanet. “You help them understand how their ambitions align and find ways to facilitate communication.”
Another Myplanet Product Strategist, Shaunna Bruton, agrees with him. “We’re often doing projects really quickly — iterating rapidly for every project and sometimes on very tight timelines. Information is flying back and forth between developers and designers, between the customer and our teams at Myplanet, so it’s crucial to be communicating effectively,” she says.
Being someone who can switch contexts easily, and speak the language of the various stakeholders — from technologists to designers to the customers and the end users of the product — is an essential function of the Product Strategist role.
“Everyone needs to be on the same page. And in order to make sure the project stays on track, they need to be on that page now. That’s our job.” — Shaunna Bruton
“Finding the gaps, understanding the gaps, being able to predict the gaps… when you have so many diverse people working together there are gaps in context everywhere,” notes Eric. An Interaction Designer, for example, understands their domain inside and out and knows the importance of it, but people outside that domain probably don’t. The same is true for every other role on a team. A good Product Strategist needs to be able to clearly articulate the value of the contributions being made, and that hinges on a comprehensive scope of understanding, and strong communication skills.
Those strong communication skills become even more important when you have to deliver news that the team or stakeholders may not want to hear. “Hopefully, if you’ve done your job well, there won’t be too many unpleasant surprises along the way. But every project comes with an element of uncertainty and as Product Strategist, you are the one that has to be the bearer of bad news sometimes. It’s why we stress the ability to empathize so much. It’s important to understand how a change can impact everyone on the project,” notes Katie.
Being able to put yourself in a developer’s shoes or a customer’s headspace allows you to not only see what barriers they’re facing, but to understand and anticipate why some things may cause additional stress. It may even help you have the foresight to come up with possible workable alternatives. When you can see a situation from the perspectives of everyone involved, you can do a much better job of preventing major issues from ever arising.
Which is why, outside of bridging gaps, providing context, owning delivery, and being generally incredible communicators as they switch from role to role on a project, Product Strategists are functionally operating as creatives almost constantly.
Designers are always viewed as “creative” and, increasingly, technologists are being given their due on that front as well (especially at the technical architect level), but Product Strategists are often overlooked for their ability to think outside the box, look at things from another angle, and ideate on the fly to come up with functioning solutions to roadblocks. The reality is, a Product Strategist is operating with a creative strategy all the time. It’s part of what makes the job so fun for them.
So what does a Product Strategist do? The short answer is: a lot. The long answer? Almost everything. That’s why the role — when filled by the right person — is vital to a team and to a project’s success. But how do you find the the right person?
A Good Product Strategist is Hard to Find
By now it should be obvious that to be a good Product Strategist, you need to have an impressive array of skills. You need to be a good listener and a strong advocate for users, someone who can understand and help contextualize the work of the designers on the team for the stakeholders. You also need to ensure the technical solutions are flexible enough to fit the long-term strategy/vision that your customers have for the product. And you need to be constantly adjusting the priorities of the project, ensuring that you’re delivering the highest priority value to the customer and end user.
“A good product strategist knows that you can’t achieve success aimlessly. Everything you do on a project has to be done with intention.” — Katie McCoy
But while you do all of these things (and more), you need to be balancing the thoughts, emotions, needs, and wants of all the stakeholders and team members involved. You need to be someone who thrives on the uncertainty of the work at hand and who thrills at the opportunities for growth and progress that come out of uncovering solutions together. Quite simply, you have to love the work.
“You’re constantly jumping back and forth from the big picture to the nitty-gritty details,” says Katie, which is why she says being detail-oriented is also a crucial element to being a good Product Strategist.
Those context switches — from forest to tree and back out again — come so fast and so often they would give most of us whiplash. But a good Product Strategist feels most at home switching gears. Eric describes it as “keeping all the plates spinning”. Shaunna says it’s a matter of “juggling all the aspects of a project at once.” It’s not mere chance that they each, separately reference the circus — a good product strategist is no clown, but they have a whole lot of fun mixing it up.
“The context changes not just project to project, but day to day and hour to hour. It’s challenging, but it’s also what makes this job so great. It’s never boring,” says Shaunna.
Really great Product Strategists are a special breed, to be sure. They’re incredibly empathetic with high emotional intelligence, but they’re also highly logical and rational, calm in the face of impending storms. They’re knowledgeable on a bunch of topics and can offer smart insights on all aspects of a project, but they’re also voracious learners who love discovering new information and uncovering the best way to do something. And even though their jobs are almost never clearly defined, they get a kick out of them all the same.
“When you’re good at your job, you’re in tune with the customer, and they’re in tune with the team. You’ve built a rapport and everyone is excited to collaborate and work together, even when changes crop up unexpectedly, because you’ve built that trust, and you work as one unit instead of several, separate teams,” says Katie. “Being a part of that — knowing that you helped get the team to a high-performing place and that the customer is happy and your team feels good — that’s a great job.”
Love to solve puzzles? Passion for understanding and connecting with people? Get a kick out of working creatively and collaboratively with designers and technologists? Apply for our open Product Strategist role or contact our team for more information.