Becoming a Strategic Product Manager
Learn to Direct the Sails Without Controlling the Wind
Many years ago, I joined a technology company as their first director of product management. The leadership team had a strong vision. The company had even engaged a brand agency to help them craft a compelling mission statement, and had developed new marketing materials to reflect it. They had crafted their company strategy and presented it to their investors to get a multi-million dollar investment, which they were using to build out a new product.
But, because the executive team felt a deep sense of ownership over the product vision and strategy, they saw Product Management as a mostly tactical role. It seemed that, despite my position, I would be doing more product administration than product management. I was tasked with managing a very technical backlog, and not focusing on setting the direction of the product.
From speaking to people around the technology industry, it sounds like many product managers and product leaders have faced the same challenge: we are asked to think strategically, but in practice we are responsible mostly for administrative tasks. So, how does a product manager take ownership over more than just backlog management? How can you take responsibility for the vision and shape the future of your product when you don’t control strategy at the corporate level?
We cannot control the wind but we can direct the sails
Here are three things you can do to take a more strategic role as a Product Manager:
1. Owning product vision
For larger companies, it’s important to have a clear mission statement at a company level. The mission sets out the “reason for being”, so that when you have a product portfolio, every product aligns with those underlying principles. Even if you just have one product at your company, the company mission acts as a statement of principles and priorities. It doesn’t need to be concrete, or describe a specific future state the way that a good product vision does.
A company mission can be aspirational; a product vision must be achievable.
While you shouldn’t expect to influence the company’s mission, as product manager you need to own the “source code” of the product vision and align your team to it. A good product vision specifies the concrete change we expect the product to cause in the world, and contains a few key aspects:
- Who will this change happen for?
- What does their world look like today?
- Why is that status quo world unacceptable to us?
- What world do we envision instead?
- How will we create this world?
As product manager, you can help align your product team by completing the Vision Worksheet in the Radical Product Toolkit. Depending on your style, you could choose to do this on your own, or you can work on it collaboratively with the rest of your product team. The collaborative approach benefits from bringing all potential disagreements into the open, where they can be discussed. This lets you craft an actionable vision with everyone’s perspective in mind. You can then share this product vision with stakeholders to make sure that it aligns with the overall mission of the company.
2. Owning Product Strategy
Market dynamics and competitive pressure are all important inputs into corporate strategy, but may not be relevant to the product team. As Product Manager, you should be focusing on the pieces of the strategy puzzle that affect your ability to deliver value to your customers. The key components of product strategy are:
- Real Pain Points: What pain does the product solve, or what desire does it satisfy? Are we sure these are both true (“verified”) and worth solving (“valued”)? Real Pain Points are critical to ensure that people will engage with your Design solution.
- Design: How will people use the product (“interface”), and what emotions and feelings should the product be designed to elicit in the user (“identity”)?
- Capabilities: How will you deliver on the promise made by the Design? What data, algorithms, expertise, or other superpowers do you bring to the table? (In larger companies, this often ties in with higher-level capability development, as it is frequently most cost-effective to develop a single core capability and deliver it across multiple products.)
- Logistics: Think about the product’s “last mile” to the user. How it is priced? Delivered? Supported? How do these affect the other three components of the product strategy?
While you need to think about all the RDCL elements of product strategy listed above, you may not have control over all of them. Perhaps your company just acquired a startup for their technology platform, granting you new Capabilities that you can include in your RDCL Strategy. While you most likely didn’t have control over the acquisition, you need to help your team make sense of how it impacts your ability to deliver value. Using the RDCL Strategy worksheet helps you discuss and communicate your product strategy with your team so you can share how the new Capabilities influence the Real pain points you’re solving, as well as how it may impact the Design and the Logistics for your product.
3. Owning the Strategic Roadmap
Most companies have a one-dimensional backlog — it tracks what engineering (and maybe design) needs to do. In reality, while your tech team is working on the beta product, your professional services team might be working on APIs to simplify integration into the customer’s environment, your marketing team might be working on a sequence of activities that ends in the public launch, and your sales team might be negotiating friendly customer sites. All of these groups are working on critical aspects of your product strategy, with dependencies that need to be aligned.
As Product Manager, you can play a more strategic role if you take ownership of the cross-functional strategic roadmap for your product, rather than focusing only on planning for the product team’s own activities. We encourage you to craft this Strategic Roadmap together with experts in each functional area, so you can and review and debate the milestones with them and get their buy-in.
Once your initial pass at the Strategic Roadmap is complete, it becomes a living document. Every week or two, when you check in as a cross-functional team, you can bring up your Strategic Roadmap and discuss if you’re aligned to deliver on those milestones.
By setting a clear product vision, defining your RDCL Strategy, and laying out a cross-functional roadmap, you can take greater ownership over product direction. Even better, you’re unlikely to be encroaching on anyone’s territory — in our experience, most companies don’t have a specific product vision or strategy at all, and only think about strategy at the corporate or divisional level. Bring this product thinking into your organization, and you’ll start being seen as a strategic resource, rather than a backlog administrator. We look forward to hearing about your experiences!
Share your stories and experiences of using the Radical Product toolkit as you craft your vision and strategy and translate it into execution and measurement.
Thanks to Sean Horgan for insightful discussions that spurred this post.