A strategic product manager (PM) is responsible for shaping and sharing a strategic vision for a product, and yet—oddly enough—finding time for strategic activities can be a very real challenge.
PMs have a unique role that brings together a synthesis of exploration, analysis, and strategic development. Not many jobs allow for this kind of professional variance or fusion. That being said, it’s all too easy to lose track of strategic direction when stand-ups, customer interviews, presentations, and a million other demands crowd a PM’s calendar, vying for precious time.
Ninety-seven percent of senior leaders say being strategic is the most important thing for their organization’s success, yet 96% of them say they don’t have the time for strategic thinking.
It rings so true for PMs (and if that’s you, you’re probably nodding your head vigorously in agreement).
Radhika Dutt, the co-author of Radical Product, shares this insight in her article entitled “Becoming a Strategic Product Manager”:
“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 of 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?”
Developing a Product Strategy
As a PM, you can’t passively wait for the promise of a rare meeting-free Friday afternoon to catch up on months’ worth of essential strategic activities. You must elevate these business-critical strategic components of your product leadership role into your schedule on a regular–even daily–basis.
While this might seem daunting, if not downright impossible, the success of your product does depend on it. By intentionally making recurring time for strategic activities, you will be able to keep the forest of product management well within your sightlines as you deal with the trees of the daily PM grind.
1. Product Vision
It all starts with a product vision (also referred to as a product vision statement), which describes the overarching long-term mission of a product. Because vision statements are aspirational and communicate concisely where the product hopes to go and what it hopes to achieve in the long term, they help the product team know where to focus resources and how to set priorities. But product vision alone is not enough.
2. Product Strategy
Product vision helps shape the product strategy, a high-level plan describing what you hope to accomplish with your product and how you plan to go about it. A product strategy includes a product vision statement (e.g., Google’s “Provide access to the world’s information in one click”), goals (e.g., increase free-trial downloads by 50% in the next six months), and initiatives (e.g., upsell new services). Your product strategy serves as a guide for every subsequent decision — from hiring to backlog grooming. Your strategy not only outlines goals but ways to measure key performance indicators (KPIs). This strategy must be a clear and realistic plan for the team that works on a product.
A strategy-first approach makes it easier to articulate the product vision to any constituency across your company and ensure your stakeholders are on the same page for the detailed conversations that follow. It also makes it easier for you to see your product’s vision and allows you to identify priorities as well as those items that should be set aside because they don’t serve the product vision.
3. Product Roadmap
Next comes the product roadmap. Keep in mind that the roadmap should stay high-level and strategically focused. In essence, it should not become a feature set, a list of requests or demands from various constituents, or merely a project timeline with details about resources and budgets.
The roadmap needs to communicate the big picture to the organization — the initiatives that move the needle, expand markets, address competition, and create customer value. You cannot distill that big-picture thinking in the backlog. It’s challenging to communicate strategy in a list that’s 200 items long. Especially to executives and other stakeholders who might not think in terms of iterations or sprints.
Keeping your product roadmap at the strategic level is the best way to ensure all of your constituents understand your high-level objectives for the product and that everyone is working toward a shared goal. It’s also the best way to secure the buy-in you will need from executives and other stakeholders to move forward with developing your product in the way the evidence has told you to.
Cultivate a Sense of Ownership
At its core, the activities of a strategic product manager take root when you cultivate a sense of ownership over product vision, product strategy, and the strategic roadmap.
- Product Vision: Influencing the company’s mission statement may be beyond the scope of the PM (particularly for a large enterprise vs. a small business that only has one product), but PMs can own a product vision and align the product team to it.
- Product Strategy: Consider which strategic activities impact your ability to deliver value to customers.
- Strategic Roadmap: Develop a cross-functional strategic roadmap that factors in dependencies needing alignment (sales and marketing efforts related to a product launch, for example).
Divide and Conquer the Activities of Strategic Product Managers
How do you know if you are spending enough time on strategy? Try these inbound/outbound efforts exercise by dividing your PM activities into either an “inbound effort” or “outbound effort” bucket. It’s a great way to quickly assess where your time is going and where you have deficits.
Common inbound effort activities include:
- Setting the vision
- Product planning
- Product strategy
- Product development
- Product launch
Common outbound effort activities include:
- Competitive differentiation
- Market research
- Customer communication/experience
- Customer interviews
- Promotion and advertising
- Distribution and sales
- Sales support
Of course, not everything will fit neatly into one of these two buckets. This exercise enables you to audit your own activities and see if you’re spending enough time on strategy. Then you can adjust your focus as necessary.
It can be helpful to prioritize different strategic activities for certain spots during a sprint, week, month, and so forth to ensure that you circle back when it makes sense to do so. Scheduling them outright is also useful, but be careful not to limit strategic efforts to blocked-off time on your calendar. Doing so can close you off from using curiosity to position efforts in an opportunistic way. Your product does not exist in a vacuum, so you can’t expect your strategic processes to either.
Tips for Creating Space for Strategic Thinking
Here are a few things you might try to create space and time for strategic activities throughout the workday:
- Actively schedule strategy sessions with peers, executives, colleagues from other departments, and customers. It will give you a much broader spectrum of ideas and perspectives.
- Step away from the office for a brain cleanse. Working off site allows you to keep daily distractions at bay and create a bubble of solitude.
- Host an unstructured brainstorming session once in a while. They enable you to unearth potentially great ideas that would otherwise not get a chance to surface.
- Let your manager, colleagues, and key stakeholders know your intentions about focusing time on strategic activities. You will be less likely to feel the need to “sneak around” or feel indulgent when working on things other than daily demands.
- Use tools like Prune the Product Tree to explore inputs from customers and internal stakeholders.
- Take a walk, get outside, or otherwise escape the impromptu “Do you have a minute?” requests from colleagues that can create a chaotic, reactive work environment. Just ten minutes a day of unscripted thinking time can reduce stress and open the pathways to fresh ideas.