In our webinar Product Managers: Treat your Strategy as a Product, Hadrien Raffalli discusses the importance of tracking market activity and tweaking plans accordingly. He has experience building products around the world, including stops in South America, Australia, Asia, and is now in Denver working for Pivotal Tracker, part of VMware. Watch the webinar, below!
The Importance of Trendspotting
Raffalli believes strategy missteps are inevitable if companies aren’t spotting key patterns quickly enough.
“Being able to identify the details of how the market is behaving in different populations and different use cases will give you a better chance to anticipate what is likely to happen later.”
Continuous monitoring and adjusting to what’s happening in relevant areas is essential for remaining relevant, viable, and competitive.
“Consider: how is your market behaving right now?” Raffalli says. “What have been the cycles of adoption to get you where you are? Or, if you’re looking forward, is there a path that has been chartered for other innovations?”
Also crucial is the ability to gain mindshare when trends and new technologies are still in nascent stages. Companies aren’t always in the mode of having to find and “wow” early adopters, but it’s a key part of growth. So at some point in every product manager’s job, it’s likely to be a challenge that must be met to be successful.
At these points in the product’s lifecycle, Raffalli encourages product teams to consider “if there has been a path that has been charted before for other innovations” that can be replicated or informative for your own journey. “What is the order, what are the customer needs, and what is the value chain for this?”
What Does a Good Strategy Look Like?
Companies don’t start with a product strategy. Instead, it comes on the heels of defining a mission and purpose. However, missions and purposes are often selected well before new companies, or product teams have researched and gotten to know their customers.
Because anyone can settle on a mission or purpose without doing any real work, existing on the plane of “ideals.” They’re not rooted in much more than theory and hunches. Product strategy is where things get real.
“Strategy is the art of finding and exploiting leverage in the competitive landscape to achieve your purpose,” Raffalli says. To do so, he recommends the following steps:
- Have a purpose—Why are you doing this, and what are you competing for?
- Understanding customer needs and how they’re evolving—Customers aren’t standing still, and neither is their environment or options.
- Understand your value chain and how it is evolving—Are you solving a problem that still exists? Have new wrinkles emerged that you’re neglecting?
- Determine what change is likely to happen—You’re not psychic, but make an educated guess about what’s probably on the horizon.
- Define your actions against those changes—How you respond is just as important as recognizing things have transformed.
- Measure success and failure and course-correct—Hunches and guesses aren’t enough to make intelligent, data-driven decisions. Be sure you’re tracking what works and what doesn’t, then use that information to inform your next move.
Notice a common theme? Things keep changing, so you better adjust to those changes. As the famous military truism goes: No plan survives contact with the enemy.
Stories versus Maps
For millennia, information was passed on as stories. From drawing on prehistoric cave walls to the tales of Viking warriors, these narratives provided instructions on how to retrace the steps of those who came before them.
Raffalli says the flaw with this method for conveying information was the inability to prepare for what those storytellers hadn’t yet seen. If an invading party hadn’t already visited the target in question, they had no idea what to expect.
Then came maps. These cartographical marvels enabled generals to assess the situation in advance and plan accordingly. They could seize the high ground and understand climate and topology without having previously visited the area in question.
While this transformation of military strategy occurred centuries ago, Raffalli says businesses still operate based on stories. Both those we’ve heard from others, and those we tell ourselves.
“We try and convince ourselves of something being right,” he says. But it’s long past due that business strategy is rooted in hard data rather than subjective tales we’ve heard or spun ourselves.
“The product KPI is the ultimate expression of your strategy,” Raffalli says, referring to both users completing significant tasks or business metrics being met. “Your strategy KPI, however, are more like underlying fundamentals. So it’s how the market is moving. So it’s going to be customer needs.”
Context-Switching for Strategic Planning
Most product teams think strategically in terms of their product. But this often spawns convoluted thinking and strained rationales for those decisions. To be truly strategic, decisions be abstracted and purely based on strategy and the market conditions, regardless of the particular product.
It can force some hard conclusions that might otherwise never even be considered. Revelations like “we are targeting the wrong market” or “our value proposition no longer exists.” But if this approach is adopted early enough and remains constant, more minor course corrections can potentially avert such drastic conclusions—or at least give companies time to minimize any negative repercussions.
During the webinar, Raffalli used the example of a coding school to illustrate this. When you’re in the business of training coders, you must assess which technology people will care about in the future, along with which solutions/platforms/languages will win market share for the long term.
“In real life, it’s really hard to step away from those Product KPIs and think about the underlying more important fundamental assumptions that your plan relies on,” Raffalli says. “So, in this game, we abstract away the product piece and only focus on the strategy piece.”
The decision of which framework to invest in has major consequences for these firms, from hiring talent to developing curriculums and materials to enrollment. Betting on the first solution to enter the market could backfire, as it may not be the winner.
Other players can swiftly follow, producing superior tech that might be faster, more efficient, or possess exciting new attributes. The first mover might initially be the most popular, but ascertaining which one wins long-term requires a deeper look at the trends than just speed to market.
Raffalli implored companies and product teams to follow and ride the trends. Pay attention to search traffic, online discussions, tool usage, and other leading indicators far more informative than trailing ones like revenue. Because picking the wrong horse can be fatal, regardless of how well you execute your product.
“If you think about your day to day jobs in product and defining your strategy, independently from how great your product is, probably almost half of the companies that are involved in this game, would probably die at some point and reduce the competitive field by a lot,” Raffalli says. “And that’s just by making decisions of which framework to build against.”
Product Strategy Doesn’t Work in a Vacuum
All too often, once companies assess an opportunity, draft a strategy, find product-market fit, and define a plan, the sole emphasis is on execution. Hitting dates and making progress toward milestones get all the attention.
But regardless of how compelling that initial product roadmap might have been original, if the team isn’t paying attention to what’s happening outside its echo chamber, they may be in for a rude awakening.
Raffalli emphasizes the critical role product management plays in mitigating risk. Asking questions and validating assumptions allows them to add ongoing volume by ensuring they found the plan on a realistic foundation of truth.
To participate in Raffalli’s strategy game and unlock even more wisdom, check out the webinar in its entirety.