The daily demands of product management make it challenging to carve out time for strategic thinking. But if we’re only worried about what’s in front of us, we’re doing our employers and our customers a disservice. Devoting time to long-range planning, competitive analysis, and assessing new technologies and opportunities simply won’t happen if we don’t make a concerted effort.
But how does strategy claim its rightful place among the other, equally-worthy meetings and tasks on the daily docket of product teams? It doesn’t just spontaneously occur, so product teams must make it a priority to be sure it doesn’t get continually pushed to the backburner.
So if you’re struggling with finding the time or convincing coworkers that strategic thinking is worthy of a slot on the calendar, here are five tips to make it happen on a regular basis and to ensure the sessions are maximizing their potential.
Make strategic thinking a group effort
Holing up like a hermit, slaving away over a grand master plan and then unveiling it to rave reviews may be a fantasy for some product managers. What’s more likely is a result in a myopic worldview that will be criticized and picked apart once revealed to a wider audience. Instead of waiting until you’re done to get input from the rest of the gang, try involving them in earlier stages of the process.
Actively schedule strategy sessions with peers, executives, and colleagues from other departments. This will give you a much broader spectrum of ideas and perspectives, while also providing a sounding board and sanity check for your own hypotheses. When the finished product is finally ready, those who participated will have their own sense of ownership since they contributed to the process. Most importantly, they won’t be caught by surprise– which often results in a negative initial reaction.
“If you’re really ambitious, add a representative customer and industry expert. Bringing in external perspectives is the best way to ensure you’re not stuck in an echo chamber and that this critical planning process doesn’t become just another thing to do among your senior executives,” says Robin Camarote of Wheelhouse Group. “Most people tend to be on their best, most professional behavior when there is an outsider in the room — so facilitating the conversation becomes easier, as well.”
But don’t try and get everyone in the room all at once. For these meetings to be efficient and productive, it should be with smaller groups so everyone gets a chance to contribute. If not, you’ll spend your whole time herding cats and keeping people on topic.
Offices may be full of inspiring energy, brilliant coworkers, free coffee, and foosball tables, but they are also full of distractions. Even the best-laid plans for a quiet day of introspection and research can be easily derailed by chatty colleagues, “emergencies” of the moment, and “have you got a minute” interruptions.
When you’re trying to declutter your cranium and do some deep dives into your own thoughts, your normal desk may be a bad location to maintain your train of thought and be productive. Working from home allows you to keep the daily distractions at bay and create a bubble of solitude. Plus if you’ve got a long commute you just added another hour or two of productivity to your schedule.
To optimize your strategic staycation, you can’t just trade your khakis for sweats, plop down on the couch, and hope for inspiration. You need to do a little planning and preparation for an ideal day of deep thinking:
- Block out your calendar for the entire day
- Put your phone on mute and stick it someplace far away
- Turn off notifications on your laptop
- Don’t even think about checking your email
- Make sure you’re well-stocked on sustenance or have a predetermined food plan
- Take intentional, replenishing breaks (like going for a walk or exercising) instead of just checking social media or playing games
Of course, home comes with its own set of distractions—maybe I’ll just take a break to wash the dishes, do some laundry or catch up on “The Bachelor”—so you must remain disciplined there as well. Try to create a clutter-free work environment that won’t be continually drawing your eye to a domestic diversion.
Note that if you normally work at home you’ll probably find it more productive to go to a different, non-distracting location. Public libraries are a great option as they are free. They don’t require you to keep buying coffee and food for the free WiFi and are by design pretty quiet environments.
Sometimes unstructured brainstorming sessions can unearth great ideas that would otherwise not get a chance to surface. Holding an occasional, anything goes forum lets people flex their creativity as the discussion meanders about.
While it may not yield the best thing, letting some of these newly discovered nuggets simmer for a while could eventually lead to new features, go-to-market strategies, or even entire products. The judgment-free-zone aspect of a brainstorming session also gives some people normally reticent to speak up the opportunity to share and contribute.
For these sessions to be most effective, however, the new ideas have usually already been generated before the meeting, thanks to prepping participants a few days in advance with the goals and constraints of the session. Expecting people to be creative on demand is unlikely to yield much quality, and great ideas often strike us when we’re doing completely different things than actively concentrating on something.
But just because there were a ton of ideas generated from brainstorming, it doesn’t mean anything actually needs to come to fruition from a given session.
“Don’t feel like you have to choose and pursue an idea just because you had a brainstorm. If the brainstorm didn’t yield any good ideas, that’s fine,” says HubSpot’s Corey Wainwright. “It wasn’t a waste of time. But you will waste your time if you pursue an idea that isn’t worth doing.”
Make your intentions known
Wanting to spend time on strategy and actually doing it are two different things. By broadcasting to your manager and colleagues that this is going to be a focus area for you and scheduling those strategy sessions you’ve created a whole new level of incentive to follow through.
By telling everyone about it in advance, you are accountable for following through so you don’t look silly for talking it up and then letting it slide. While a self-created deadline may feel a little masochistic, sometimes we need that added pressure to extend ourselves beyond the daily grind.
But keeping self-imposed deadlines to yourself isn’t effective because the only person who cares is you. “The deadline isn’t real, and self-deception is a big part of procrastination,” says Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, which is why creating peer pressure changes the dynamic.
Change the scenery
You know what’s not a great environment for breaking free of day-to-day thinking? The place where your team already spends all of its time! That’s why some of the most productive strategic thinking happens out of the office.
Convening someplace out of the ordinary creates a completely different vibe than the usual meeting rooms and kitchen tables where you typically interact with your coworkers. While you may not have the budget or time to jet off to a different location or rent a fancy executive conference center for an off-site, there are plenty of cheap and easy ways to transport the entire team to a new locale for a day or two of discussions and planning.
Booking a private room reservation at a restaurant, renting a meeting space at a local coworking spot, borrowing a coworker’s spacious living room, or even heading outside when the weather is nice are all convenient and inexpensive options for getting people in a different setting where they’re free of distractions.
“If you believe that strategic thinking is only for senior executives, think again. It can, and must, happen at every level of the organization; it’s one of those unwritten parts of all job descriptions,” says Nina Bowman of Paravis Partners. “Ignore this fact and you risk getting passed over for a promotion, or having your budget cut because your department’s strategic contribution is unclear.”
Ignoring strategy simply isn’t strategic
On a given day, your investment in strategic thinking probably doesn’t matter—you’re answering emails, chatting on Slack, updating Jira, and squinting at the latest Google Analytics reports. You’re busy, you accomplish tasks, have impromptu conversations, etcetera, and you can go home knowing that you had a busy and (possibly) productive day.
But if that happens every day, you never get around to the fun stuff—those big ideas, those breakthroughs, those game-changers, those insights—that make you the “CEO of the product” and not just a mid-level paper pusher.
97% 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. Product managers must make it happen, even when it gets in the way of an immediate deliverable or inconveniences your coworkers.