Product Strategy Choices: Pursuing Explicit Priorities as a Product Team

Does your Product Strategy tell you to “make the product better” and to “be more like Spotify”? If yes, it’s probably not that useful. That’s because effective Product Strategy is about articulating explicit choices and making sure they get translated into action. In this article, I’m going to show you how to arrive at Product Strategy choices for your product and how to translate them into action using OKRs.

Written by Tim Herbig 

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Last Updated: Jun. 24, 2022

Product Strategy Choices Article Header Illustration

Too many Product Teams create Product Strategies by utilizing fill-in-the-blanks statements without considering the needed deep dives. Pretty but generic words might be easy to communicate, but they don’t help Product teams to say yes or no to opportunities or frame their problem and solution space perspectives.

The core of Product Strategy patterns is about capturing the holistic perspective of the market you want to play in and articulating and measuring the explicit choices that will help you win.

How Product Strategy connects to OKRs

The Execution of Product Strategy has to be structured through Goal-setting Systems like OKRs

Understanding the Responsibility of Product Strategy

The first thing you need to know is where Product Strategy sits in your repertoire of Product Management responsibilities and what inputs it requires. One of the most needed clarifications is about Product Vision vs. Product Strategy.

A Product Vision describes the future state for your users, which emerges from the value provided by your product. In short, a Product Vision defines where you are going.

A Product Strategy, on the other hand, outlines the most promising direction for reaching that future state. In short, a Product Strategy defines how you will get there.

For a continued deep dive on this differentiation, check out this in-depth video from my YouTube channel:

But just because Product Vision and Product Strategy are different, it doesn’t mean they are not deeply intertwined. In fact, I consider Product Vision one of the key inputs to building an ambitious Product Strategy.

Considering the holistic nature of an effective Product Strategy, you want to look at the four key pillars of Product Strategy:

  1. The Idea driving the Strategy (part of your Product Strategy Narrative Pattern)
  2. The Market you want to play and win in (also often described as your "Playing Field").
  3. The Value you need to provide to succeed.
  4. The Capabilities needed to manifest the idea, create the value, and differentiate yourself from other players (Part of the "Winning Choices" win on your "Playing Field"
The most Important Pillars of Product Strategy

The Key Pillars of Product Strategy and the relation to Product Vision

And Product Vision is the most important input for the Idea pillar of your Strategy, as it articulates the long-term changes you seek to create.

An articulated Product Strategy using any kind of framework is often the over-simplified summary of many tactical deep dives into each of these domains. However, this doesn’t mean that your Strategy should consist only of generic statements like “drive revenue” or “build useful products.”

That’s where Product Strategy Choices come in.

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Product Strategy Choices are about Explicitness

Roger Martin, author of Playing to Win, has a great and straightforward way to separate generalized intentions from real strategic choices. He writes:

“My test for whether a stated choice is actually a strategic choice is whether or not the opposite of the choice is stupid on its face.”

The problem with generalized Product Strategy statements is that they fail the intent of Product Strategy and lack guidance for prioritization and decision-making for product teams.

Looking at the statement “make the product better,” for example, leaves a team with way too many options to get there. Sure, it might be different from a statement like “Redesign the homepage” or “Have an iOS app,” but is it an explicit choice that narrows a product team’s options for Product Discovery and Delivery?

Probably not. Instead, it will lead to many clarification questions. Better for whom? For everyone? So we can make no trade-offs in terms of platforms and use cases to support? What’s the actual end to the means of making something better?

You can clearly see how this might lead to a product team being all over the place and investing in misguided efforts. There are simply too many paths you could take to achieve the goal. That's where a well-articulated Product Strategy comes in.

Avoiding Generic Product Strategy Choices

So, what are the guiding questions for checking your Product Strategy against generic and, as Roger Martin would put it, “stupid on the face” choices?

First, ask yourself what is something only you can do, but your competitors can’t or won’t. This often leads to specific choices in the strategy area of uniqueness and alternatives.

Ask yourself what is something only you can do, but your competitors can’t or won’t. This often leads to specific Product Strategy Choices in the Strategy pillar of uniqueness and alternatives.

Like stating that you want to grow SaaS product through agency clients as strong multipliers, which helps you “get rid” of comparing yourself to enterprise-only alternatives and requires new product differentiators to serve new buyer personas, as well as additional features to serve agency use cases.

Product Strategy Choices result in specific Gaps that OKRs and Discovery have to fill

How Product Strategy Choices in one Pillar influence the rest of your Strategy

Or check your Product Strategy against gaps based on proven insights. Are certain problems of a user segment you want to continue to focus on brought up over and over again? If so, there’s probably a gap in either your understanding of the actual Job your users are trying to hire you for or the missing capabilities of your team to deliver it.

Let me break it down even further as to how explicit Product Strategy Choices help teams to focus and prioritize their Product Discovery efforts in this graphic.

Implicit Product Strategy Choices don't allow to say no to user segments and Discovery opportunities

Implicit Product Strategy Choices don't allow Product Teams say no to user segments and Discovery opportunities

But even a well-articulated explicit Product Strategy choices won’t automatically lead to results. That’s why it’s crucial to establish practices that help you with translating Product Strategy choices into action.

One of the most effective ways to execute Product Strategy choices is to translate each choice into tangible proxy metrics and use them to set goals, for example in the form of Product Management OKRs.

Executing Product Strategy Choices through Product OKRs

Achieving goals for the sake of doing so should not be confused with real progress and success. Getting a Key Result to 100% is only meaningful if it is part of an overarching strategy and connected to clear choices.

Tactics and Goals are the means, but your Strategy and the Vision it contributes to, are the end.

When it comes to turning selected choices into tangible OKRs, the metrics you choose should be explicit expressions of what success would look like. Stay away from reactive generic evergreen KPIs and don’t try to map the success of every Product Strategy choice to aspects like conversion rates, NPS, or activation. That’s why we make explicit choices — to stay away from doing business as usual.

Product Strategy is expressed through explicit proactive Key Result metrics

Product Strategy is expressed through explicit proactive Key Result metrics

For example, the previously mentioned strategic choice to “grow through agency clients as strong multipliers’” as an analytics SaaS company, could be translated into Key Results like “$200,000 of opportunity value from agency prospects in our sales pipeline” or “12 client projects have been created on our platform.”

For a different strategic choice like “Scale client growth through onboarding automation,” we could measure the success of this choice through Key Results like “Reduce onboarding time spent by the support rep department by 40%” or “Increase the number of customers onboarded by 30%.”

Product Strategy Choices need to be translated into Proxy Key Results

Lagging Proxy Key Results are a great way to make Product Strategy Choices explicit in framing the tactical execution. Inspired by Gibson Biddle's ‘Strategy/Metric/Tactic Lockup

Depending on the nature of your product and the flight level of your Product Strategy, you might want to go through the exercise of deriving more leading team-level OKRs from these directly linked proxy Key Results. They enable the team to measure their progress and allow them to answer the question of “How might we…?” through specific Product Discovery decisions and Delivery priorities.

For more practical tips on transforming your Objectives and Key Results using Leading Indicators, check out this video on my YouTube channel:

The Cadence of Adjusting Product Strategy Choices

Some of your Product Strategy choices will likely stay fixed for longer periods of time. You shouldn’t feel like you have to revise them every quarter. Instead, use the cadence of your OKR cycles to check in on the progress of your explicit Product Strategy choices and course-correct, if and when necessary.