How to Focus on Product Strategy Patterns, Not Templates
Creating Product Strategy isn‘t a set of questions you answer on a piece of paper or a series of exercises you complete in one 2-hour workshop. Instead, it‘s a range of activities and iterations that have to be developed through ongoing work. But where should you start? And how do you know whether your strategy is working?
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Last Updated: Sep. 22, 2022
Good vs. Bad Product Strategy might be the wrong perspective
“Good” and “bad” are notoriously slippery terms. In Product Management, there are no set standards that apply across the diversity of product teams, business models, company strategies, skills, and management systems. However, it is still crucial to make some order out of the chaos. To do that, it helps to understand common patterns that make Product Strategy more useful or more effective in specific environments. These Product Strategy patterns can help you avoid the trap of assigning subjective values like “good” or “bad” to every step of your process. Instead, you can focus on the most useful Product Strategy for right now.
Understanding what makes Product Strategy more or less useful in a given environment and context
You will know that your Product Strategy is useful if you see clear reasoning behind rejected feature ideas. You will also know it “works” if product teams can use it to set and adapt their Discovery priorities and when colleagues can talk about strategic priorities without checking their notes.
When Product Strategy templates fall short
Looking for patterns can also help you identify what is universal in the big picture of your company’s current situation. For example, you will always want to pay attention to articulating focused user segments, prioritizing the most pressing jobs within that segment, and differentiating your product from the alternatives in a given market. You may have tried using Product Strategy Templates to discover these insights, but a template can only express what you already know. It can’t help you figure out what you need to know now.
The differences between Product Strategy Patterns and Product Strategy Templates
Product Strategy Templates encourage filling in the same type of information, in the same order and way of working, without questioning their necessity or relation to each other. Product Strategy has many shapes and forms, and you shouldn't limit your efforts to one defined by others. Looking for common Product Strategy patterns encourages a more flexible, iterative, and non-linear process.
Identifying Product Strategy patterns
So which Product Strategy patterns will help you define an effective Product Strategy? One useful starting point is based on Roger Martin’s definition from Playing to Win:
“Strategy is an integrated set of choices that positions you on a playing field based on vision and goals in a way that you win.”
This graphic shows one way to visualize this concept:
Connecting the individual domains to overarching Product Strategy patterns
The Strategic Narrative tells you why you are targeting a specific market opportunity, or Playing Field. What problems are you trying to solve? For whom? Why? Vision and mid-to-long-term goals provide this context.
The Playing Field describes that market itself, including your possible choices and your competition. (Note that these choices must be specific and real– so you can actually say no to them.) Your playing field is composed of particular user, stakeholder, or buyer segments, as well as the relevant jobs you want to help them pursue in the light of your Strategic Narrative. In addition, your playing field consists of alternatives that users and buyers are comparing you against.
The Winning Moves outline the choices you need to make to position your product to best advantage. To win on the Playing Field and avoid, like Roger Martin says, "playing to play," you have to articulate what offerings and value propositions will address the jobs and through which channels you can deliver them. In addition, how do you differentiate between alternatives?
All of these structural steps influence each other. Shifting user or buyer segments can lead to competing against different alternatives. Choosing different jobs requires different values and channels. And so on…
Your Product Strategy should emerge from the Product Strategy patterns you find in these three domains. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do we have a Strategic Narrative? What is it? What might be missing?
- How clear is our Playing Field? What might be missing?
- Do we know what our Winning Moves are, beyond a list of features? What might be missing?
This high-level check will illuminate where your company stands on the three fundamentals of Product Strategy.
Aligning Product Strategy across all levels
Identifying these patterns will also help you differentiate and prioritize between different levels of strategy goals. Company Strategy describes where the company wants to go, based on the Company Vision and high-level strategic narratives. It outlines details around fundamental shifts like entering new markets or abandoning business models.
Product Strategy provides overarching guidance for tactical design and execution on a given playing field. In early stage companies, Company Strategy IS the Product Strategy.
Feature Strategy aims at winning goals on that playing field through chosen differentiation and targeted jobs worth solving. Features are discrete pieces of value that solve individual problems but contribute to the product's core use case.
Each level has its own internal context for a given team and external context in the marketplace. Each level has its own short-term and long-term action items. Once you can see these distinct levels and how they interact you can focus on defining and executing the Product Strategy that best serves your company at any given moment.
Aligning Strategy across the levels of Company, Product, and Features can rely on the same Product Strategy patterns, but requires zooming-in and -out
The different cadences of Product Strategy
Your Product Strategy must be flexible enough to change and respond to new conditions, but paying attention to these patterns will help you stay attuned to your core values. That stable “core” consists of vision, mid-to-long-term goals, user/buyer segments, and differentiators. You shouldn't feel like you have to revise these every quarter. In contrast, "dynamic peripheral" patterns feature the jobs of your chosen segment, distribution channels to reach your audience, and the offerings/value propositions that address the most pressing jobs.
Differentiating the cadence of individual Product Strategy patterns
A Product Vision is part of the core because it should be so stable that it withstands the impact of external forces. But a Product Strategy as a whole can't be that inflexible. Instead, use the cadence of something like your OKR cycles to check in on the progress of your explicit Product Strategy choices and course-correct, if and when necessary.
Transforming messy insights into clear Product Strategy
As I said above, filling out templates is never going to replace the hard, messy work of identifying a dynamic and effective Product Strategy. Product development always begins with uncertainty: a question or a problem that you need to solve. Templates can only express or communicate that strategy once you’ve found useful patterns across your company, product, and features. Patterns are a way of moving from chaos to order, which an effective template can then communicate across teams and domains.
Turning the high-level patterns of Product Strategy into substantial guidance for product teams requires messy work. Teams usually start with a nice-and-easy gap text template when that should be their end point. Here’s an overview of the process:
Inverting the pyramid of how most teams approach Product Strategy
The synthesis of these patterns *might* fit the artificial structure of a gap text or canvas. Still, these should only serve as an endpoint for communication, not the starting point of your Product Strategy efforts.
Seeing Product Strategy as a journey, not an activity
In short, you cannot design an evidence-based Product Strategy in one workshop session. Don’t try to cut corners by starting your strategy with the current trendy template! By focusing on the patterns emerging across your Strategic Narrative, Playing Field, and Winning Moves, you’ll discover the right-now strategy that keeps your product aligned to your company's core values while moving you forward.