An all day meeting in a not-our-office environment. A flurry of last minute graphs and PowerPoint preparation. The repeated reassurance that yes, lunch will be provided. It can only mean one thing: a strategy away day.
The team comes away with a consolidated PowerPoint complete with a stirring visionary statement, fresh KPIs, and a generous sprinkling of the word ‘innovation’. It all feels pretty good, until 12 months later when the team asks ‘where’s that deck again?’.
Creating your strategy is just half of it; interpreting business into product strategy, then translating that strategy beyond PowerPoint and into tangible actions that realise business impact is much harder. We see this a lot; teams struggling to bring plans off the page and into a backlog that moves the needle for customers and the business.
Over the years, we’ve seen a series of common patterns and problems that hamper teams from seeing their strategy through to fruition. Here’s our take on what they might be, and how to overcome them; see if you recognise a few.
Pattern 1: Misalignment
The product strategy is discussed amongst C suites at an offsite, a PowerPoint is made. It might be presented to the rest of the company at a Town Hall, then everyone goes back to what they were doing before.
Without giving your strategy enough air time or attention, teams can easily lose sight of what they’re doing (or intentionally not doing). Without a shared destination, teams will struggle to move in the same direction. Not only does this slow progress down, it can also lead to a strategic push-pull between teams, whereby they move in opposing directions and undermine one another’s efforts.
For example, Team A might be driving customer acquisition from a new audience segment, whilst Team B is optimising the product to improve lifetime value of an existing, core persona and left confused as to why retention is plummeting.
Your strategy sets directional goals and boundaries of where to focus collective efforts across product teams. To borrow a quote from my brilliant colleague, ‘If you don’t draw the lines for the playground, the kids will play all over the M25’.
Ditching the PowerPoint for a more shareable, accessible communication tool. Make your strategy part of the fabric of your organisation. Socialise it once, twice, ten times; your team should be able to see it everywhere. A great example is Specsavers, who’s strategic goal and famous tone of voice headed the top of every creative document you touched (I can still reel it off from memory 10 years on).
Keep the context clear, with regular updates on momentum. This is what worked, what hasn’t, what’s next. Everyone from the CEO to the Junior Engineer must know it, and how teams are tracking against it.
The bottom line is, if teams are clear on the same collective goals they’re working towards, they can align, better collaborate and progress forward together.
Pattern 2: Short term thinking
Your strategy is a bet on one of many directions your product could take. Whilst there’s no boilerplate for a strategy’s lifespan, it should typically set intention and guidance for around 6 - 18 months.
This requires some cooking time to see if the bets you’ve placed as part of the strategy are paying off. If you take the turkey out of the oven too soon it’ll be raw; too late and it’ll be dry and unpalatable.
I’ve spoken with product teams who’ve spent months developing a roadmap only to down-tools and pivot every few months following a C-Suite’s quarterly meeting.
There’s no problem with pivoting, but results take time. You can’t possibly know if a strategy is working without allowing time for your efforts to come to fruition.
Frequent changes in direction are often sales and output driven, led by short term metrics which on the surface can jar with higher level, lagging strategic measures. Changing direction with the wind will leave you dizzy, and potentially leave money on the table.
Contextualise short-term sales (or other metrics) in the longer term view. If your strategy involves taking bolder moves - and you’re expecting a Hockey Stick or Fish graph turnaround - manage these expectations with the team early on, and set a timescale for how long you’ll need to steady the ship, and/or see results.
Pattern 3: A big lofty goal with a quiet ‘what now?’
We’ve all seen this one; the CEO delivers a keynote on business results followed by that shiny new vision for the company and the product(s). Everyone claps, it’s exciting. But…
Once you’re back at your desk, the team asks ‘how on earth do we actually do that?’
Translating large strategic goals and bets into execution relies on translating these into smaller, more manageable, levers.
By nature, strategic goals are large and directional with lagging metrics. They feel inspiring and lofty. The team should not be expected to achieve them in a short series of sprints.
So, how do you eat an elephant? You make it into burgers.
View your strategy as the overarching direction, and break this down in smaller levers to pull and metrics to hit. That means connecting larger, top-line metrics to more tangible OKRs which product teams feel that they can realistically influence and solve. Create structure by using a measurement framework like the North Star framework, or lean on the use of aligned OKRs which feel closer and more achievable to the team.
Pattern 4: Is this a strategy, or is it a solution?
If your product vision is where you want to go, your strategy is the direction you’ll take to get there. It’s a guide, or set of insight-led bets on how you might reach your end goal. Sometimes those bets pay off, other times they fail and need to change.
A strategy is not to be confused with a single feature or a solution. Handing a team a set of defined features and calling them a strategy means:
a) It’s very hard to tell whether it’s “working” or not. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you’ve arrived?
b) It’s very difficult to pivot or change tact when things go wrong (because…where are you going?).
Frame your strategy as a hypothesis or ‘bet’. Equipped with sub-hypotheses, and the context behind it, your product team will have both a stronger understanding of ‘why’ they’re building what’s in their backlog, and permission to experiment and discover what works faster.
Focus on experimenting and making incremental learnings. That means finding ‘what works’ towards your goal or looking to replicate that. And, all importantly, when things go wrong - which they will - your team knowing their ‘why’ will mean they’ll be better equipped to pivot and fix the problems they face.
Live your strategy
Your strategy isn’t an artefact - it’s a direction (or set of directions) that you’re betting on to create value for your users and your business. It’s a living guide for your teams which is developed and refined based on a culture of experimenting and learning ‘what works’.
To do this, teams need to be bought in on the direction you’re headed in, feeling a sense of ownership, understanding and influence over what it is, and how they can fulfil it.
Without enough attention given to product strategy, teams won’t know what they’re doing, or what they’re explicitly not doing.
Without communicating your product strategy, your teams won’t know why they’re doing it. Knowing ‘why’ is the difference between knowing how to pivot when things go wrong, and having to ask your CEO to think of a new project or worse, looking for a new job.
Without structure from high-level, mid-level and tactical metrics, you will struggle with connecting what’s on the PowerPoint slide with the how large goals can be achieved with actionable day-to-day measures.
Finally, remember that whilst your baby is beautiful to you, not everyone is going to think the same. Use these tactics to help your team feel a sense of purpose, belief and influence over change, and actions will flow.