What is Product Strategy?
There are three pieces in a complete product strategy: Vision, Framework, Roadmap
Have you ever thought you had a strategy for your team, only to find out “That’s not a strategy”?
The first time I had a plan, but it was all in my head. I knew my “strategy”, but no one else did.
The second time I wrote a strategy document with the detailed framework of what it would take to win, but teammates couldn’t visualize it. There was no emotional weight, no inspiration.
By the third time I thought I had it all figured out, but again I heard, “that’s not a strategy.” Hours of back-and-forth later we figured out the miscommunication: it was missing a roadmap.
It was around this time that I realize I’d never seen a formal definition of product strategy1. Product managers were expected to absorb a sense of what strategy was, and managers maintained “I’ll know it when I see it.”
As Head of Product Management, it was my job to coach & develop the PMs at Asana. I wanted a clearer definition so I could train the people on my team. I talked to other product leaders and researched how other people defined strategy.
An exciting pattern emerged. There were three common elements that appeared again and again. Some people cared about just one or two of them, but if you had all three you’d have something that counted as a product strategy for everyone.
And that’s how the three-part product strategy framework was born.
Vision, Framework, Roadmap - The 3-Part Product Strategy Framework
At a high level, product strategy is your plan for how your product will win. The 3-part product strategy framework covers the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.
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Different people care about different elements, but if you build all three you’ll have a comprehensive strategy that works for everyone.
The Product Vision
The product vision is WHERE you want to go. It’s an inspiring picture of the future. This is how you convince people to fund your product and join your team. When you share it publicly, it convinces customers to make a long-term bet on your product.
A great product vision gets people excited.
For an example of product vision, I love Asana’s 2018 vision video.
It starts by grounding in the amazing things people can do as a team. Then it highlights the problem: people spend more time on “work about work” than on real work—that’s absurd!
If you jump ahead to 4:36 in the video, JR introduces the vision: what if Asana was a company’s all-knowing logistical coordinator? Imagine a GPS for your organization where you plug in where you want to go and every team member gets optimal step-by-step directions on how to get there. That sounds exciting, but what does it mean?
The north star vision mocks & narrative show the details that make everything believable. JR walks through the day-in-the-life of a fictional research scientist, showing how Asana helps her focus. Then he zooms out to show how the team director can see what everyone is working on and hit a button to optimally allocate everyone on the team, even accounting for vacation schedules.
I won’t narrate the whole video, but there’s intentional name-dropping of pain points that would resonate with potential customers (like forgetting to plan around vacation schedules) throughout the vision. It makes a team director think “oh yeah it’s ridiculous that my current software doesn’t do that, and it seems totally feasible.”
Your vision doesn’t have to follow the narrative format. LinkedIn’s vision statement “Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce," is an inspiring picture of the future. If a short vision works to get people excited, you don’t need more.
Creating a Vision
It took me a while to learn how to create a vision, because I don’t think of myself as an inspirational person. I get an “ick” feeling when it seems like someone is being too sales-y.
The trick I found for tapping into my genuine excitement is to draft the vision in the style of an infomercial.
If you’re not familiar with infomercials, they’re a type of TV commercial that tend to follow a set pattern. They start by dramatizing the problem, making the status quo feel unbearable (“Jars are sooo hard to open”). Then, they say “But there’s a better way…” before introducing the product and showing all the ways that happy people can use it (“Just press the button and you’ll have a complete dinner in minutes”). And, they often back it up with some description of their patented technology that makes it possible.
Here’s a fun compilation:
Infomercials are ridiculous, but they work.
When I write a new product vision, I like to draft it as an infomercial. This framing gives me permission to go over-the-top. I don’t use the infomercial as the final version of the vision, but it helps me really tap into the emotional and inspirational side of myself.
To validate your vision you can show it to teammates, customers, and candidates. If they shrug or say “that sounds nice,” you’ve still got work to do. If they light up and say “Yes! I want that, how soon can I have it?” then you might be on the right track.
The strategic framework covers WHO your customers are, HOW you’re going to win them, and WHY you’re making the strategic choices you make.
This is where you hash out the details of your team’s deep thinking. You’ll use it to drive the discussions that take your strategy from a quick draft to something great.
A great framework tackles the important questions and identifies the most important risks, opportunities, and areas for validation. It gives teammates the context they need to make aligned decisions on their own.
Strategic frameworks can take many formats, but they often include:
Target Market: Who’s our ideal customer? What products do they use (or how do they solve their problem) in the status quo?
Product Pillars, aka Strategic Themes: Which areas do we need to invest in to win? Why are these the important areas? What are some projects or tactics that fall under each pillar?
Strategic Principles: How do we make decisions and handle trade-offs? What are our values? What do we believe about the space?
Here’s an abbreviated example from Asana’s early days:
Target Market: People who didn’t train to be project managers, but realized they need to do some project management to succeed at their job (eg. marketing managers). Their status quo is handling things over email.
Product Pillars, aka Strategic Themes: Our vision for Asana is to be the team brain that effortlessly coordinates work across people and teams. What does a good brain need? It needs to…
Know all the information about work: Tasks, Projects, People, Teams, Subtasks, attached Documents
Draw insightful connections: Calendar views, Reporting, Schedule suggestions
Always be with you: Mobile apps, Stability
and also… Love: Humans aren’t robots. People need to love Asana (usability, delight) and feel loved when using the app (likes, task completion celebrations)
Fast is better than Features
Easy to use AND Powerful
The strategic roadmap shows WHAT you’ll build WHEN. It’s a timeline with checkpoints, working backwards from the vision. This is not a commitment, instead it’s a wake-up call.
When you first write down your roadmap, you’ll almost always see that at your current pace there’s no way you’ll achieve the vision in time. It can be the wake up call to realize you need to hire more people, or you need to really focus in on a narrower target market, or you need to take bigger swings at the bat.
The strategic roadmap is also an incredible tool for alignment. Stakeholders across the company will see the roadmap and say, “Wait, when are we working on internationalization?” or “We can’t go that long without a big marketing launch.” Maybe not the conversation you wanted to have, but it’s the conversation you need to have.
A great strategic roadmap prioritizes the most important work to balance validating the product strategy with delivering results and working towards the vision.
Here’s a fake example of what a roadmap for DALL-E might look like. The work is grouped theme, and then slated for next quarter, next year, or after that. The themes should map to the strategic themes or product pillars from your strategic framework.
Pulling it all together
A cool thing about product strategies is that they can nest inside each other. The Head of Product can create a high-level product strategy. The directors then each create a strategy for their area. And then each PM creates a strategy for their own team.
Any time you have a team that works together for multiple projects you can make a strategy.
Before you create a strategy, make sure you’ve spent a lot of time with your users. Watch usability sessions. Sit in on sales calls. Read support tickets. Look at usage data (especially individual session data if you have it). You can schedule your own strategic research sessions, but it’s also fine to use the customer touch points you already have in your day-to-day feature work.
To get started, block off a day or half a day on your calendar2. Then, work on whichever of the three parts calls to you. I've found that most people are naturally drawn to one of the three (for me it's strategic framework). Fill out whatever comes to your mind, even if it's wrong. Once you have a draft, you can use it to back-solve the other two parts.
As you work, write down the questions that surface. What data do you wish you had? What part of the company strategy do you need to understand better? Which trade-offs are really tough?
This alone time is really important, because we need to form our own opinions and become the expert on our product. We need the head-start so that we’ll be able to effectively facilitate the group strategy work. BUT, in many cases we don’t want to present our solo-strategy to the team.
It depends on your company and team culture, but in a lot of cases people will react badly to you handing them a strategy. That’s “your” strategy, and they won’t feel attached to it. Instead, you’ll want to put your draft strategy away, and come up with a plan to collaboratively craft the strategy. I’ve got an example of a process you can use in Cracking the PM Career if you want a detailed step-by-step guide.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
The final thought I’ll leave you with is that you have to communicate your strategy WAY MORE than you think you do.
You’ve been immersed in your strategy, thinking about it all the time for days or weeks. Everyone else just dips into the strategy and then goes back to their job. They will forget it.
Yes, share your strategy at an all-hands. And also the business team all-hands. And your team all-hands. Put up posters. But also, work the strategy into your every day communication. Here are some examples:
“That demo is really exciting! It helps us achieve <product pillar>.”
“This design is a good start, but how does it address <strategic principle>?”
“Good question. Because of <this part of the product strategy>, the answer should be…”
I hope this article demystifies product strategy. Let me know if you have any questions!
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Notably, product strategy at tech companies don’t mean frameworks like the 4 C’s
If this feels tough, imagine you had a friend getting married. You’d take a day off and your team would survive a day without you.