Why do some of the best products fail?
When is great design not enough?
Product strategy turns concepts into well-crafted, actionable plans, and then builds those plans into business successes. A product leader doesn’t just conceptualize and build—they take products to market, and make them win.
When product strategy isn’t done well, a simple challenge of “why?” can’t be answered. Every idea seems like a good idea, and you end up in a cycle of opinions where the loudest voice wins.
To achieve those big successes, product leaders need to develop strategic thinking.
In my own journey to becoming a better product leader, learning product strategy has been the hardest part, and I found myself turning to mentors and experts to answer questions—that now I’m going to share with you.
1. The Marty Cagan collection
Marty’s book, INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love, is the foundation of nearly every successful product leader’s toolkit, and his blog blog also has some brilliant gems (such as this post on vision vs. strategy). When I’m up late at night wondering how in the world to make a decision, I always head to Marty’s work first.
“The product strategy is our sequence of products we plan to deliver on the path to realizing the vision. I’m using “products” here loosely. It might be different versions of the same product, it might be a series of different or related products, or it could be some other set of meaningful milestones. Normally I encourage teams to construct a product strategy around a series of product-market fits.”
2. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters
Richard Rumelt’s seminal book on strategy differentiates between goals and strategies, while providing a specific approach to deciding your strategy and getting your partners to buy in.
The framework here is extremely useful, particularly the concept of strategic challenge: a succinct way to describe what’s changed in your company, the competition, or even in the world that’s causing you to put forth this specific strategy.
“A strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge. If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of the strategy.”
3. Gib Biddle’s writings and talks
Gib (Netflix, Chegg, The Learning Company) writes about modern product strategy, leveraging his real-life experience with some great successes and (equally great) failures. He’s one of the few who has played a lead role in the new class of breakthrough software companies and is now actively sharing what really made the difference.
NY Product Conference attendees are in luck, as Gib will be the closing keynote speaker!
“The way I define the product leader’s job is to delight customers, in margin-enhancing, hard-to-copy ways. Your product strategy should define your key hypotheses about how you plan to deliver on these three dimensions. The metrics are how you measure your progress, and the tactics are simply projects or experiments against each of your key strategies.”
4. Melissa Perri’s writings
Melissa writes about product leadership, and this post on good product strategy is one of the best. She proposes a product strategy framework based on Bill Costantino’s Toyota Kata “Unified Field Theory”. I’ve found that anchoring the product strategy in the vision is particularly useful for rallying the team around something bigger.
“This didn’t sit well with the CTO because in reality he didn’t want a strategy, he wanted a plan. He wanted a list of what we were going to build, and when we were going to build it. He wanted to feel certain about what we were doing when we all came in tomorrow, so he could measure our progress based on how much we built. It’s not his fault though. This is the way we were taught to think about Product Strategy.”
Stratechery is read by just about every leader of every modern product company. Ben coined a term to explain how Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and others have been so wildly successful: Aggregation Theory.
“Aggregation Theory is a completely new way to understand business in the Internet age. Business schools suggest that with the right frameworks, an executive can understand how to manage all kinds of problems: what happens, though, when many of the inputs to those frameworks are zero?”
For a fun, Ben related-activity: Jen Garfield from XO Group has a great exercise that you can use to get started right away: Take one of Ben’s articles (e.g. this, this, this, or this) and attempt to rewrite it as it applies to your own company.
You’ll find that you challenge your fundamental beliefs. And while you may not have all the answers, you can use these frameworks to build up a better answer to that fundamental question: “Why?”
One more great way to learn strategic thinking
If product strategy is something you are looking to develop further, you may enjoy this year’s NY Product Conference on Nov 10. Hope to see you there and talk more about what you’ve done to develop your strategic thinking skills!
by Dan Storms
Dan Storms is VP Product, Guest at XO Group, where he helps The Knot's couples navigate their wedding journey. Previously, he led the product and design teams at Originate, working with a broad range of companies, including a home services marketplace, an insurance modeling application, a social network, and an iPad-based ecommerce platform. He is an active member of the New York startup community, having worked at an early stage startup that was in the first TechStars NY class. Dan graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in Computer Science.