Why a Product Strategy Is Not a Product Plan

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Adrienne Tan, co-founder of Brainmates, recently posted an article and presentation on product strategy. There are some very key concepts in her article.

One of the strongest is that a strategy is not a plan; instead, strategy guides planning. Adrienne quotes Michael Porter, “The essence of strategy is choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do.”

Strategy is important not just because you want to be intentional (building things to achieve a goal) but also because strategy makes you more efficient—not wasting resources building things that don’t help achieve the goal.

One of the biggest challenges for product owners is getting out of the day-to-day, tactical activities and into the strategic. Tactical activities are important—they help make sure that the team is building the intended product. Strategic activities are the ones that ensure the intended product is the right product.

Roman Pichler puts this in a fantastic perspective for an agile team member. Where Adrienne’s view is from midstream (starting with defining a product strategy), Roman helps someone downstream to see the importance of moving upstream and puts the activities in perspective—tying them to specific deliverables and activities that are familiar and tractable to a tactical product owner.

Alan Ying, venture partner at Chrysalis, presents the upstream view in his recent Inc. article where he argues that “product management is everything." Alan looks at product strategy from the business perspective, telling the story of a company that reacts to slowing growth with increased soft marketing that succeeds only in stroking egos, not accelerating growth. Alan talks about the need for cross-functional product management, highlighting examples of goals—enable sales people, make the product better for users, and how the product fits into a bigger picture.

Moving from tactics to strategy is important and can be done with some extension to what Adrienne and Roman describe to meet the goals that Alan articulates. Start with Roman’s diagram (showing tactics inside product strategy inside product vision), and add a couple of more layers—portfolio strategy and company vision. Your company exists for a reason and has a vision for how it will succeed at its goals—developing a portfolio strategy designed to achieve those goals.

Each product in the portfolio plays a role in this coordinated strategy. The product vision must be aligned with the company’s vision and portfolio strategy. The product strategy must be aligned with the product vision and the portfolio strategy. The tactics the team uses to define and build the product must be aligned with the product strategy and vision. Each exercise of validating alignment benefits from looking upstream two steps and not just one step.

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Scott Sehlhorst

Scott Sehlhorst is an agile product manager, product owner, and business analyst and architect. He helps teams achieve software product success by helping them build "the right stuff" and "build the right stuff right." Scott started Tyner Blain in 2005 to focus on helping companies translate strategy and market insights into great products and solutions. Read more at tynerblain.com/blog.