You just finished working on your strategic roadmap. You invested in research, clearly outlined your assumptions, and made sure all the dots are connected. You presented it to everyone relevant and got great feedback. The whole company was aligned. You completed your planning and started applying the new roadmap to the upcoming sprints.
One or two went well, and then an urgent bug fix came in. You let the team work on it, of course, and went back to the plan. And then an important customer makes a request that you just have to find space for. And a marketing event requires a revamp of the demo. Before you know it, the strategic effort is a pipe dream, and you find yourself lost in the details again.
I call this situation strategic debt, although if you did everything I mentioned above you are on the light side of the debt. You have a strategy, you are just unable to make progress with it. The alternative is not having a solid product strategy, and that’s a debt much harder to close.
Becoming the Gatekeeper of the Strategy
Strategic product leadership is a continuous effort. It’s not a one-time thing. Even if you’ve done everything right, life will take you (and the company) off-route. But there was a reason you created the route to begin with, right? It’s much easier to go with the flow, but in product management, the flow doesn’t necessarily lead to success.
Express your strategic leadership by making yourself the gatekeeper of the strategy. Here are a few ways to do so:
Keep the Big Picture up to Date
The strategy is agile too. Every single day we learn so many new things about our market, our customers, our previous assumptions, and our product. When this happens, it might impact our strategy which might require an update.
How can you tell?
You should always have the “latest copy” of the big picture in your head. It’s not enough to have it written on paper, because you want to use it on a daily basis to make decisions.
Whenever you hear a new piece of information, place it where it belongs in the big picture. If it fits nicely in, it usually supports what you already assumed about the market/customers/product before – so nothing further to do here.
But if you couldn’t find where it naturally belongs, it should keep you alert. It might mean that there is something wrong with your theory, something there isn’t aligned with reality. That’s a problem because reality always wins.
The minimum you want to do in this case is to keep an eye on it. Try to see if there are other pieces of information that support this new piece which doesn’t seem to belong in the puzzle. Keep track of it for a little longer if you are unsure, but don’t ignore it. These cracks don’t go away. They only get worse until your entire strategy breaks into pieces.
When you understand what’s going on, reiterate the strategy. Create a new version of it, that takes into consideration everything you just learned.
This is now your latest copy, that should guide you (and the entire company) on your day-to-day.
Let’s Take a Step Back
A strategy is useless if it lives only in the doc it was written in. The power of strategy is shown when it is used in everyday decisions. While it sounds trivial on paper, in reality, it is not always easy to follow this guideline.
As the gatekeeper of the strategy, use it to shine light into dark areas. For example, when the team is debating several options and can’t decide which one is better. “Let’s take a step back” is a powerful tool to help you connect to the strategy, and if your strategy is solid, you will find the answers there.
These decisions are not always easy, because each option usually has its tradeoffs, but the strategy is designed to help you make them in an educated manner.
For example, let’s say that as part of your strategic process you realized that you must break into a new geographic market and succeed there this year, or else chances are your competition will get there first and you will lose your advantage. When other important things come in, the debate is usually in the details. You consider features against other features, and that’s a hard decision. But if you take a step back, and estimate whether or not this is going to hurt the new market penetration, the answer helps you decide much more easily. It is less hard to give up on something truly important if you (and everyone else) understand that it comes at the expense of something else that is more important.
Help promote the discussion by offering to take a step back. Tie the decision back to the strategy and the decisions that you have already made as part of the strategic process.
You Cannot Talk About It Enough
To make the strategy a day-to-day tool for everyone, you need to talk about it again and again. Make 1:1 meetings with important stakeholders to explain the strategy and align on it. Make larger meetings to tell the strategic story to the entire company. After you have done that, you might think people now understand the strategy (you might be right) and will follow it in everything they do (you are probably wrong).
To help change that reality, be proactive in talking about it and bringing it back to the surface. Begin every meeting with a short reminder of the strategy, it will serve as a context for everything you will be discussing. When you explain the decisions you are making, make them rooted in the strategy, and show the straight line between them. When you send update emails, start with a paragraph about the strategy.
This is one of the topics that you simply cannot over-communicate. That is, any amount of communication you will have around it won’t be too much.
Strategic product leadership requires you to break boundaries. You need to understand the big picture even in areas that are not formally yours, you need to talk about it and bring it up even if you are not asked to, and you need to make it yours even if no-one officially appointed you to do that.
And of course, it takes practice. Where are you going to start? Choose one thing, even small, and unleash the strategic product leader within, starting now.